A UN report on human rights violations in North Korea has exposed the obvious. The totalitarian regime is abusing its people in ways that are “without parallel in the contemporary world.”
It’s not clear why an authoritative report on the tragedy had not been done much earlier, but the important point is it has been done. The report brings to life in vivid detail the suffering and hardship endured by the nation of 25 million people.
The Hermit Kingdom has been described as a state that combines the worst elements of Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia and George Orwell’s 1984. The report found no clear evidence of genocide, which usually involves targeting a specific group for elimination, but it found everything else.
The list includes torture, rape, murder, the jailing of dissidents real or imagined, deliberate starvation, arbitrary arrest, abduction of foreign nationals, enforced disappearances, pervasive surveillance, forced labour and on and on.
The focus of international attention until now has been on North Korea’s nuclear program. Batteries of analysts have struggled to determine if the regime is managed by rational people who will act in their self-interest, or if the state is a loose cannon that could go off at any moment with the slightest provocation.
The fear that the state’s leaders cannot be trusted to play by the rules of international conduct has been reinforced repeatedly by aggressive behaviour and bombastic threats.
South Korea is so concerned about antagonizing its northern neighbour it regularly tolerates hostile behaviour, including the sinking of one of its warships in international waters by a North Korean submarine. Seoul protested, but did not dare retaliate for fear of sparking a wider conflagration.
International observers have been befuddled in their search for an appropriate response.
The world tried bribing North Korea with offers of food in return for abandoning its nuclear ambitions, but it didn’t work.
Sanctions aren’t much of an option, either, for a country that doesn’t care if its people are impoverished. Military action is considered too dangerous.
China is also a major obstacle to effecting change because it appears to be satisfied with the status quo. The last thing it wants is a collapse that causes an even bigger humanitarian crisis and drives millions of refugees into its arms. Nor does it want a western army on its border.
Significantly, however, the UN report warns China’s leaders they could also be held responsible for crimes against humanity in North Korea by aiding or abetting the regime.
China has a veto on whether the charges against North Korea are referred to the international criminal court, but it is powerless to prevent an uprising of public opinion in countries where it is attempting to establish business relationships.
The UN report may have no impact on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but it could give pause to some of his henchmen and possibly stir up dissent within the country.
Short of a complete meltdown, however, which seems unlikely in the short term, the power to moderate North Korea’s behaviour ultimately lies with China.
The U.S. and other industrial nations, including Canada, have been reluctant to press China on its own human rights record because they are trying to establish bilateral agreements as well as strategic understandings.
The authors of the UN report, however, are hoping awareness of the suffering in North Korea will “galvanize action on the part of the international community.”
Ultimately, the world acting in concert with China is the best option for improving the lives of millions of North Koreans.
This is another one of those issues where there are no great or easy options, but it is no longer enough for the world’s leaders to sit on their hands in the face of gross and widespread crimes against humanity.
» A version of this editorial ran recently in the Winnipeg Free Press.