The late Czech dissident Václav Havel once said that a totalitarian system, by making false claims such as its right to rule, lives a lie. It is not surprising then that the greatest threat to its existence is for people to live and tell the truth. This wisdom about the power of conscience may help explain the latest diplomatic push to expose the truth about the North Korean regime to its own people.
This week, Japan, South Korea, and the United States agreed to put a stronger spotlight on human rights in North Korea – or rather the need to allow them. The timing may be good. Many more people who live in that isolated society are learning how others enjoy basic freedoms. In recent years, tens of thousands of North Koreans have been allowed to work in other countries, helping earn hard currency for the regime. When those workers return, they often question the propaganda about the Kim family dynasty, which has ruled since 1948.
In addition, millions more in North Korea are learning about life elsewhere by a slight loosening of the flow of digital information and by border trade with China. The privileged elite in Pyongyang also show signs of opposition. The current dictator, Kim Jong-un, reportedly had his uncle and his defense minister recently killed.
Mr. Kim also has reacted strongly to a United Nations report last year that gave specific details about “unspeakable atrocities” in North Korea, such as enslavement, torture, rape, forced abortion, and the imprisonment of an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners. The UN General Assembly recommended to the Security Council that North Korea be taken to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. The US now hints that China, the only ally of North Korea, may not block the move, especially if the North conducts another nuclear weapons test.
In recent weeks, Kim has appeared threatened by more than the possibility of his people learning about human rights. He snubbed a new ambassador from China and canceled a visit by the UN secretary-general. He canceled a visit to Russia in what was to be his first trip abroad since taking power in 2011. And he has yet to meet China’s leader, Xi Jinping, who snubbed Kim by recently visiting South Korea.
The US-led renewed focus on human rights in North Korea is designed to bring additional pressure on the regime to end the threat of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. It follows the model of the West’s isolation of Iran with economic sanctions, an effort that forced Iran to the negotiating table over its nuclear program.
“Never has the international community been as united as we are now,” says US Secretary of State John Kerry about the effort to denuclearize North Korea.
The outside pressure on the Kim regime must ultimately create pressure among North Koreans for change. If the US and others can find ways to help North Koreans “live in truth” about their rights, then the lies of the regime will collapse.