On Wednesday I wrote about the terrible crimes against humanity taking place in North Korea. The Supreme Leader and his father and grandfather have turned the country into a hell on earth where children are brainwashed from day one to believe in the North Korean system. No outside information is allowed in, and any independent thought is punished by time in a prison camp. Prisoners here are subjected to brutal torture, and many are worked to death.
The world knows all this. It isn’t up for debate, or just propaganda. The UN’s knowledgeable, neutral and respected investigators conducted a well-researched report. So what can be done?
What’s been done in the past?
There has been action taken in the past to try to convince the North Korean government to join the international community, as well as stopping their abuses and their nuclear program. This can be seen as two policies, sometimes pursued at the same time, ‘good cop’ and ‘bad cop’. Good cop in this case is for example the giving of foreign aid to the country, or South Korean participation in joint industrial projects along the border. The problem with this approach is that it seems to have zero effect on the North Korean leadership. When the US and South Korea gave food aid to North Korea during the famine in the 90s, the rice was put in new sacks and in unmarked trucks, to disguise where it was coming from. The population never knew the US was helping them. Even today the UN continues to give aid to North Korea, while the government brutalises its citizens. There is no ‘gratitude’ on the part of the Supreme Leader.
The ‘bad cop’ policy is sanctions. The problem with this approach is that North Korea is already buried in sanctions. The UN (with China’s vote) has already banned the import of weapons and certain types of technology, as well has freezing North Korean funds overseas. It’s hard to see how much more sanctions you can put on the country.
So what now?
The most productive step would probably be for the UN to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court. This does send a very powerful message to the leaders of North Korea, that they are being held personally responsible for the deaths of their people. Whether they will listen is another matter. Something else the UN could authorise would be the stepping up of other methods such as information warfare. One commenter suggested on Wednesday that smuggling in DVDs with information about the outside world would be effective. This would certainly help to break through some of the brainwashing, though people caught with any such DVDs would most likely be shot immediately. It would however keep up the pressure on North Korea to engage in some way with the outside world.
The major problem with all of this is China, and their veto in the UN. China is North Korea’s only ally, even if they have voted for sanctions on them. However they are inclined to vote against more far-reaching measures against North Korea. Firstly they’re afraid of hundreds of thousands of North Koreans flooding the border if the country suddenly collapses. Secondly, if North Korea joined the South it would be mean the almost 30000 US soldiers in South Korea would be on the Chinese border. The last time that happened was in the Korean War, and it didn’t end well. Thirdly, China always worries that if the UN goes after countries for their human rights, China itself will be next. Their record on the matter is not good, especially when it comes to Tibet.
However, I believe it’s possible to make a deal with China. North Korea is an embarrassment to them, and China has repeatedly shown that it doesn’t have unlimited patience with its ally. Firstly the US would need to assure China that it would not have any troops in a unified Korea. Another possibility would be secret agreements with China on other matters. For example, the US could agree to stop supporting Taiwanese and Tibetan efforts and organisations. However the most important thing that can be done is publicly putting pressure on China to stop returning North Korean refugees. This is one of the most important things this report has done – it puts pressure on China.
The other thing to consider is what will happen if the North Korean regime collapses. 25 million people who are living in a dystopian, brainwashed world will suddenly be confronted with the 21st century. It’s hard to imagine how South Korea and the international community will deal with this. The integration of Eastern Germany was hard enough, and North Korea is far, far worse off.
A third problem is that North Korea has nuclear weapons. Relatively small ones to be sure, but Seoul is barely 50 km from the border. The North Korean army could practically throw a missile and still cause hundreds of thousands of deaths. These nukes are a factor in every discussion on North Korea.
Thanks to these problems, for all the great powers it is simply easier if the situation stays as it is. But at some point the international community needs to take a stand on this moral issue. This is one of the most clear-cut cases of large-scale human rights abuses the world has ever seen. We cannot stand aside and wait while people suffer. We know what is happening. Hopefully, this will finally be the time the international community acts.