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North Korea: Dealing with a Human Rights Scourge and Security Threat

Kim Jung Un and N. Korean Starving Kids

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea long has been recognized as one of the globe’s most difficult challenges.  For two decades concern over Pyongyang’s nuclear program has dominated international attention toward the Korean peninsula.  The new United Nations report on the North’s human rights practices reminds us that the DPRK most directly is a threat to its own people.

What to do about The North Korea Problem has troubled three successive U.S. administrations.  The result is a tentative nuclear state seemingly ruled by an immature third-generation dictator willing to terrorize even his own family.  At least there have been few direct consequences for America, which has sufficient military capacity to deter Pyongyang.

Not so lucky are the residents of North Korea, however.  There never has been any question about the extraordinary nature of DPRK tyranny. But the United Nations just released its own gruesome analysis. 

The UN issued 372 pages of detailed findings.  But the 36-page summary report alone is devastating.  The finding is simple:  “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed” by the DPRK.  “In many instances, the violations found entailed crimes against humanity based on State policies.” 

Yet the challenge facing the U.S. and other nations regarding human rights in the North is a lot like the security problem:  what to do? The Kim dynasty has demonstrated no interest in disarming.  Nor has it ever hinted at the slightest interest in treating the North Korean people better.  Arguing that human rights should be an international priority doesn’t change matters. 

Trying to convince the isolated and militaristic regime that a more pacific policy is in its interest so far hasn’t worked.  Trying to convince the same leadership that it also should dismantle the political system that it dominates is even less likely to succeed. 

It seems callous to focus on security, but that almost certainly remains the correct priority. If the allied states ever persuade the North to reduce its threatening capabilities, there will be far greater opportunities for political change.  Emphasizing the latter at the start seems more likely to preclude any movement on any issue.

However, the human rights report might be more effectively directed at another nation, the People’s Republic of China.  The PRC is North Korea’s chief enabler.  (For a time South Korea shared that title, with its bountiful subsidies as part of the Sunshine Policy.)  

The reasons are understandable if not necessarily laudable.  Washington’s push for Beijing to press the DPRK more seriously, repeated during Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent China visit, founders on the PRC’s perception of its interests. 

The North is unpredictable, except for always being ever unreasonable and difficult. Nevertheless, Beijing fears destabilizing the peninsula more than it fears North Korea nuclearizing the peninsula.

To change China’s position requires addressing that government’s concerns, particularly regarding the impact of a united Korea allied with America at a time when the U.S. appears committed to a policy of soft containment.  The DPRK’s growing reputation as a human rights outlaw might help.

Beijing obviously is sensitive to the issue, given its own human rights failings.  Nevertheless, there is no comparison between the two nations. China also has much at stake in the global order, including its reputation, which will be tarnished if it continues to be widely seen as the only reason the Kim regime survives.

Simply bashing Pyongyang won’t be enough.  Washington needs to develop a positive package for a reform North Korean leadership: peace treaty, trade, aid, and integration.  The U.S. also should involve South Korea and Japan.

This approach should directed as much at the PRC as North Korea.  Even Chinese officials frustrated with the DPRK tend to blame the U.S. for creating the hostile threat environment which led the North to develop nuclear weapons.

The PRC still might decide the price of cooperating with America is too high.  But the allies have no better alternative approach.  The DPRK has spent recent years alternating whispers of sweet nothings with screams of blood-curdling threats, tossing in occasional missile and nuclear tests for good measure.  Nothing suggests that the younger Kim has abandoned brinkmanship as Pyongyang’s preferred policy and decided to negotiate away his nation’s most important weapon.

Someday monarchical communism will disappear from the Korean peninsula.  It will do so sooner if China uses its considerable influence—and threatens to withdraw its even more important aid—to press Pyongyang to reform. The UN’s scathing report on DPRK human rights practices might help win Beijing’s cooperation.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.  A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World (Cato) and The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea (Palgrave/Macmillan, co-author).

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North Korea

The great effectiveness of the Useless Nations is highlighted by the existance of North Korea. It is also Harry Truman's greatest failure. At the time of the Korean War, or police action as Truman called it, we were the only nuclear power, and I believe that if we had used the threat of a nuclear attack in that situation, there would be no North Korea, just Korea, and the world would be a better place because of it. Truman should never have stopped McArther.

North Korea

Apparently Rosugill is unaware that it is probably not a good idea to predicate an argument upon wishful thinking rather than the facts. The Korean war began in 1950, one year AFTER the Soviets detonated their own Atomic Bomb.

North Korea

Interesting that those with their so called "fully formed world view," apparently are not averse to using the UN when it is convenient and denouncing them when it is not! What do they call that? what is the word? Oh yes, I remember ... HYPOCRACY!