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The Story of Oh

July 16th, 2012 - 10:45 pm

The BBC tells the melancholy story of Oh Kil-nam, a South Korean man who, convinced by his Marxist education that North Korea was a worker’s paradise, decided to defect there with his wife and two children in 1986. Oh, who had just completed his PhD in Germany in Marxist economics and who “had been active in left-wing groups” had no reason to doubt the beckoning invitation of North Korean officials who promised him free health care and a government job, like certain other people you may know.

He chose poorly.

Aged and broken, Oh now concludes that his “life was ruined by his decision to defect to North Korea. Seventy years old, he still does not know the fate of his wife and daughters – either dead or imprisoned in a labour camp.” His wife, who lacked the benefit of a European education, suspected something was amiss from the first. She was aghast when he told her of his plan to defect.

“Do you know what kind of place it is?” she asked. “You have not even been there once. How can you make such a reckless decision?”

But Oh replied that the Northerners were Koreans too – they “cannot be that brutal”, he told her.

Ha ha ha.

Hee, hee, ho, ha, ha ha! LOL. He thought they couldn’t be that brutal. Those are the famous last words.

But being the dutiful wife, she followed Oh with her two children. As soon as he arrived at the Pyongyang, Oh realized that he had not read the fine print. “Communist party officials and children clutching flowers were there to meet them. But despite the cold of a North Korean December, the children were not wearing socks and their traditional clothes were so thin that they shivered. Then he began to suspect that they didn’t have any warm clothes. “When I saw this I was really surprised and my wife even started to cry.”

But there was little time for that. Ignoring his questions about the promises of the  job or the government health care, Oh and his family were whisked to a guarded camp where he was drilled in the sayings of Kim Il-Sung. They were kept in privation, the better to make them fear losing what little they had. Soon  Oh was told that if he and his family planned to keep on eating he would accept an assignment to Europe where his task was to lure more South Koreans to the worker’s paradise the better to convince the sophisticated Europeans what a great place it was. He was ready to cooperate but was stopped by the courageous actions of his wife.

she was furious. “I remember the two of us talking about it softly under the blanket. I told my wife that by fulfilling this mission, we would preserve our livelihood in North Korea. But she slapped me in the face.” Shin said they would have to pay the price for his mistakes – he could not entrap others.

Damned herself, his wife did not want to damn others. So when Oh arrived in Copenhagen, he defected to the West. For Oh it meant going back to the place he left before.  But for his wife and two children it was a death sentence. He never saw them again.

For Shin and her two daughters, Oh’s defection was catastrophic. They were taken to Yodok concentration camp, where the North Korean government imprisons its enemies. The conditions in this slave labour camp are reportedly as bad as anything in Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Gulag.

For a time, Oh heard nothing about the fate of his family. Then in February 1991 he managed to get six photographs of his wife and daughters and a tape cassette with a message from them.

“On the tape my daughters were telling me how much they missed me and my wife was saying that perhaps it would be OK for me to come back now.”

Oh still hopes to see them in his lifetime. But realistically if his wife and children were by some miracle  still alive, they would by now be broken beyond recognition; and why should Oh want to see them again? To receive their affections perhaps, he who did everything humanly possible to take them from a prosperous country and condemn them in an act of intellectual vanity,  to hell on earth? What would it be like to hear your broken child ask, “Why, daddy? Why?”

Why? Because that’s what they taught him in school. That’s what they taught him in the sophisticated cafes. That was the received wisdom. And none of it was true.

Even now Oh Kil-nam might wander, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, from meeting to meeting, to tell his doleful tale. But who would believe him?  At the schools, sophisticated cafes, at all the in-places they would turn away and listen in preference to those celebrity academics who taught Oh his Marxist brand of economics, or to those millionaire actors who claim that North Korea is the Worker’s Paradise even if — or perchance because — they will never go there.

Oh took 3 innocents to their doom. But the intellectuals who led Oh are piping along a whole civilization. And Oh, for all his foolishness, is the better man than they. For what is the moral difference between Oh Kil-nam and a Bill Ayers except that Oh Kil-nam had the courage to live out his convictions where Ayers did not?  The advantage Ayers has over Oh is not that Ayers is braver, but he secretly knows better. “Guilty as hell but free as a bird.” That’s tellin’ ‘em Bill.

Anyone who believes in something for nothing is already half on the road to being swindled. Today millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of people have reached such a pitch of education that they can believe what Oh’s wife in her simplicity could never credit; that there exists  something for nothing.

Sure there does.

How many people you know are convinced that free government health care, free government cheese, permanent government jobs are only a vote away? How many people you know are eager with excitement, as Oh was trembling in anticipation,  at the glittering prospect of “fundamentally transforming America”. If you had a dollar for every one.

But surely it must be true. It can’t possibly be the case there’s no stash at the end of the rainbow? No political class could be that dishonest, because they’re Americans too and they can’t be lying?

Ha ha ha. Hee, hee, ho, ha, ha ha!  Who would have thought? Who would have thought?

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