Contents | January/February 2004
The Atlantic Monthly | January/February 2004
North Korea's murderous prison camps; what is hell—and are you going?; why daughters cause divorce; how to buy biological-weapons material with your credit card
The Gulag Peninsula
Anyone who imagines that the age of the concentration camp has passed would do well to read "The Hidden Gulag," a new report on North Korea. Relying on expert analysis, satellite photographs, and the often agonizing testimony of former prisoners, the report paints a bleak portrait of life and death in Kim Jong Il's kwan-si-lo (where political offenders may be imprisoned for life, usually without trial, and often along with up to three generations of their families) and kyo-hwa-so (where prisoners whose crimes range from felony offenses to unauthorized economic transactions are sentenced to terms that they rarely live to complete). These are death camps in all but name, where prisoners perform dangerous physical labor—mining, logging, and brutal factory work—while subsisting on food rations that are meager at best, starvation-level at worst. Prisoners are publicly executed for "stealing" food; unknown thousands perish from cold, sickness, dehydration, and malnutrition. Some of the grisliest stories come from detention camps for North Korean refugees who have been forcibly repatriated by China. In these camps fetuses unlucky enough to have been conceived outside North Korea are routinely aborted or murdered at birth. According to a mother of seven, who was forced to serve as a midwife in one such camp, "A doctor explained that since North Korea was short on food, the country should not have to feed the children of foreign fathers." She and others recount seeing infants smothered with vinyl cloth, stabbed with forceps in the soft parts of their skulls, or simply buried alive by the boxful.
—"The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea's Prison Camps," U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea
Al Franken Was Right
"After discovering that Saddam Hussein was both actively supporting Al Qaeda and deploying WMDs, the United States, with the full support of the international community, invaded Iraq in March, 2003." This largely inaccurate statement was not torn from a premature draft of the official Bush history of the Iraq War. Rather, it was what roughly 60 percent of Americans believed—in sum or in part—in the aftermath of the war. According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland, during and immediately following the Iraq War more than half of Americans believed that Saddam was a major supporter of al-Qaeda. Roughly a third believed that Iraq had deployable or deployed WMD and that most of the world supported the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The first and the third statements are known to be false; the second is widely accepted to be. So how did so many people get so much wrong? Part of the answer, obviously, is politics: Bush backers, according to the study, were much more likely to believe at least one of the three points than Bush bashers. But the media—and in particular one well-known "fair and balanced" news outlet—seem to have played a part in promoting false beliefs. Whereas only 23 percent of those who relied on NPR or PBS for information about public affairs believed one or more of the propositions, 55 percent of those who relied on CNN did—and 80 percent of those who relied on Fox News did. One might speculate that Bush supporters are more likely to watch (and believe) Rupert Murdoch's news outlets than either Ted Turner's or public broadcasting's. But viewers' preconceived political notions are clearly not the whole story: the Maryland researchers found that whereas 78 percent of Bush supporters who watched Fox were misinformed, only 50 percent of Bush supporters who got their news from PBS and NPR were.
—"Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War," Program on International Policy Attitudes/Knowledge Networks
Hell Is for Other People
Americans mix belief in spiritualism and reincarnation with traditional Christian teachings about the afterlife, according to a new survey from the Barna Research Group. The survey finds that nearly 20 percent of Americans (including 10 percent of "born-again Christians") believe that people are reincarnated after death, and 34 percent think that it's possible to communicate, Crossing Over-style, with the recently departed. But doctrines of a more traditional nature still have widespread appeal: 76 percent of those polled stated that heaven exists, and nearly as many (71 percent) expressed a belief in hell. Hell isn't necessarily perceived as teeming with fire and brimstone—in fact, only 32 percent of adults called it "an actual place of torment and suffering," whereas 40 percent called it "a state of eternal separation from God's presence." Either way, though, if Americans are right, the Inferno's population growth will be slow: 64 percent confidently predict that they themselves will find their way to paradise, whereas only .005 percent expect that they will be sent to hell.
—"Americans Describe Their Views About Life After Death," Barna Research Group
The New Loan Sharks
Americans owe credit-card companies more than $730 billion, more than four times what they did just fifteen years ago, and credit-card-company profits shot up by 20 percent in 2001. Researchers at Demos, a nonpartisan think tank, recently documented this remarkable growth. Among their findings: industry deregulation has made credit so easy to get that three out of four families now wield at least one credit card, and average credit-card debt is 53 percent greater than it was a decade ago. More people having more access to more credit would appear to be a good thing—but the dark side of the story is that credit-card interest rates (currently averaging 13 percent) and fees (averaging $29 for late payments) have stayed high, even through this era of record-low general interest rates. These punitive rates fall particularly hard on the poor and the elderly: very low-income families (those earning less than $10,000) and seniors are increasingly swimming in debt. From 1989 to 2001 the credit-card debt carried by these poor families increased on average by 184 percent, while seniors' debt increased by 149 percent. The industry now extends as much credit to people in the bottom two quintiles as it did to those in the top two at the beginning of the 1990s.
—"Borrowing to Make Ends Meet," Demos: A Network for Ideas and Action
Do daughters cause divorce? A new study by the economists Gordon Dahl and Enrico Moretti reports that marriages with male offspring are significantly more durable than those with female offspring. This is not true just in a society with a well-known preference for male children, such as Vietnam, where the parents of a girl are 25 percent more likely to divorce than the parents of a boy—it's also true in the United States, where a couple whose only child is female is 4.4 percent more likely to divorce than a couple whose only child is a boy, and where a couple with three girls is nearly nine percent more likely to split up than a couple with three boys. Of the possible explanations for this phenomenon, simple gender bias (particularly among fathers) seems the most plausible, especially when one takes into account some of the study's other findings. For instance, men are more likely to marry divorced mothers of sons than they are to marry divorced mothers of daughters. Men are also more likely to marry a pregnant lover if the unborn child is revealed to be male. The bias in favor of boys extends even into the marriage bed: couples with multiple daughters are more likely to try for another baby than are couples with multiple sons.
—"The Demand for Sons: Evidence From Divorce, Fertility, and Shotgun Marriage," Gordon Dahl (University of Rochester) and Enrico Moretti (UCLA)
Science and Technology
Weapons of Mass Availability
In his 2002 State of the Union address President Bush warned that members of the so-called axis of evil "could provide [weapons of mass destruction] to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred." Two recent reports from the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, suggest that one good place for terrorists to seek such weapons would be the federal government of the United States. In the first report federal auditors found serious fault with the security practices of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the agency charged with securing the country's commercial nuclear-power plants. In a review of eighty mock attacks conducted from 1991 to 2001, the GAO found that even when plant managers were given as long as a year to make one-time security enhancements, 22 percent of plants failed to repel attackers. But why attack a power plant to acquire weapons material when all you need is a credit card? According to the second GAO report, investigators logged on to a federal auction Web site (www.govliquidation.com) and spent just $4,100 for almost $47,000 worth of equipment, including a biological safety cabinet, a bacteriological incubator, a laboratory centrifuge, and chemical-biological protective suits—all necessary for the production of biological weapons. More disquieting still, further GAO inquiry revealed that several actual buyers of biological gear exported the merchandise to the Philippines, Malaysia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, whence some of it was shipped to unspecified parties in India, Pakistan, and other countries.
—"Nuclear Regulatory Commission: Oversight of Security at Commercial Nuclear Power Plants Needs to Be Strengthened" and "DOD Excess Property: Risk Assessment Needed on Public Sales of Equipment That Could Be Used to Make Biological Agents," General Accounting Office
Copyright © 2004 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January/February 2004; Primary Sources; Volume 293, No. 1; 46-48.