Features | Diplomacy | East Asia

North Korea & Human Rights: Tolerating the Intolerable

With all its provocations and abuses, there is still only one realistic option for dealing with North Korea.

Clint Work
By Clint Work for
North Korea & Human Rights: Tolerating the Intolerable
Credit: REUTERS/KCNA

The UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry report on the DPRK by the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) revealed in excruciating detail the horrors that are a regular part of the Kim Dynasty’s repressive rule. The systematic abuse of human rights by the regime is extensive, intensive, and appalling. Nevertheless, the report should not come as a surprise to those engaged with North Korea or, for that matter, anyone who is familiar with DPRK history. The report is also, as things currently stand, without consequence. The operative phrase here is “as things currently stand.” The report and others like it are crucial in terms of post-unification transitional justice, if and when unification comes on South Korean terms. Unfortunately, until then, the report and its recommendations are simply nonstarters. This is the case for several salient reasons.

First, in terms of taking Kim Jung-un and the perpetrators of these crimes to the ICC, China openly stated before the report was even released that it would not allow such a step. Because the DPRK is not a signatory to the Rome Statue, the ICC requires a referral from the UN Security Council in order to gain the jurisdiction necessary to prosecute the DPRK. China’s rhetorical (and real) veto stops the process before it begins. From Beijing’s perspective this is both consistent and reasonable. Second, even if Beijing permitted such a step and the ICC found the perpetrators guilty, it would have no impact on the leadership in Pyongyang, as it did not with Sudanese President Omar Bashir. Third, the recommendations in the report that are directed at the Kim regime are equally as fanciful. If followed, such reforms would bring about nothing short of the fundamental transformation of the regime. Again, much of the world may desire a wholesale reversal of the DPRK’s internal and external policies, but it is foolhardy to expect such a self-derived shift. Fourth, even the U.S. faces real difficulties in integrating human rights concerns in its denuclearization effort. Incorporating human rights would complicate already stalled Six-Party talks as well as prove counter-productive by aggravating China. This leaves us where we began, with a seemingly intolerable state of affairs that calls for something to be done, but with little in the way of realistic or practicable options. So, where to from here?

For the sake of argument let us explore the broad range of policy options: 1) complete isolation of the regime; 2) enhanced external pressure, culminating in full-scale military invasion, with the intent of bringing the regime down; 3) engagement on several levels. This set of policy options applies to several state and nonstate actors dealing with North Korea.

The first option, complete isolation of the Kim Dynasty, is not really an option at all. There are several explanations for this. First, larger states within the region including China and Russia will continue to engage the DPRK for a variety of reasons, from strategically driven economic engagement in fledgling Special Economic Zones (SEZs) to concern over the potential for massive instability caused by rapid and/or violent regime collapse. The latter is a central concern for Beijing, which goes a long way to explaining its reticence to pressure the DPRK and its willingness to help prop up the regime with sufficient trade and aid. Consistent with this, China-DPRK trade is up from last year, despite (or because of) concerns over the execution of Jang Song-thaek last December. Nor is the South Korean government amenable to the isolation of the North, manifest in its own involvement in the aforementioned economic projects, the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the historical unity of the Korean Peninsula, and the shared concern with Beijing over peninsular stability. Washington is also unlikely to leave the regime isolated over its concerns with the DPRK’s nuclear and missile programs as well as its trade in illicit materials.

The second option involves greater external pressure, ranging from increased sanctions to full-scale invasion. This option, like complete isolation, is also not really an option. First, while China is undoubtedly concerned with the DPRK’s overly risk-accepting and aggressive behavior, it is far more concerned with preserving stability on the peninsula. Thus, Beijing has become less tolerant of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests and has abstained from vetoing certain sanctions on the Security Council, yet it has simultaneously refrained from obstructing Chinese firms in Northeast China from increasing their commercial trade with the beleaguered regime. Furthermore, regarding human rights, Beijing wants to avoid being held accountable for its complicity in the Kim Dynasty’s crimes; namely its practice of forcibly returning defectors back across the Yalu. Add to this Beijing’s longstanding aversion to any discussion of human rights directed at its own internal abuses. Second, full-scale invasion, the most extreme form of pressure, is also patently absurd. Let us further test this idea.

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The current situation as it stands with the DPRK is one without a military solution. Not only does the maxim “if you break it you own it” (as Paul Whitefield recently noted) apply, but a far a more obvious reason persists. That is, the DPRK has nuclear weapons. No revolution in military affairs is going to guarantee with absolute certainty that such weapons will be eliminated before North Korea could use them. Moreover, the U.S. itself, despite its heavily militarized orientation toward the North, has prevented the ROK from taking escalatory actions in response to what are normally considered acts of war. As Daniel Pinkston writes: “The U.S. political and military leaderships are unwilling to fight a full-scale war in Korea over the shooting down of an aircraft, the sinking of a ship, the insertion of KPA Special Forces for limited operations, or firing artillery on a fishing village.” Bruce Cuming’s describes the U.S. presence as dual deterrence or civil-war deterrence, meaning the simultaneous deterrence of North Korea from starting a conflagration and of South Korea from escalating it. What is more, nuclear weapons notwithstanding, even the DRPK’s conventional capabilities (though dated and far less advanced than U.S. and ROK arsenals) make very real Pyongyang’s threat to turn Seoul into “a sea of fire.” Though an all-out conflict would likely bring about the end of the DPRK as a sovereign state, it would very likely inflict immense damage on the South Korean capital, threaten Tokyo, and potentially bring about larger instability in the region before its demise. In sum, bringing the regime down through greater pressure is not possible, both because key regional powers will not allow it and the military option is untenable in any rational (and moral) calculation. The very real potential for even greater human suffering and destruction is simply too prohibitive a risk. This leaves the third option, engagement.

Engagement should not be interpreted as simply diplomatic engagement. Although diplomacy should not be entirely jettisoned, it appears that traditional diplomacy with the Kim Dynasty is of limited utility. The DPRK is not going to give up its nukes. Pyongyang saw what happened to Gadhafi when he gave up his program and to Saddam when he did not have one. The U.S. demand that the DPRK denuclearize is a nonstarter in Pyongyang for as long as the current regime is in power. Even Beijing’s recent mention of denuclearization as the goal will fall on deaf ears. In this sense, the Six Party Talks appear futile. However, this is not a reason to abandon them. If for no other reason, the talks are valuable insofar as they provide a framework within which interested parties address their shared and divergent perspectives. That said, we must broaden our conception of engagement – one more commensurate with just how extraordinary this situation is.

The DPRK is truly unlike any other state (in the words of the UN Panel of Experts, a state “that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”). Although constantly referred to as a failed Stalinist state, even that moniker does not go far enough. As Andrei Lankov’s work clearly shows, the DPRK (from Great Leader Kim Il Sung, to Dear Leader Kim Jung Il, to Supreme Leader Kim Jung Un) successfully “out-Stalined” Stalin himself. The restrictions on personal movement, the Inminban (neighborhood watch) system, the hierarchical and entrenched Songbun class structure, and the ubiquitous organizational life within the DPRK all make for a world unrecognizable to most outsiders, from a Chinese communist in capitalist garb to a Western Liberal. And while these restrictions loosened in the 1990s due to internal economic breakdown and widespread famine, they continue to prove crucial for both the Kim Dynasty and its elite courtiers to retain their place atop the miserable North Korean masses.

This repressive structure is underpinned by a radical domestic ideology, characterized by some as a mix of Confucian and Marxist-Leninist thought, by others (such as B.R. Meyers) as an extremist right-wing, race-based worldview with roots in Japanese ethno-fascist thought. These debates aside, DPRK state ideology is characterized both by its severe insularity from the external world yet indebtedness to the same. As Bruce Cumings correctly argues, the regime is at once deeply anti-colonial, profoundly nationalist (and xenophobic), yet still rooted in Japanese imperial symbolism. The point is that the ruling regime in Pyongyang has no intent whatsoever to change according to the demands of human rights groups or the wider international community. To do so would be tantamount to suicide. And while not risk-averse or quiescent, the Kim Dynasty is anything but suicidal. Its hold on power is what defines it. To loosen is to die. Thus, engagement must involve taking more seriously this inflexibility.

The world has never seen anything as Orwellian as the DPRK. Thus, to antagonize it over human rights or even weapons development, neither of which (by its own ideological underpinnings and strategic calculus) it will ever stop, is futile. What we are left with instead is an immensely displeasing reality of pushing for slow, patient change, which is not noticeable in the short term and involves the smallest of advances here and there. This means circus shows like Rodman’s are actually good things, at least in the sense that they could go on to foster future sports exchanges. The problem is that pundits, policymakers and even scholars let their visceral dislike of the regime prevent them from taking their critique of the regime to its full extent. The DPRK truly is insular and hermetic; its governance is horrific. Thus, anything that exposes people within North Korea to another view is a good thing. Any kind of exchange or message that clashes with official doctrine is positive.

Energy should be put into pushing all types of exchange across the Yalu and Tumen, from SEZs to any and all socio-cultural exchange. This activity is often economically irrational and wasteful, provides much-needed resources for the regime to stay afloat, and is always used as a propaganda victory by the Kim dynasty (as is literally everything that happens). Engagement here is not engagement in search of economic returns or in the hope of touching off laissez-faire reforms (i.e. capitalism with North Korean characteristics). The DPRK’s capricious rule prevents the sort of credibility of commitment that is a prerequisite for the efficient allocation of resources; sudden breach of contract and/or expropriation by the regime is a constant risk. Pyongyang permits special economic zones as a predatory regime looking to gain resources to further solidify its rapacious rule. As long as those who rule in Pyongyang remain in place, they will not make the changes that Deng Xiaoping and the Chinese did. Rather, the objective is to plant the seeds for as many crosscutting forces (vis-à-vis regime dictates) as possible, in order to foster contradictions within the interstices of an Orwellian nightmare. Over time, this could give rise to non-regime forces that cannot be stopped by the regime but that emanate from within the DPRK itself.

Engagement in this sense does not include treating the regime in Pyongyang as an equal or normal state (in traditional diplomatic terms) or in fully maligning the regime through intense pressure. Neither option is practicable or worthwhile. Instead, the regime should be treated as it is: namely, as a very distasteful and nuclear-armed state, with an entrenched ruling elite whose worldview prevents it from changing. This sort of engagement is not flashy work. It is seemingly fitful and ineffective, but it is the best of several bad or non-existent options. Pushing the regime further has obvious limits: Beijing will not permit it, there is no military option, and collapse is not necessarily an unqualified good because of the enormous imponderables related to power vacuums, loose nukes, and the nature of what proceeds the collapse – not to mention the possibility of even greater repercussions.

Caveats and Closing

The discussion of the DPRK’s ideology is not to be confused as support for the notion that the DPRK is “irrational.” In fact, it is anything but. The leaders in Pyongyang may be some of the most calculating in the world. North Korea represents an extreme example of Peter Gourevitch’s second-image reversed theory, wherein the international system is not simply an expression of domestic structures but, in fact, a cause of them. This is not to argue that the DPRK can be forgiven its many crimes because the external environment has simply dictated its internal make-up. That would be pure apologia. However, it is clear that leaders in Pyongyang shrewdly calculate their interests based on shifting external dynamics. The domestic ideology is simply the prism through which these dynamics are translated.

The military-first (Songun) policy is a clear outgrowth of the enormous shift brought about by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Seoul’s clear ascendancy in the battle for inter-Korean legitimacy, and the diplomatic isolation Pyongyang faced with the end of the Cold War. There are internal explanations as well, including the longstanding breakdown of a very unproductive and inefficient economic system, the consequent need to channel the remaining scarce resources to the ultimate backers of regime power, and a preexisting, heavily militarized state structure. In this sense, then, Pyongyang is still a “rational actor,” albeit a deeply idiosyncratic one. Therefore, intense pressure is counterproductive but deterrence should also remain in place. Beijing itself has clearly drawn a line regarding the North’s risk-acceptant behavior.

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The above discussion is also in no way meant to disparage or question the significance of human rights work done by the UN and other NGOs. As noted, the recent report is critical for post-unification justice. Moreover, the work done by the UN and other groups helps provide insight regarding the internal workings of a very opaque country. This work becomes even more valuable when considering the enormous uncertainties surrounding regime collapse and reunification. All the information the outside world can attain beforehand will help in addressing the enormity of the task if and when such events come to pass. So, instead of putting greater pressure on the regime in the hopes of precipitating fundamental change or collapse (the obstacles to which have been examined above), the focus should be on planning for the event. This has already begun.

The powerful and contradictory combination of voluntarism and inevitability underpinning Western liberalism and, in turn, universal human rights must come to terms with the fact that the world cannot always be molded to fit good intentions, no matter how much power stands behind them. My sentiment is with those who work tirelessly for universal human rights. Their work is both profoundly admirable and immensely important. And while history is littered with dastardly examples of the failure to act, this may be one situation in which pushing too hard results in greater suffering. Tragically, we are left in the meantime tolerating the intolerable.

Clint Work is a Seoul-based writer focusing on Northeast Asian international relations, history and political economy, U.S. foreign policy in North East Asia, and U.S.-Korean relations.