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.
Could the two countries unify, or might a North Korean faction attempt to assemble a new government? How would China and ROK respond to either case? Unification would obviously have serious cultural, economic, and political ramifications. Serious diplomatic frictions would also be likely, and considering the U.S. population and military bases currently positioned in ROK, it’s unlikely we would avoid cost. “Even if stabilization of the North succeeds, ROK and U.S. forces could suffer tens of thousands of fatalities and far more casualties,” the RAND report says.
Leon Hadar wrote a piece for TAC in 2009, calling for the U.S. to “help achieve a stable balance of power in the Korean Peninsula … by providing incentives to the Chinese to stop making excuses for the North Koreans … and to start ‘doing something’ about North Korea.” How to encourage such incentives? North Korea currently carries little cost and considerable benefit to China. But Hadar suggested a plan for nuclear military disarmament of North Korea, part of a larger deal involving economic assistance and diplomatic détente. The alternative? The U.S. would give a “green light” to Seoul and Tokyo to “take all the necessary steps to protect their security—including the nuclear military option.” Such a prospect may prompt China to take some responsibility for North Korea. Granted, Hadar wrote the piece before Kim Jong-Un came to power. But the plan could still be feasible, considering the country’s situation remains similar—if a bit more fragile.
Considering the peril facing North Korean refugees, it seems one practical and non-militaristic way to help is in the private sphere. There are a variety of organizations—The North Korea Freedom Coalition, Crossing Borders, and Durihana, to name a few—all dedicated to helping North Korean refugees.
Peter Hitchens wrote a compelling piece for TAC about a visit to North Korea in 2007. I strongly encourage you to read it. His ending speaks to the need for a thoughtful, compassionate response to North Korea—and it sums up the needs of the country better than I could, so I’ll end with this:
North Korea is a small, isolated, stagnant pond left over from the flood of Marxism-Leninism, which long ago receded. But it has nowhere to drain away. Far too many people, not all of them in Pyongyang, have an interest in keeping it as it is. It still has the capacity to do terrible things but mainly to its own citizens. A serious policy would aim to find a way to help it escape from the political and economic trap in which it finds itself. Threats, name-calling, and the pretence that this shambles of a country is a serious world power are unlikely to achieve this. It is more to be pitied than to be feared.