02/12/2014 09:30 am ET Updated Apr 14, 2014

The North Korean Camp Problem

Early last year, I was being interviewed regarding my book on Kim Jong Il. At one point, the host referred to Kim Jong Il as a "campy" figure.

"That's a very unfortunate choice of words," I told her.

Her mortification was immediate and apparent, as she realized the subtext to what she was saying. But that little exchange spelled out exactly what's wrong with discussing North Korea: namely, the "camp" problem.

Director John Waters defined camp as "the tragically ludicrous" or "the ludicrously tragic." It's the old Batman TV show, it's cooking recipes from the 1950s for a dinner party, it's the conscious glorification of anything truly dreadful. And North Korea is perhaps the world's greatest exporter of camp. The iconography is so absurd, the Kim Jong Il stories so ridiculous, that a person cannot help but roll their eyes. I personally saw a museum painting in Pyongyang that had Kim Jong Il in chain mail riding a tiger atop a snowy mountaintop. Dennis Rodman's recent trips to visit Kim Jong Un serve less as a sign of peace than as painfully unintentional sequels to the Chris Tucker/Jackie Chan Rush Hour buddy comedies. It is this side to the DPRK that seems to generate the most interest, when the focus should be entirely elsewhere.

"Camp" has another, very different meaning with regard to North Korea. It is well known that there are hundreds of thousands of people--men, women and children--currently being held prisoner in concentration camps. These camps are not rumor or secret or propaganda. Anyone can go on Google Earth and see the horror for themselves, clearly marked. (Anyone with Internet access, that is--something forbidden to over 99% of the North Korean population.)

Far from ignoring most of the criticism, the North Korean regime acknowledges such concerns and addresses them in tragically ludicrous fashion. In 2010, the DPRK delegation told the UN Human Rights Council that "the term 'political prisoner' does not exist in the DPRK's vocabulary, and therefore the so-called political prisoners' camps do not exist." This is pure Orwellian doublespeak, decades after 1984. Yes, they don't call them "concentration camps." The actual Korean term is translated as "reeducation center," "resocialization center" or even "enlightenment center"--none of which changes the nature of what is occurring behind the electrified fences.

It might not be particularly useful to compare these camps' conditions to those set up by the Germans. But the fact that such a comparison can be made should be disquieting to anyone. One is reminded of the never-released Jerry Lewis film The Day the Clown Cried, about a clown who gets the children of Auschwitz to laugh. The movie is regarded as one of the worst ideas in cinematic history--yet to chuckle at the conditions of the North Korean people is to repeat the very same exercise in poor taste. Attempts must be made to understand and defeat the regime, not to revel in its farcical excesses.

An understanding of how North Korean culture works might merely be a trivial interest for the average person. But it's crucial for those who work in the press, whose very job it is to inform. Last July, the British Daily Mail ran a headline about Kim Jong Un's "miniskirted robot army." The women referenced aren't automatons deprived of thought and feeling, programmed by the state. They are human beings doing what they need to do to survive in the most hostile political environment on earth. We understand that objectifying people, especially women, is something that should be avoided. But is there anything more objectifying than literally regarding someone as a "robot"?

Perhaps the most egregious example I've come across of such journalistic malpractice was reporter Laura Ling confronting a North Korean family on camera about Kim Jong Il. "Can the Great Leader do anything wrong?" she demanded, mistakenly using the title reserved for North Korean patriarch Kim Il Sung. "Or is what he says magical?"

"I don't understand what you're saying," the translator replied, in perfect English.

"I think he genuinely didn't understand my question," Ling later narrated.

But the only person lacking understanding here was Ling herself. Ling's scene was not some free exchange between representatives of differing political systems. If anything, it was akin to a group of hostages--still under gunpoint--being forced to explain where their bruises came from. According to the "Ten Commandments" that govern North Korea, one must "Observe absolutely the principle of unconditional execution in carrying out the instructions of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung." There were no right answers to her question, but virtually anything said could have been regarded as wrong--and with deadly consequences.

Famously, Ling herself was held captive by the North Koreans for months, until President Clinton personally intervened to save her. But for the twenty million people who call the DPRK their home, there is no salvation forthcoming. And that, by far, is the most tragically ludicrous and ludicrously tragic aspect of the entire North Korean situation.