Moral outrage – and action – needed on North Korea

The world can no longer ignore the vast human suffering of North Korea's people under the Kim regime. The international community can, and must, take steps to support change – not as unlikely, but as inevitable.

Lee Ji-eun/Yonhap/Reuters
South Korean Namgung Bong-ja holds hands with her North Korean father Namgung Ryul (in bus) as they bid farewell after their three-day temporary family reunion at the Mount Kumgang resort in North Korea, Feb. 25. The reunions took place under the cloud of a UN report on human rights abuses in North Korea, which investigators have said were comparable to Nazi-era atrocities.

Twenty-five million people today live in the world’s largest concentration camp – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – entombed in a totalitarianism so complete that nary a whisper about their sufferings is shared in the warm daylight we on the outside take for granted.

We teach our children the heavy legacies of humanity’s grave past injustices: Nanjing. Auschwitz. The Killing Fields. Rwanda. Srebrenica. Darfur. Implicit in such education is the belief that had we been alive, or had we been in positions of influence while the great atrocities of the past century had been perpetrated, we would’ve acted decisively to stop them.

But the moral clarity with which we judge those who preceded us is elusive when we see our world today. Museums and memorials to the fallen victims of yesterday’s tyrants are meaningless if they do not translate to stands against the perpetrators of brutality today.

Over the past decade, the body of evidence detailing North Korea’s criminal treatment of its citizens and others has steadily grown – first dismissed in disbelief by many, now undeniable. Last month’s report by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea declared, “The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” The report documents forced abortions, infanticide, mass starvation, torture, public executions, and oppression on an unfathomable scale. 

Today’s North Korea is in many ways a creation of our modern world, born of a proxy-conflict between cold-war superpowers after decades of brutal Japanese colonialism and the devastation of World War II. While the Southern twin rocketed to economic prosperity, the Northern twin was left frozen in time, a pariah Mafia-state structured to enrich the very few – a single, absolute royal family and a small cadre of corrupt barons, accomplices to enslavement and exploitation on a massive scale.

North Korea’s atrocities do not derive from the excesses of a centralized state, or from collateral damage from infighting warlords or competing factions. They are not the result of natural disasters or geographic destiny. Rather, over decades, the regime in Pyongyang has worked to perfect and make permanent a system to inflict oppression and hardship on its citizens.

A fragile faith

Yet under the brutality of an unapologetic regime building water parks and ski resorts in Pyongyang while its children die of hunger in the countryside, the people of North Korea have developed a seasoned hardiness and a fragile faith that things might one day get better. 

Mothers and fathers engage in small acts of resistance to feed their families. Teenagers make treacherous escapes to neighboring countries to bring back food or money for their siblings. Corruption has  spread throughout the regime, enabling everyday North Koreans to carefully maneuver for breathing space and small freedoms beneath the suffocating iron curtain. Dissidents and defectors risk life and limb to help others flee to freedom, or to lay the groundwork for the day when change will come to North Korea. And though experts are understandably skeptical, that change will come.

Whose responsibility?

In an age of satellite imagery and eyewitness testimony from concentration camp survivors, we can no longer plead ignorance. And in an era of supersonic jets and real-time networked communications, the definition of who is our neighbor, and therefore where our responsibilities lie, has changed.

The international community should begin finally to act not under the assumption that North Korea cannot change, but in the sure belief that it must and will. We must make clear to governments, businesses, and banks that working with the regime is a moral choice, not just a practical one. A package of strengthened global sanctions against North Korea will make it more difficult for the regime to spend money on luxury goods and weapons of mass destruction. North Korea is able to feed its people; it has simply chosen to spend its money on nuclear weapons, missiles, and toys for the elite.

Some argue that further isolating North Korea will spur its nuclear development. But during a decade of South Korea’s “Sunshine Policy” embrace toward North Korea, Pyongyang developed as many as a dozen nuclear weapons, encouraged by unpunished provocations and unimpeded access to the international banking system.

Strengthening the opposition

The international community must also support efforts to strengthen meaningful opposition and civil society in the country, training exiles to one day assume leadership positions, educating younger refugees, and creating more robust programs to help defectors adjust to life on the outside. A class of Korean technocrats must be capable of stabilizing and rebuilding on a national scale.

Making preparations to provide adequate food, health care, and public safety inside North Korea is also the best way to prevent North Koreans from fleeing en masse in the event of the regime’s collapse. 

For South Korea, any short-term costs of change in the North are dwarfed by the long-term benefits of a path toward normalization, chief among them the military cost-savings and opportunities for economic development that would result from a marriage of North Korea’s well-trained, cheap labor force with South Korea’s technology and export economy. 

China weighs the costs of Kim

Experts often point to China’s support of North Korea. But the political, financial, and social costs China bears in backing Pyongyang far outweigh any benefits, and Beijing’s leaders are starting to envision a better future without the Kim regime. A free North Korea will pay dividends for China Inc., especially in the emergence of a close, sizable export market.

No action on North Korea is without risk, but inaction has only brought mass atrocities, weapons proliferation, and emboldened criminal behavior. Our collective inaction has allied us with the oppressor, not the oppressed.

Now we have the chance to get on the right side of history, and to speed the day when children might be born free in North Korea.

Adrian Hong is managing director of Pegasus Strategies. He was jailed in China in 2006 for helping North Korean refugees escape and cofounded and led the organization Liberty in North Korea from 2004 to 2008. He visited North Korea in 2008.

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