State of the Union

Push For New Cold War Seems to Stall

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How goes the campaign to pep up Americans for a new Cold War? If the most recent polling on the Ukraine crisis is to be believed, not very well. According to a survey released yesterday by Pew Research Center, only 29 percent of Americans want the U.S. “to take a firm stand” against Russia’s incursion into the Ukraine, while 56 percent prefer that the United States “not get too involved in the situation.” Among “independents”—a category much scrutinized and coveted by political operatives of both parties—the skeptical-about-intervention numbers were highest of all: 62 percent versus 25 percent. A mere 16 percent of Republicans supported the certifiably insane position—”consider military options”—while the percentage among Democrats and independents so inclined barely topped the margin of error.

This polls comes after two weeks of intense anti-Putin propagandizing by the Iraq War Party, attempting to reconstitute itself a decade later. We have seen windy laments about American lack of moral backbone from Leon Weiseltier (Jim Sleeper provides a delicious takedown of the closeted neocon here) and “Putin equals Hitler” analogies from Richard Cohen and Hillary Clinton. We have seen the Washington Post and New York Times columnists bloviating against Russia’s Vladimir Putin almost every day, and the major television puff pieces celebrating the rebels who mounted an anti-democratic coup in Kiev’s Maidan Square. (Yes, the coup overthrew a terribly corrupt ruler, but why not simply wait for an election to get rid of him?)

But despite the media barrage, Americans simply don’t find Russia reasserting some sort of hegemonic position in Crimea much to be concerned about. Perhaps they think that what goes on in Crimea isn’t really any of our business. That’s something of a surprise—the sheer intensity of the anti-Putin media barrage made it seem likely that at least some sort of “tough” majority could be temporarily cobbled together in support of anti-Putin measures, but most Americans seem to have tuned it out. Overheated Beltway language implying a Putin blitzkrieg seems somehow unrealistic in the face of a Russian intervention that has not, as of this writing, resulted in the loss of a single life.

Why aren’t the American people following the clues of their media masters? It’s not entirely clear. But I would point to two powerful potential reasons: the real Cold War was about the spread of Communism, which Americans understood to be an evil system, not about hostility to Russia acting like a normal great power. Adam Gopnik makes the point (in a short essay of exceptional lucidity) here:

The point of the Cold War, at least as it was explained by the Cold Warriors, was that it wasn’t a confrontation of great global powers but, rather, something more significant and essential: a struggle of values, waged on a global scale, between totalitarians and liberals. Russia as a nation was incidental—if the Soviets had given up Marxism and on the utopian (or dystopian) remaking of the world, and had been content to act as a regular power, we would have had no war, cold or hot. That, anyway, was what the Cold Warriors claimed—indeed, those who saw Soviet ideology as mere Russian behavior were regarded as historically naïve. And here we are, with a restored Russia, paranoid about encirclement, increasing their leverage in the neighborhood. It may be ugly and it may be wrong, and Ukraine deserves the moral support that small nations always deserve when they are bullied—but it is also historically normal. If we become hysterical every time historical forces assert themselves, there will be no end to the hysteria.

Or, to put it another way (as Pat Buchanan did), there’s a difference between a Russian ruler who murders priests by the thousands and one who jails for a year the Pussy Riot ladies for committing sacrilege.

Then there are some very practical reasons to pause before joining up with the Beltway sanctions brigades. The Russian analyst Fyodor Lukyanov, writing in Al Monitor, points to some issues which may arise if Washington pushes hard over Crimea. One is the fate of our troops in Afghanistan, who are resupplied in part through a Russian base in Ulyanovsk. Of course the troops could be resupplied through Pakistan, and could probably even exit through there if necessary. But it’s likely to be logistically far more difficult, and could potentially cost American lives. Then there is Syria, where Russian and American diplomacy has tentatively cooperated, at least on chemical weapons. And Iran, where Russia has pleased Washington by canceling previously agreed upon weapons sales. Obviously if faced with American hostility, Putin would reconsider Russian policies on all these issues according to his estimate of Russia’s interests.

One would hope the Obama administration would weigh this before accepting Bill Kristol’s invitation to ignite a new Cold War with Russia. We will see. Ukraine’s prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, “elected” by Victoria Nuland, if not by the Ukrainian people, is due for a White House visit today (Wednesday). When the invitation was tendered, Washington was roiling in anti-Putin, new Cold War frenzy. Since then, the American people have registered a cool message, and even CPAC, the right-wing young Republican organization, has given a straw poll victory to Rand Paul, the national candidate most wary of starting a new cold war. Bob Gates, a foreign policy stalwart of the last two administrations, has noted realistically that there’s not much anyone can do to sever Russia from Crimea, though of course we could shoot ourselves in the foot. It will be interesting to see whether Obama, a far cooler head than Kerry, Clinton, and of course Nuland, will be able to shift course and signal to the world that America’s global policies will not be tethered to a revolutionary nationalist regime of dubious stability which rose out of the barricades in Kiev.

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China and India Offer Russia Tepid Support

As coverage of the standoff between Russia and Ukraine continues and debate over America’s role in the conflict rages on, two crucial players have stepped forward to offer support to Russia: China and India. While no assumptions can be made about China’s diplomacy with Russia, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that an economic superpower would protect its trade agreements in the region. China is Ukraine’s second largest trading partner, a partnership worth $7.3 billion dollars a year, with a target of $20 billion by 2017.

China likely has no intention of endangering its profitable relationships in the face of geopolitical conflict. There is no indication that China will publicly condemn Russia’s actions: it may instead carefully weigh its options with regard to its political alliance with Russia and future economic opportunities with Ukraine. China has paid lip service to Ukraine, but that may change as the situation develops. A spokesperson from the Chinese Foreign Ministry reasserted its non-interventionist policy, but left room to switch platforms if it became expedient:

It is China’s long-standing position not to interfere in others’ internal affairs. We respect the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. There are reasons for why the situation in Ukraine is what it is today. China will follow the development of the situation closely and call on relevant parties to seek a political resolution of their differences through dialogue and negotiation based on respect for international law and norms governing international relations in order to uphold regional peace and stability.

As it currently stands, China has not made a definitive move towards either Russia or Ukraine. Joel Wuthnow, a China analyst writing for the National Interest, suggests that China may side with its previously established economic relationships: “In addition, China’s relations with Ukraine deepened in December with a “strategic partnership” signed by Xi and then-president Viktor Yanukovych. This agreement involved a five-year, $30 billion plan to boost PRC investment in areas including infrastructure, aviation and aerospace, energy, agriculture, and finance.” Much of China’s diplomacy springs out of its business partnerships, and thus far Ukraine does not seem to be an exception. But China also has no interest in estranging Russia, especially after Presidents Putin and Jinping appeared together in public at the Sochi Olympics, sending a signal of solidarity as the Western media raked Putin over the coals. Shannon Tezzi of The Diplomat posits that in spite of deep philosophical misgivings, China will put its developing relationship with Russia above its own political agenda, at least in this case. But public support of Russia is not without risk.

What’s confusing is why India has decided to come forward. Read More…

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Ukraine and Syria’s Common Path to Resolution

When columnist Peggy Noonan asked, “Whose Side Are We On?” about Ukraine, the answer was obvious. The people in the streets of Kiev were demonstrating for freedom against an authoritarian president, Viktor Yanukovych, who was shooting them down. We Americans were all with the demonstrators for freedom and democracy. We knew it in our hearts.

Yet, Yanukovych had been in power only four years, elected in what had been called “an impressive display of democracy” by outside observers. In the face of the protests, he agreed to European demands for early elections and a more representative cabinet. But the demonstrators refused, forcing the imperious Yanukovych to flee in what seemed like a victory for the people. But was it democratic to overthrow an elected government? Does democracy matter here?

The first parliamentary acts of the new government under speaker and interim president Oleksandr Turchynov were to issue mass murder charges against the outgoing leaders and downgrade Russian from a second official Ukraine language. Governor Mikhail Dobkin of Russian-speaking Kharkiv region called the ski-masked Pravy Sektor demonstrators “fascists” for the violence of their demonstrations and the prejudice shown in their demands. The mayor of eastern Sevastopol resigned under pressure from Russian-speaking Ukrainians and his self-appointed replacement promised to resist the western Ukrainian government. Russia’s Vladimir Putin recalled his ambassador, cut aid, warned against oppressing the Russian-speaking majority of Ukraine’s eastern regions and then, in the guise of protecting his fleet, introduced troops into Russian-language-speaking Ukrainian Crimea.

Ukraine is closely divided between primarily Ukrainian-speakers and Russian-speakers, as demonstrated in each of its razor-thin, passionate elections. The great majority of the demonstrators were from the Western-oriented Ukraine-speaking areas. Were the Ukrainian people as a whole or just its westerners the ones to support? It is true that the old Soviets coercively settled Russians in the eastern regions specifically to weaken the westerners, but they are there now and provide pretext for Putin if not support. A civil war would be a disaster for all, even Putin, whose own Russians could turn on him. While we are for Ukraine, Russia is the only nation state other than the U.S. that has sufficient power to cause a nuclear holocaust. Experts all agree the U.S. cannot do much militarily, and minor moves like U.S. sanctions often irritate without results. It is in everyone’s interest to calm things down even if our hearts are inflamed.

Our hearts speak in Syria, too. The U.S. government, the media, and probably most Americans consider themselves on the side of the Sunni majority rebels against the brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite/Shiite led coalition of minorities. He is not democratic, and liberty is rare, so the choice seems simple. But the effective rebel military units are radical Islamists. The moderates the U.S. is supporting are mostly in exile or ineffective, so much so that the U.S. supported replacing Free Syrian Army leader Gen. Salim Idriss with Abdul-Illah al-Bashir, an Assad defector. While top Washington Post foreign correspondent David Ignatius was still celebrating the replacement, the moderate military commanders of all five battle areas in Syria and nine other military leaders called Idriss’ replacement a “coup” and were breaking ties with the U.S. backed Supreme Military Council.

Meanwhile, the two top Sunni Islamic rebel groups—the Nusra Front (designated as al-Qaeda’s official group) and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (the previous official al-Qaeda)—were fighting each other; ISIS leader Abu Khalid al-Suri was killed the next day. At the same time, Saudi Arabia announced a new Syria policy leader, Mohammed bin Nayef, an aggressive supporter sending of more arms to fellow Sunni fighters on the scene now planning to send them antiaircraft and other heavy weapons. Read More…

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Marco Rubio’s Absurd Foreign Policy

Though Barack Obama is widely regarded as a weak president, is the new world disorder really all his fault?

Listening to the more vocal voices of the GOP one might think so.

According to Sen. Lindsey Graham, Vladimir Putin’s move into Crimea “started with Benghazi.” ”When you kill Americans and nobody pays a price, you invite this type of aggression,” said Graham. Putin “came to the conclusion after Benghazi, Syria, Egypt” that Barack Obama is “a weak indecisive leader.”

Also blaming Obama for Crimea, John McCain got cheers at AIPAC by charging, “This is the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy in which nobody believes in America’s strength anymore.” This “blatant act” of aggression “cannot stand,” said McCain. How McCain plans to force Putin to cough up Crimea was left unexplained.

Now Marco Rubio seems to be auditioning to replace the retired Joe Lieberman as third amigo. His CPAC speech is described by the L.A. Times:

[Rubio] said that China is threatening to take parts of the South China Sea … a nuclear North Korea is testing missiles, Venezuela is slaughtering protesters, and Cuba remains an oppressive dictatorship. He added that Iran continues to pursue nuclear weapons and regional hegemony and Russia is attempting to ‘reconstitute’ the former Soviet Union.

What all these countries have in common, said Rubio, is “totalitarian governments.” Rubio proposes a U.S. foreign policy of leading the world to “stand up to the spread of totalitarianism.”

Not quite as ambitious as George W. Bush’s “ending tyranny in our world,” but it will do.

Where to begin. Read More…

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Military Power Is Not a Foreign Policy Panacea

Photo: U.S. Army

A recent article by Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations serves to illustrate how some elite thinkers in the United States have come to view the application of deadly force as a cure-all for a wide range of foreign policy challenges. In the February 10 edition of the Financial Times, he wrote that it was the U.S. failure to “arm and train the Free Syrian Army” that allowed the Syrian regime to stay in power. To counter perceived American inaction, he recommended solutions ranging from “doing more to arm the moderate opposition, to declaring a no-fly zone. Drones could strike al-Qaeda operatives in Syria; air power could create humanitarian zones near the Turkish and Jordanian borders.” While Mr. Boot castigates the White House for “inaction,” he does not bother to address the most critical question: what happens after these steps are taken?

For example, he argued we should train and arm “the Free Syrian Army.” Yet as has been widely reported, this so-called ‘army’ is a fractious, incongruous alignment of disparate groups, many of whose goals are antithetical to American interests and who often fight among themselves as often as against regime forces. Moreover, he does not address how these individual actions fit into a comprehensive strategy. How does he imagine the U.S. will identify al-Qaeda operatives within Syria for drone strikes? What end would these drone strikes seek to achieve? Kill “some” of the leaders? 10 percent? 50 percent? What would be the strategic utility of such a course of action? Given that nearly unfettered drone strikes have proven inconsequential in Pakistan and Yemen, how will sporadic strikes in Syria change the tactical balance?

Perhaps most importantly, advocates of military action frequently fail to consider this possibility: what sort of Syria would exist if their suggested military actions succeeded and the current Syrian regime did fall? What would be the likelihood that the grudging cooperation currently at play between radical and moderate Islamic groups on the rebel side would erupt into open warfare in the struggle for control of a post-Assad Syria? What would the United States do if an al-Qaeda affiliated coalition gained control of the Syrian state? These are hardly hypothetical possibilities.

Yet the default position by opinion leaders like Mr. Boot is to use military power first, and worry about the consequences later; the effects suffered by the men and women who live in the target country seem to get little consideration. Read More…

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The Real German Warning for Cold War II

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

In assessing the motives and actions of Vladimir Putin, Hillary Clinton compared them to Adolf Hitler’s. Almost always a mistake. After 12 years in power, Hitler was dead, having slaughtered millions and conquered Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals. And Putin? After 13 years in power, and facing a crisis in Ukraine, he directed his soldiers in the Crimea to take control of the small peninsula where Russia has berthed its Black Sea fleet since Napoleon. To the Wall Street Journal this is a “blitzkrieg.”

But as of now, this is a less bloody affair than Andrew Jackson’s acquisition of our Florida peninsula. In 1818, Gen. Jackson was shooting Indians, putting the Spanish on boats to Cuba and hanging Brits. And we Americans loved it.

Still, there are parallels between what motivates Putin, a Russian nationalist, and what motivated the Austrian corporal. Hitler’s war began in blazing resentment at what was done to Germany after Nov. 11, 1918. The Kaiser’s armies had defeated the Russian Empire, and the Italians at Caporetto, and fought the Western Allies to a stand still in France, until two million Americans turned the tide in 1918. When Berlin accepted an armistice on President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, not a single Allied soldier stood on German soil.

But, at Paris, the Allies proceeded to tear a disarmed Germany apart. The whole German Empire was confiscated. Eupen and Malmedy were carved out of Germany and given to Belgium. Alsace-Lorraine was taken by France. South Tyrol was severed from Austria and given to Italy. A new Czechoslovakia was given custody of 3.25 million Sudeten Germans. The German port of Danzig was handed over to the new Poland, which was also given an 80-mile wide strip cut out of Germany from Silesia to the sea, slicing her in two. The Germans were told they could not form an economic union with Austria, could not have an army of more than 100,000 soldiers, and could not put soldiers west of the Rhine, in their own country. Perhaps this Carthaginian peace was understandable given the Allied losses. It was also madness if the Allies wanted an enduring peace.  Read More…

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Our Entirely Self-Inflicted Ukraine Disaster

Victoria Nuland swearing in ceremony as Assistant Secretary of State. Photo courtesy State Department
Victoria Nuland swearing in ceremony as Assistant Secretary of State. Photo courtesy State Department

It must have been nearly 26 years ago, in the spring. On a Saturday, I was playing golf with my new boss, Owen Harries, editor of The National Interest. We were puzzling over Gorbachev, who was sounding and acting so damned reasonable. “It’s just counterintuitive” said Owen, and I of course concurred. Gorbachev’s behavior seemed to contravene everything I had learned in my fifteen or so years of reading intensely about Soviet communism, and Owen’s education was of course deeper still. That long bibliography, passionately devoured and fervently embraced: Adam Ulam, Medvedev, Orwell, Koestler, Raymond Aron, Solzhenitsyn, Nadezdha Mandelstam, dozens of articles in Commentary, Encounter, National Review-–all soon to be shifted to my mind’s attic. My Columbia University dissertation devoted to some minor but fascinating corner of the cultural Cold War, suddenly as timely as if it concerned the War of the Roses. I had come to The National Interest (then published by Irving Kristol) in no small part to fight communism, and now what was I going to do?

And yet of course, one couldn’t deny what a blessing it was. Suddenly the United Nations could get things done; we weren’t going to have an accidental civilization ending war; and Russia (Tolstoy, vodka, etc) could be appreciated without being some sort of dupe. On the first day the subway opened after 9/11, I overheard a young pretty blonde woman, Russian accent, flirting with her American beau as they stood in line to buy farecards. “So, ve are now going to be allies.” Poignant and delicious. And yet sad were the Yeltsin years: Russia seeming to disintegrate into alchoholism, falling birthrates, a great civilization, a core part of everyone’s mental architecture of the world, coming apart at the seams.

Looking around the American media in the past few days, I realize I am not very much in step with my countrymen. Stephen Cohen makes some sensible points about Putin’s obligations to Russia on PBS, saying basically, look Putin is not entirely the bad guy here, and no one should be trying to push Western institutions right up to Russia’s borders, and any responsible leader would have acted similarly , and the reaction–look at the comments!– is a kind of full-blown of rage. What drives it? Or more precisely, what is the motivation to try to drive the sphere of Western influence right up to Russia’s borders? Is it because our ambitions (and whose, exactly?) are insatiable? Because that seems to be it: we aren’t satisfied with the liberation of the satellites of Eastern Europe, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, former Cold War flashpoints and now NATO members; with the reunification of Germany and under Western auspices, so that Berlin is now a virtual capital of Nato; with the Baltic states as NATO members too. There seemed to be no end to it. We have learned from Robert Gates’s memoirs that at the time, Dick Cheney was advocating not only for the dismantlement of the Soviet empire (accomplished) but of Russia itself. Cheney then lacked the power to try carry this out, but what would have been the plan if he had? Read More…

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Kunming Knife Attacks Point to Prolonged Ethnic Conflict

Chaos erupted on Saturday afternoon at a Kunming railway station, in the Yunnan province of southwestern China. Ten men and women carrying scimitars and meat cleavers descended on unsuspecting passengers, slicing and stabbing at random. Unreleased photos depict multiple victims lying in pools of their own blood. All told, 130 people were injured and 30 were killed. Four suspects were shot and killed at the scene; one is currently detained while recovering from injuries. It is believed that there are currently five suspects are still at large. There was a heightened security presence at both the Kunming railway station and in Beijing on Monday. President Xi Jinping harshly condemned these acts, which have been classified as acts of terrorism. A vigil was held on Sunday to honor the dead and wounded.

The attack was linked to Uighur separatists, who hail from the Xinjiang province in northwest China, directly north of Tibet. Tensions have flared between the Han Chinese and the Turkic Muslim ethnic groups in the region for the last several years, each conflict bringing severe government crackdowns. Because of tight restrictions on reporting, there is speculation as to whether the government has exaggerated the Uighur terrorism in order to justify the use of violence. But there does seem to be legitimate unrest that is swept under the rug.

As recently as last October, Uighur separatists claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in Tiananmen Square. The square represents both the heart of Chinese power and dissidence—25 years ago the square was the site of mass student demonstrations advocating for democracy. A photo of the suicide bombing features a single pillar of smoke stretching in front of Tiananmen tower, where the portrait of Mao Zedong looks impassively on. It is not yet known if one or several groups carry out these acts of violence, or if these groups coordinate their efforts.

The Xinjiang region consists of 45 percent Uighurs, most of whom are Muslim, and 40 percent Han Chinese. The Han Chinese are the dominant ethnic group in China, making up 94 percent of the population. As China’s population rises, the Chinese government has facilitated moving some of the Han population further West, to the consternation of the local Uighur population.  The inhabitants of Xinjiang, a part of China heretofore known as an “autonomous region” consider the resettlement both a political and cultural imposition, and fear the loss of their culture by an ethnic hegemon.

Reports of armed attacks from Xinjiang began in 2008, when a woman detonated a bomb in protest of a prominent local businessman who died while in police custody. In 2009, multiple reports emerged of stabbings via hypodermic needles. Protesters took to the streets to display their disapproval with the ensuing investigation. Three years ago, 18 men took over a police station, shouting religious slogans and taking several hostages with knives and bombs. Fourteen of them were killed in a police confrontation.

The inherent opaqueness of such unrest is either incomplete or partially confirmed. In the midst of all the incomplete information, one fact remains clear: the unrest is no longer contained to a remote corner of China. The people responsible for committing this violence have brought the battle to the front and center of Chinese—and international—politics.

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Resist the War Party on Crimea

Lilyana Vynogradova /

With Vladimir Putin’s dispatch of Russian troops into Crimea, our war hawks are breathing fire. Russophobia is rampant and the op-ed pages are ablaze here. Barack Obama should tune them out, and reflect on how Cold War presidents dealt with far graver clashes with Moscow.

When Red Army tank divisions crushed the Hungarian freedom fighters in 1956, killing 50,000, Eisenhower did not lift a finger. When Khrushchev built the Berlin Wall, JFK went to Berlin and gave a speech. When Warsaw Pact troops crushed the Prague Spring in 1968, LBJ did nothing. When, Moscow ordered Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski to smash Solidarity, Ronald Reagan refused to put Warsaw in default. These presidents saw no vital U.S. interest imperiled in these Soviet actions, however brutal. They sensed that time was on our side in the Cold War. And history has proven them right.

What is the U.S. vital interest in Crimea? Zero. From Catherine the Great to Khrushchev, the peninsula belonged to Russia. The people of Crimea are 60 percent ethnic Russians. And should Crimea vote to secede from Ukraine, upon what moral ground would we stand to deny them the right, when we bombed Serbia for 78 days to bring about the secession of Kosovo? Across Europe, nations have been breaking apart since the end of the Cold War. Out of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia came 24 nations. Scotland is voting on secession this year. Catalonia may be next.

Yet, today, we have the Wall Street Journal describing Russia’s sending of soldiers to occupy airfields in Ukraine as a “blitzkrieg” that “brings the threat of war to the heart of Europe,” though Crimea is east even of what we used to call Eastern Europe. The Journal wants the aircraft carrier George H. W. Bush sent to the Eastern Mediterranean and warships of the U.S. Sixth Fleet sent into the Black Sea. But why? We have no alliance that mandates our fighting Russia over Crimea. We have no vital interest there. Why send a flotilla other than to act tough, escalate the crisis and risk a clash? Read More…

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North Korea: “More to Be Pitied Than Feared”

North Korea’s atrocities were thrown back into the public discourse last week, after a new report by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights stirred up international outcry. The report details the extent of human rights violations currently known in the country—crimes including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”

In sum, the commission says, North Korea’s crimes against humanity do not “have any parallel in the contemporary world.”

The report’s release came hand-in-hand with a Gallup poll’s revelation that Americans hate North Korea more than any other country in the world. Though Kim Jong-Un is often portrayed in a childish and almost teasing manner by American media, many are realizing this seeming childishness lends itself to an extremely brutal dictatorship.

Yet figuring out the best response to the North Korean situation is a troubling question—one without a clear or compelling answer, as of yet. For the U.S., as a South Korean (Republic of Korea, or ROK) ally, diplomacy will be tricky in days to come.

North Korea’s government could hardly be more restrictive, isolated, or ruthless. Any autonomous religious activity in the country is “now almost nonexistent; government-sponsored religious groups exist to provide an illusion of religion freedom,” says the CIA. The country’s prison camps have been compared to Nazi concentration camps: according to multiple firsthand reports from defectors, prisoners are subjected to executions, starvation, and extreme torture. In a Wednesday Telegraph piece, former prison guard Ahn Myong-Chol said “more than 90 percent” of prisoners he talked to said they had no idea why they were in the camp.

“People in the camps are not treated as human beings… They are like flies that can be crushed,” Ahn told the newspaper.

National Geographic wrote a piece about the perils facing North Korean refugees in 2009. Those who cross the border without permission may be thrown into a prison labor camp for three to five years. Conspiring to reach South Korea “is considered treason, with offenders starved, tortured, and sometimes publicly executed.” Yet China refuses to honor international agreements to treat North Koreans as refugees, maintaining instead “the defectors are illegal ‘economic migrants.’” The UN’s report has already prompted some pushback from China, according to The Telegraph:

The UN panel has warned China’s government that it might be “aiding and abetting crimes against humanity” by sending migrants and defectors back to North Korea to face torture and execution. It said that Beijing had in some cases forwarded to Pyongyang “information about the contacts and conduct” of North Korean nationals, despite knowing that they would almost certainly face torture if repatriated. China has hinted that it will use its UN security council veto to prevent the International Criminal Court indicting Kim Jong-un. However, a separate ad hoc tribunal could be convened.

Additionally, the country is experiencing rampant economic disrepair. The CIA shares some of the country’s chronic problems: industrial capital stock is “nearly beyond repair,” military spending has cut off needed resources for civilians, there are chronic food shortages due to weather and collective farming practices (amongst other systemic issues), and “industrial and power output have stagnated for years at a fraction of pre-1990 levels.”

The country’s situation is incredibly tenuous—indeed, the RAND Corporation released a report last year claiming that North Korea is a “failing state. Its government could collapse in the coming months or years, causing an immense humanitarian disaster and potentially other, even more serious consequences.” Looking at a map quickly reveals why such a collapse could have major repercussions. North Korea separates South Korea from the rest of the continent. While ROK has a strong economy at present, the dissolution of North Korea would have a variety of consequences—economic and cultural, as well as political—for its southern neighbor. Read More…

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