It has been 60 years since the world first heard of Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler's successful escape from Auschwitz, an escape that brought to light accounts of Hitler's extermination camps. Their testimony forced representatives of the democratic world to face truths that many did not want to believe, even after the war. Thanks to Vrba, Wetzler, and countless other witnesses, the horrors and extent of the Nazis' "final solution" are universally known.
Like the Holocaust, the crimes and brutal reality of Soviet communism were also outlined and understood, thanks to the writings of Arthur Koestler, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and others. Fortunately, people who use eyewitness testimony in attempts to expose the greatest crimes against humanity can be found in each era and all over the world. Rithy Panh described the terror of the Khmer Rouge, Kanan Makiya detailed the brutal prisons of Saddam Hussein, and Harry Wu has tried to show the perversion of the Laogai system of Chinese forced-labor camps.
Today the testimony of thousands of North Korean refugees who have survived the miserable journey through Communist China to free South Korea tells of the criminal nature of the North Korean dictatorship. Accounts of repression are supported and verified by modern satellite images, and they clearly illustrate that North Korea has a functioning system of concentration camps. The kwan-li-so, or "political penal labor colonies," hold as many as 200,000 prisoners who are barely surviving day to day, or are dying under similar conditions to the millions of prisoners in the former Soviet gulag system.
The northern part of the Korean Peninsula is governed by the world's worst totalitarian dictator, a man responsible for the loss of millions of lives. Kim Jong Il inherited the communist regime following the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, and has continued to strengthen the cult of personality. He sustains one of the largest armies in the world and is producing weapons of mass destruction even as the centrally planned economy and the state ideology - known as juche, a blend of nationalism and self-reliance - have led the country into famine.
Despite the ever-present Army and police, tens of thousands of desperate North Koreans have escaped to China. In defiance of international treaties, the Chinese government refuses to recognize these people as refugees, and Chinese officials have blocked the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from contacting any North Korean in China. The Chinese government hunts the refugees in the woods along the border and sends them back to North Korea, where the journey ends in the kwan-li-so. All of this is happening right now, and the world is standing idly by.
Some refugees are fortunate enough to make it to South Korea. But their presence there flies in the face of that country's official "sunshine policy," which, however well-intentioned, is based on constant concessions and appeasement. The policy costs South Korea hundreds of millions of dollars, but it is not helping in the effort to save innocent lives. In the end, the policy only keeps the leader of Pyongyang in power.
Kim Jong Il is able to blackmail the world with the help of his huge Army, nuclear weapons, long-range missiles, and the export of weaponry and military technology to like-minded dictators around the world. He wants to be respected and feared abroad and to be recognized as one of the world's most powerful leaders. He is willing to let his own people die of hunger, and he uses famine to liquidate those who show any sign of wavering loyalty to his rule. Through blackmail, he receives food and oil, which he distributes among those loyal to him (first in line being the Army).
Shockingly, the UN Commission on Human Rights has criticized the North Korean regime for its gross violations of human rights only twice since the commission was founded. Less shocking, but also disturbing, is the fact that the North Korean government has yet to implement any of the commission's recommendations.
Now is the time for the democratic countries of the world - European Union members, the United States, Japan, South Korea - to take a common position. They must make it clear that they will not offer concessions to a totalitarian dictator. They must state that respect for basic human rights is an integral part of any future discussions with Pyongyang. Decisiveness, perseverance, and negotiations from a position of strength are the only things that Kim Jong Il and those like him understand.
• Vaclav Havel is the former president of the Czech Republic. This article appeared first in The Washington Post.