The Yehuda Scout troop at Kfar Adumim in the West Bank, not far from Jerusalem, were engaged in a usual activity when scout leader Ma'ayan Omer mentioned the horrors of the Holocaust. One of the scouts asked whether there were similar horrors in the world today, and Omer answered that she had once heard that things like that are still happening in North Korea, "but I am not familiar with the details."
The scout who asked, Einav Kiderman, with the naivete of a seventh-grader, replied at once: So why aren't you doing anything about it? And thus Omer, who herself was then just a 10th-grader, decided that indeed it was right to do something: "I said to Einav that I wasn't doing anything because I didn't know enough, but as I was answering, it was clear to me this was no excuse, and I decided to study the issue."
The entire battalion has gone deeply into the subject this past year.
Omer: "First of all, we collected material from every possible source. At first from Internet sites, and then we went to Prof. Ben-Ami Shiloni and Dr. Guy Podoler [researchers from the East Asian studies department at Hebrew University who specialize inter alia in the situation in North Korea - Y.S.] and we watched BBC investigative reports about the oppression of opponents to the regime in North Korea."
Kiderman, whose question it was that set things moving, was also the leading partner in the learning process. "I felt that we can't ignore this," she says today, "because this happened to our people, too, 60 years ago."
What have they learned? Omer: "We were shocked to discover a horrible regime that operates 12 concentration camps around the country, to which its opponents are sent, and a single, little, critical comment is enough to get you sent to a camp, including the parent and children of that opponent. At the concentration camps they undergo terrible torture, including rape and starvation. We also contacted Amnesty International, and we heard from them there is also evidence of the existence of gas chambers in which they kill opponents to the regime. The policy of systematic starvation has also killed about 2 million people to date, and 200,000 refugees who have fled to China are also hiding there, because the Chinese, who have a treaty with North Korea, send them back if they are caught, and then they are executed."
Omer's and her scouts' interest in North Korea has often elicited a familiar reaction: The poor of your own city come first.
Adi Tsarfati, another scout leader who has been involved with the issue, volunteers to answer: "Of course, the poor of your own city come first. But, after all, it is possible to act on all levels, especially when it comes to a people that has suffered so much. We have not, after all, given up our activities in social areas within Israeli society, so there is no contradiction."
Professor Shiloni speaks of his connection with the group: "I have never met them face-to-face. They phoned me, and then we corresponded by e-mail. They told me about the initiative and asked me my opinion. I said I am very glad there are young people who are morally sensitive to this issue when politicians from various countries are viewing it in a self-interested way. They asked whether, in my opinion, their activity is liable to harm anyone and I said, in my opinion, it can't, because in any case we do not have relations with North Korea and it isn't a matter of a government initiative. They asked whether it could help, and I said, in my opinion, it can't, but on the other hand we adults often become cynical and ridicule initiatives like this and who knows what the cumulative effect of such initiatives might be, especially if they happen around the world? And even if it does not help, the very fact they are doing a good thing and coming out against oppression does have significance."
To the young people's question of whether this is a case "like the Holocaust,' Shiloni replied with an academic's caution: "I said this is not genocide, because here they are members of the same people and there is no intent to kill all the members of that people but 'only' the opponents of the regime. But the horrors are indeed extremely awful. If people want to escape from the country, they are killed. It is even forbidden to move from one city to another. A person who utters even the slightest criticism of the regime is liable to find himself under arrest, with his children. There are millions of people in concentration camps there, and there is evidence that at those camps experiments are performed with innovative weapons, including biological materials.... Thus, with respect to the treatment of opponents to the regime, this definitely resembles the Nazis' treatment of opponents to their regime or of other occupied populations in Europe, apart from the Jews.
"In certain respects, the treatment in North Korea is even worse, because the Nazi regime was not so closed off and was in any case exposed to external criticism. The brainwashing in the cult of the leader in North Korea is also far worse. With respect to its own citizens, Nazi Germany was for the most part a state of law and order. It was impossible to imagine a situation in which one could not move from one city to another."
After the scouts of the Amit battalion studied the Korean issue, they started to distribute the message externally: first to all the scouts in Kfar Adumim and then to all the scout troops in the Jerusalem area. About two weeks ago they organized a large protest rally, which was joined by members of the national religious Bnei Akiva movement (about 1,000 young people attended) in the Wohl Rose Garden near the Knesset.
Omer: "Right from the start of our activity we appealed to a lot of Knesset members and of course we asked them to speak at our rally. Only MK Michael Melchior [Labor-Meimad faction - Y.S.] took us seriously and also spoke at the rally."
Israel is silent
When she talks about what has been done and what should be done, Omer demonstrates admirable familiarity with the ins and outs of politics: "In 2004, in the wake of an Amnesty report that dealt with North Korea, the Knesset did, in fact, hold a discussion of the issue. The speakers - Melchior, Gideon Sa'ar (Likud), Avshalom Vilan (Meretz) and a few other MKs - spoke very well but in the end the issue went into the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and nothing happened. For something to move it doesn't really help to send the issue to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. It is necessary that the Foreign Ministry do something - initiate an international protest, summon ambassadors to protest to them and also to demand that their countries do something." The North Koreans, she notes, are in a difficult situation and are interested in reaching a deal with the world to get food and equipment.
"The problem is that, in return, the world is making do with their being prepared to disarm themselves of their nuclear weapons, instead of also demanding a change in the human rights situation inside the country. We also think that pressure should be applied to the Chinese on this issue, because the Chinese are more open to the world and, on the other hand, they have a lot of influence on North Korea."
Shiloni said much could be done: "After all President [George W.] Bush has threatened that if the sanctions against Korea are not effective on the nuclear issue, he will use force. In principle, clearly it would have been appropriate to use force against them not only on the nuclear issue but also because of their cruel oppression. But the world is afraid that perhaps they will react strongly against South Korea or Japan and a huge crisis will develop in the whole region. The Chinese, who have the greatest influence on North Korea, are also not enthusiastic about applying pressure, because they also oppress opponents to their regime, never mind their concern about the large wave of refugees that would flood the region, and mainly them, in the case of a violent action.
"Morally, it would certainly be nice if the State of Israel were to say something meaningful, but if we do this, we will annoy the Chinese and perhaps also the South Koreans, who are also afraid of a conflagration, and perhaps soone in that region, where the countries don't usually come to us with complaints about the Palestinian issue, would be liable to start bringing up the question of our treatment of the Palestinians. Thus, as far as the government is concerned, the conclusion is it's best to sit quietly."
Lior Haiat, of the spokesman's bureau at the Foreign Ministry, says, "Israel does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea. We do not have information about what is happening there, and we do not have political and diplomatic levers for influencing what is happening there. Beyond that, in international forums Israel joins up with the Western countries with respect to the humanitarian situation in North Korea."
To put it simply: Israel is prepared to support initiatives that are led by the Americans, because the reaction will not be directed at it but Israel has no intention of taking an independent initiative, even a rhetorical initiative, of its own.
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