Friday, February 21, 2014

Five Things About the UN Report on North Korea And Two About The Future

At long last, North Korea headlines contain neither the words "Nuclear" nor "Dennis Rodman.” The UN has released a report. Along with this video.

Powerful stuff.

You can read summaries of the UN’s new report… going so far as to compare North Korea to the Nazis. (SummarySummaryOriginal source A call to action with no specifics [reminds me of the video below].) Some of the best-known talking heads haven’t weighed in yet -- please put links to them in the comments when they come out, because I'm very interested.

The contents of the report are grim. Even the summaries are, but if you follow 
North Korea sources like LINK, you knew about this. Three minutes of googling will do it. "Born and Raised in a North Korean Concentration Camp"

The following bullet points, then, are some things I’ve learned, or thought about, that seem relevant in light of the latest report. I may be wrong about any or all of them, because nobody knows dick-all about North Korea, compared to any other country in the world, but feel free to let me know how wrong I am in the comments!

1. The UN doesn't have the power, resources, or consensus to actually do something about these findings, and with Russia and China on the security council, won’t until North Korea openly attacks someone, or slips into actual chaos. An intervention would risk the UN having a failed state on its hands, and that’s messy. A failed state on someone else's hands? Messy… but buck-passing and finger-pointing are how politicians get their exercise. The “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine sounds nice, but it’s toothless right now.

2. Kim Jong-eun has seen that video of Saddam Hussein’s hanging. This report reminds him he probably faces a crimes against humanity charge if his country opens up to the international community. Big disincentive, that. With this, the chance he’ll do desperate things to hold power increases. Counterbalancing that… he’s also doubtless seen that video of Muammar Gadaffi being found by his angry former subjects, and not even surviving to face the ICJ. So...


3. Beyond that endgame, this will change nothing in North Korea. Pundits have been heralding the regime’s fall since Kim Il Sung presided, always incorrectly. Maybe the execution of Jang Song-taek really was the Kim regime's last card to play… but we’ve been guessing wrong about which card is the Kim dynasty’s last for a generation now. The analysts look like Mr. Bean in church.

4. Sunshine didn’t work. Sanctions don’t either. For everybody who thinks it’s time to finally get tough with North Korea… pull your heads out of your asses. To begin with, North Korea has alienated itself from the world so severely already that it now has nothing to lose from continuing with the histrionics. To boot, its leaders use the world’s hostility to ensure internal stability, and you know what? The “tough love” posture from abroad works great for consolidating domestic power. The Nork propaganda machine gets to keep proclaiming a state of perpetual existential threat, which continues to justify the military first policy and all manner of deprivations. To everyone arguing that unconditional aid propped up an evil regime: maybe. But there is more than one way to prop up an evil regime and unremitting hostility and alienation creates conditions which lend North Korea’s leadership more legitimacy and a stronger mandate than they would otherwise have in the eyes of its citizens. And revolution will begin and end with those citizens, and effective policy needs to be geared toward that fact, not towards the emotional satisfaction of getting payback for all those bad things they did.

5. Outside of North Korea, this report is a good thing, because of positioning: the UN won’t do anything directly, and not much will change in North Korea, but it will make it much much harder for those South Korean politicians who want to talk past North Korean human rights issues. It will put China further in the wrong when it supports North Korea rather than pushing for change there. This report tightens the screws on anybody who still wants to ignore or trivialise the human rights crisis going on, and shines a harsh spotlight back where the attention should be, even though Dennis Rodman and nuclear testing sell more papers.

What’s next?

I agree with analysts who hold that any fundamental change to the North Korean state must come from the North Korean people. Without them, it will have no legitimacy, and any intervention without the consent of the citizenry would be fought against with the intensity of three generations of Kim Il Sung-scented brainwashing. The question is not “What can the world do to help North Korea” but “How can the world empower North Koreans to demand a different kind of country for themselves.” Thinking of the issue in those terms creates a very different set of policy and aid priorities than reacting to the histrionics of the the Grand Mucky-muck On Top.

And a final thought: the one that haunts me.

I liked Paul Whitefield’s reflection (LA Times) on how hollow the words “Never again” - referencing the holocaust - ring now. With the Nazi concentration camps, almost nobody actually knew about them. Almost everybody could defend themselves with “We didn’t know.”

With North Korea, we knew. We knew and we knew, and we ignored it. And this is what haunts me about North Korea’s condition: that one day, the surviving North Koreans will confront the world, and ask, “Why didn’t you do anything?” The media used their country’s condition to sell newspapers and ad space, but ignored mass starvation and concentration camps. South Korean politicians cynically used North Koreans' lives as a political wedge issue. No apology will be enough. With Auschwitz not even gone from living memory, we have let this happen again, to our shame as a species.

But this report is also an opportunity, because finally, though far too late, we are actually talking about it. Let’s hope something comes out of that. I’m not holding my breath.

Update: The Korean Foreigner has written a reply to parts of this article, titled "Moral Duty To Help North Koreans?" (his answer is none)


Roboseyo said...

Dunno if you saw B. R. Myers' recent piece (not sure if it's related to the UN report or not):

Roboseyo said...

Hadn't. Thanks!

Roboseyo said...

I see only two answers regarding the Northern neighbors: one is a violent storm, the other is to step aside and let them wall themselves in even further. I say let them be Burma, unnoticed and unimportant.

It's horrible what they're doing to their own people, and it is a dangerous game one plays with them. But those camps aren't on our hands, not as much as the blood of Seoullites is fated to be should we seek an active solution.