How extraordinary it is, when you give it a moment's thought, that it was only last week that an American president officially spoke the obvious truth about North Korea. In point of fact, Mr. Bush rather understated matters when he said that Kim Jong-il's government runs "concentration camps." It would be truer to say that the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea, as it calls itself, is a concentration camp. It would be even more accurate to say, in American idiom, that North Korea is a slave state.
This way of phrasing it would not have the legal implication that the use of the word "genocide" has. To call a set of actions "genocidal," as in the case of Darfur, is to invoke legal consequences that are entailed by the U.N.'s genocide convention, to which we are signatories. However, to call a country a slave state is to set another process in motion: that strange business that we might call the working of the American conscience.
It was rhetorically possible, in past epochs of ideological confrontation, for politicians to shout about the "slavery" of Nazism and of communism, and indeed of nations that were themselves "captive." The element of exaggeration was pardonable, in that both systems used forced labor and also the threat of forced labor to coerce or to terrify others. But not even in the lowest moments of the Third Reich, or of the gulag, or of Mao's "Great Leap Forward," was there a time when all the subjects of the system were actually enslaved.
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