There is no Vaclav Havel of North Korea. Don’t expect to turn up a Solidarity-like trade union or a Democracy Wall movement on your next visit to Pyongyang. Nor, as far as anyone can tell, is a North Korean version of Boris Yeltsin or even Mikhail Gorbachev waiting in the wings to shake up the ruling party. Leader Kim Jong Il is pushing ahead with economic reform, and the number of cell phones—to quote one index of change—has gone from zero to 20,000 in the last few years. But as you might imagine from its woeful lack of political diversity, North Korea’s human rights situation remains dismal—prison camps, summary executions and virtually no freedom of speech, assembly or press.
Although human rights organizations have not been able to monitor the situation within North Korea, reports from defectors and refugees converge to a remarkable degree. Minus some exaggerations or misrepresentations at the margins, there is little disagreement about the state of North Korean affairs. Consensus on what to do about the problem, however, remains elusive.
North Korea Freedom Act
Neoconservatives in the United States have a simple answer: squeeze North Korea until the current government collapses. But restricting trade and preventing the country from joining international financial institutions is not enough. A bill pending in the Senate—the North Korea Freedom Act—aims to encourage refugee flow out of the country as well as increase the bandwidth of information flow into the country. It also attempts to tie human rights to any bilateral agreements. This strategy draws inspiration from “Scoop” Jackson, a conservative Democrat from Washington state, who argued during the U.S.-Soviet detente of the ’70s in favor of linking human rights to arms control treaties—as much to uplift the former as to wreck the chances of the latter.
The North Korea Freedom Act largely skirts the issue of regime change. Supporters are not so shy about their intentions, though. A coalition of evangelical Christians and right-wing organizations such as the Defense Forum Foundation and Concerned Women of America gathered in Washington, D.C. on April 28 to press for passage. In front of several hundred people, Senate co-sponsor Sam Brownback, R-Kan., invoked genocide by comparing the situation in North Korea to the Holocaust and the slaughter in Rwanda, and urged the government to respond accordingly. A North Korean defector—who predicted that the bill’s passage would trigger regime collapse—called on North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to commit suicide. In the audience, a jubilant couple from Pennsylvania told me that they dream of going to North Korea one day. “We want to see the people there,” said Laura and Greg McDonald, “and get them the word of God, because that’s the real freedom.”
Linking an improvement in human rights to the collapse of the regime is flawed for several reasons. For instance, the absence of civil society in North Korea suggests that pressures from the outside will not find an immediately receptive ear among the citizenry. Indeed, given North Korean nationalism and deep-seated anti-Americanism, an attempt to impose an “alien” system may well backfire. Conversely, appeals for citizens of North Korea to rise up against the government might lead not to the velvet revolution of Prague 1989 but the bloody, thwarted uprising of Basra 1991. Increasing information flow by, for instance, ballooning in radios might lead to the execution of the hapless North Koreans who happen upon those radios not intercepted by the military. Large refugee outflows, meanwhile, may only strengthen the regime, as happened in Cuba and Vietnam.
Even if the regime does soon collapse—and this is a big assumption since North Korea has defied predictions for about 15 years now—the human rights situation still may not improve as a result. Without opposition movements or any tradition of democracy, an even more hard-line faction could take over in Pyongyang. Regime collapse could trigger an enormous humanitarian crisis that would put millions of malnourished citizens at even greater risk. And a breakdown of government in a highly militarized society would combine guns and chaos in ways inimical to everyone’s human rights (not to mention the uncertain fate of whatever weapons of mass destruction exist in the country).
In other words, like the Vietnam strategy of burning a hamlet to save it or the Iraq strategy of accepting the “collateral damage” of dead civilians to liberate the country, the Bush administration’s approach to North Korea human rights may well put the intended beneficiaries at greater risk in order to achieve a larger and putatively nobler cause.
Hypocrisy On Human Rights
To outside observers, American policy on human rights looks less like moral clarity than a bad case of double standards. The Bush administration has continued the U.S. tradition of focusing on the human rights of some and not others. For our allies in the war on terrorism—Pakistan, Indonesia, Uzbekistan—human rights has taken a back seat to military aid and trade. When the United States needed China’s support last year for the war on Iraq, the administration conveniently neglected to introduce a resolution on the human rights situation in the country at the UN Human Rights Commission (this year, to deny the Democrats an easy campaign issue, the administration dusted off its resolution because of Chinese “backsliding”).
As Julie Mertus amply demonstrates in her forthcoming book Bait and Switch: Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy, the United States has also steadfastly refused to apply human rights standards to itself—either rejecting human rights treaties or applying reservations so far-reaching that the Senate might as well have rejected the treaties in the first place. U.S. actions at Guantanamo, in Afghanistan and increasingly in Iraq suggest that the mote in our own eye is growing to blinding proportions.
Other Ways To Help North Koreans
For North Korea, there are alternatives. The European Union has raised human rights questions with Pyongyang, but within a framework of diplomatic engagement. South Korea, which has rejected the policy of absorption by force, aims to address the economic impoverishment of its northern neighbor—and thus, the right to food—before moving on to civil and political rights. Meanwhile, South Korean civil society has begun to press the issue of human rights in the North, and not only organizations affiliated with the conservative parties. Lee Daehoon, writing last October for the progressive People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, called on the South Korean left to ” to develop and present feasible programs to improve human rights in the north.” More recently, an April 17 statement by several prominent South Korean human rights organizations including Sarangbang, Good Friends and Lawyers for a Democratic Society assailed the U.S. Congress for threatening the current negotiations with North Korea and “jeopardizing the chance to improve human rights conditions in North Korea.”
Inconsistent and hypocritical, the United States has become evangelical in its policy on North Korean human rights. This evangelism certainly has a Christian tinge from the faith-based approach of the current administration. But the neocons in Washington have a much wider sense of mission: to save the souls of North Koreans by changing their government. Whether most North Koreans share this mission or are willing to risk the consequences is not a concern of the Washington missionaries. They will flirt with apocalypse to get the rapture of regime change, and North Koreans—who have suffered so much already—will bear the brunt of it.
TomPaine, May 10, 2004