In The Echo Chamber: Contemporary Comparative Totalitarian Rhetoric


By Tanya Silverman

Photo courtesy of Jose Fernandes Jr.

Alarming headlines emerged this week, likening Kim Jong-un’s reign in North Korea to that of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany:

“North Korea’s Horrors ‘Strikingly Similar’ to Nazi Acts” – NBC News

“North Korea human rights abuses resemble those of the Nazis, says UN inquiry” – The Guardian

“UN: North Korea like Nazi Germany” – The Telegraph

“North Korea crimes evoke Nazi era, Kim may face charges: UN Inquiry” – Reuters

The news titles above refer to a series of statements made by the UN’s Michael Kirby, chairman of the Independent Commission of Inquiry, as a means to highlight the brutal human rights abuses that are occurring in North Korea.

Kirby’s resonating statements were accompanied by an almost 400-page UN report outlining the many crimes against humanity induced by the North Korean leadership. The report was compiled after a yearlong investigation that analyzed testimonial accounts from over 240 secret interviewees. North Korea refused to let investigators enter the country during its research.

Upon his grave deliverance of the regime’s brutal practices, Kirby held an indexed paper copy of the report, the content of which includes information about arbitrary detentions, rape, torture, religious intolerance, executions, prison camps, starvation, malnutrition, abductions, forced disappearances, discrimination, refusal of right to life, and other human rights violations.

The actual text of the UN report does not so determinedly compare the North Korean regime to the Nazis as Kirby does, but uses the 20th century episode more as a historical reference point. As such, three notable cases of abuses that take place in North Korea are highlighted—forced abortion, enforced disappearance, and pursuing “state crimes” for ulterior objectives—and defined as “crimes against humanity” by interpreting decisions made about Nazi practices in the Nuremberg trials.

While the material of the report is extremely shocking, is it appropriate to draw such parallels between present-day North Korea and Nazi Germany?

“Yes. They’re actually drawn by the North Koreans themselves,” said John Everard, former UK ambassador to North Korea during a recent BBC interview.

“Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s father, was a great fan of Hitler, and parts of the North Korean party discipline book are actually just copied from the Nazis’ internal literature, so the parallels are direct,” the former North Korean ambassador told the BBC reporter.

General similarities aside, many substantive differences exist between Nazi Germany then and North Korea now. Though both totalitarian states are known for their prison camps, Nazis were trying to eliminate entire groups of people, while North Koreans are implementing political oppression, not ethnic cleansing.

However, is a comparison of their inherent purposes insensitive to the atrocities committed? Part of the report, anyway, is trying to define North Korea’s long-term killings of political prisoners as genocide, even if it’s a loose interpretation of the word’s traditional meaning. Then again, is a redefinition effort insensitive to individuals or groups who suffered from racial or religious genocide and their threatened cultures?

In analyzing racial, religious, or political persecution, it’s difficult, and maybe even impossible, to draw a definite scale of the relative suffering that violent totalitarian regimes have inflicted onto populations.

At least in the Western world, the WWII Nazi regime tends to be viewed as a common standard of one of the most awful episodes in humanity’s moral history; the mere mention of Nazis often connotes the lowest, most condemnable associations. As for viewing North Korea in terms of replicating Nazi practices, Kirby’s statements—and the subsequent media summaries that followed—which draw on the standard have attracted a substantial amount of attention to the extremity of the country’s human rights abuses.

The UN report’s text describes present-day North Korea as “a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” However, certain unrelated cases exist where others make comparisons of separate contemporary societies to Nazis.

For example, in light of the passage of last year’s LGBT “propaganda” law, some took to compare the present Russian government to Nazis, and the Sochi 2014 Olympics to Berlin’s in 1936. Actor Stephen Fry argued these points and called for a ban of this year’s Winter Olympics last summer. Then, a few weeks ago, former Tonight Show host Jay Leno compared the Russian treatment of gays to that of Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews.

While these entertainers’ statements may not be regarded with the same gravitas as that of a UN chairman or a former UK ambassador, Leno’s and Fry’s words resulted in a number of headlines, like in Variety and The Advocate, respectively.

In addition, their comparisons did spawn some criticism, showing that people do pay attention, and react strongly, to comparisons of contemporary states to WW II-era Germany.

Which is not to say contemporary Germany today tends to steer clear of making similar comparisons. Late last year, Angela Merkel was so upset with the American National Security Agency for tapping into her personal cell phone that she compared their surveillance practices to those of the Stasi–-the notorious East Germany spying agency. Perhaps violating personal privacy does not merit comparison to the Nazis, but more so the later era of the secret police under the communist dictatorship that the chancellor grew up with.

Moral relativity aside, the Stasi reference also triggered headline material, for example, a “Merkel compared NSA to Stasi in heated encounter with Obama” article from The Guardian plus a “Germany’s Angela Merkel Reportedly Compares NSA to Stasi” video from The (Huffington Post’s) World Post. While the situation, or comparison, may not be nearly as powerful as alluding to genocide or Nazis, the point she made has also drawn notable attention to her concern.

For whatever connotations they may entail, on a publicity level, when known figures make comparisons of present-day states to erstwhile totalitarian regimes, it’s an effective method in altering people to their issues.

Michael Kirby himself may have pushed the Nazi and North Korea comparison further than the actual text of the UN report he analyzes, but it seems like he mainly did so to call for change.

He said himself:

“At the end of the Second World War so many people said, ‘if only we had known… if only we had known the wrongs that were done in the countries of the hostile forces,’” continuing that, “now the international community does know,” so there are no excuses on failing to act because of unawareness.

Considering what we do know—and the new material that we can access for further study–realistically changing conditions on the ground may be quite difficult to achieve, considering North Korea “categorically and totally” rejected the UN report, plus China, the country’s only ally, dismissed it as “unreasonable criticism” that it will not accept. Unfortunately, since the report is compiled from anecdotal evidence, satellite images, and sketches, battling these stubborn counter-allegations may prove challenging.

However, by these very accounts, the finished UN report that organizes them, and the alarming Nazi comparisons that Michael Kirby uses to denounce the Kim Jong-un’s rule, the general public is at this point arguably more aware of what goes on within the secretive state of North Korea. Those who interpret Kirby’s statement may disagree with him, or even feel rightfully offended, but even such reactions mark that the atrocities of the North Korean state have entered the world’s consciousness and conscience.