Whose suffering matters most?

By Aidan Foster-Carter, Asia Times, 23 January 2003

Selective indignation. I don't know who coined the phrase, but it's a fine and useful one. Unlike much that rolls off the tongue, it has something to say, and it makes us think. In essence, it asks: Is what we are mad at what we ought to be mad at? Are we overlooking anything? How should we prioritize?

None of this is easy. In a world of suffering, threats, and all manner of evil, just to work out what is going on is tough enough. Information age? Sure—but we're overloaded. Amid media sensationalism, and with spin-meisters busy weaving their black arts, what can we believe? Whom can you trust?

Another problem is that figuring out the facts entails evaluation, at every turn. To think through what's happening, and then what matters, and then what to care about most—whether morally or in terms of ranking threats, which may not be the same—is not only highly complex, but intrinsically value-laden.

Enough abstraction: some examples. As I write from the United Kingdom, a quarter of my country's army is heading for the Persian Gulf. Sure, Saddam Hussein is a monster: Iraq and all of us would be better off rid of him. But is he our No 1 threat? Not while al-Qaeda has cells in my town, and maybe yours too. Is Iraq the world's most evil regime? Not while Kim Jong-il still rules. (Which doesn't mean I back an attack there either, need I add. One Korean War was already one too many. We should and can find a better way.) If there is war with Iraq, will the world be safer or more stable afterward? Why Iraq, why now, why this way? George W Bush's selective indignation, I fear, is twisting the United States' priorities and leading us all into great peril. Hope I'm wrong.

But that wasn't what I meant to write about. (It's just kind of hard to ignore.) Let's head east to Japan, which for months has been transfixed by a tale of kidnaps. Last September Kim Jong-il sensationally admitted that North Korea had indeed, as had long been rumored, abducted several Japanese to train its own spies. He owned up to 13 abductees, of whom eight were dead—accidentally, of course. That evasion wiped out any brownie points his confession might have gained. Instead, anger has mounted as the five survivors came home: temporarily at first, then they decided to stay, with Tokyo demanding that North Korea let their kids join them. The 13 may not be all: dozens more suspected kidnaps are being probed.

An unholy mess, a row, a gripping soap opera—and selective indignation. At the risk of unpopularity, one has to ask: Just how big a deal is all this really, or should it be? Of course, outrage and tragedy are both involved. But in a wicked world, on a scale of 1 to 10, where does this rank, compared with others?

Two others in particular: one past, one present. Seen from Korea, North or South, Japanese hysteria for a handful of victims is in sharp contrast to Tokyo's refusal, even now, to admit fully or compensate for what Japan did to millions of Koreans: brutal occupation, forced labor, torture, murder, sex slavery. Some new school textbooks even try to deny all this. And Japan's prime minister visits the Yasukuni Shrine, which memorializes Class A warm criminals. Honestly, are the Japanese seeing straight or not?

Selective indignation goes further. Not only do a few Japanese count for more than millions of Koreans—but some Japanese are more equal than others. The unlucky 13 abductees, or others yet unconfirmed, are not Pyongyang's only or first Japanese victims. Spare a thought, as few of their compatriots do, for the thousands of Japanese women who, 40 years ago, dutifully accompanied their Korean husbands to go and help build Kim Il-sung's new socialist paradise. Almost 100,000 took that short but fateful journey into the unknown, including at least 1,800 Japanese wives (some estimates run much higher).

Paradise? Make that paranoid. Even the Korean returnees from Japan were suspect from the start. (For one such grim tale, which ended in the gulag, read Kang Chol-hwan's book Aquariums of Pyongyang.) Holiday visits? You must be kidding. For decades, no Japanese were allowed home—and Tokyo made no fuss whatever. Sexism and racism combined here. Officially, these wives were now citizens of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea—and Japanese who wed Koreans were beyond the pale. When in the late 1990s a trusted handful were briefly let out, duly thanking Kim Jong-il, some found that their own families refused to meet them.

Like Kim's other victims, some have begun leaving without his permission. Those fleeing North Korea for China include a few of these Japanese women, now elderly. To be fair, Tokyo is more sensitive to their plight these days: since 1996 a few such escapees have quietly been helped to come back to Japan.

But now the glare of publicity is about to shine. Japanese media are reporting on an unnamed woman of 64, who went to North Korea in 1959. In 1969 her husband was taken away, never to be seen again, and she was sent to a bleak mountain village. In 2002 she fled to China, but was caught by brokers who demanded a huge ransom from Tokyo. Last week Chinese police detained the gangsters and their victim. After delicate diplomacy, in due course she is expected to come home and tell her sorry tale.

With indignation already aroused over the abductions, this time Japanese opinion may finally be ready to embrace her and her kind. But as the media gear up for what could be a bigger and even sadder saga than the kidnap cases, let indignation no longer be selective. We should all shed a tear and be angry for all of Kim Jong-il's victims: Japanese and Korean, dead or alive. But what to do? That's the hard part.