Sub-human rights in N. Korea
When I was in high school, we had Amnesty International campaigns that the students were involved in to free Soviet political prisoners who were suffering in a gulag in the frozen tundra of Siberia.
The issue was simple then. The Evil Empire had locked up good people who were speaking out against their corrupt and repressive system of governance. And we were the good guys lending our moral, wholesome voice to shame the Soviet Union into releasing them. The issue was good versus evil, and good triumphed.
But the recent media spotlight on the fate of the North Korean refugees who were captured in China really brought home some wrenching issues for me, all of them confusing. By that, I mean I don’t know what to think, which is a strange feeling for an opinion columnist.
So, as a mental exercise to get my bearings on this issue and see where everyone is coming from, I went through all the different players involved in this complex equation and laid out their positions as I understood them.
Believe or not, North Korea is the player with the least complex perspective since their goal is plain and simple: regime stability. They have to discourage their people from streaming across the border into China because, once the discipline over movement and migration becomes lax, they won’t be able to stop the flow. This would create a massive societal dislocation that would fundamentally undermine their current system.
So, what tool does North Korean have to discourage such movement? Nothing except punishment. Since North Korea doesn’t have any carrots to entice their population to stay, they have to use physical force and threats of bodily punishment to create an atmosphere of fear that would make people think twice before attempting to cross.
China’s interest also aligns closely with North Korea’s since China doesn’t want to see Kim’s regime implode from the massive and chaotic dislocation of its population, which would probably happen if it becomes widely known among the North Korean population that they are home free once they cross the river.
This would tilt the risk equation so much that massive numbers of North Koreans, even those from the interior provinces, would do anything to get into China. And once the floodgates open, there is no stopping it since China would be flooded with a devastating infusion of hundreds of thousands of hungry and desperate North Koreans that would need to be housed and fed. China can do without such disruption; they’ve got enough problems as it is.
South Korea is a little more complex to figure out. South Korea’s biggest trading partner is China, so they don’t want to do anything to upset China. At the same time, the North Korean refuges in China are facing a real human rights crisis that the South Korean government has an ethical and ``ethnical” obligation to try to address. And it’s no secret that a reverse Inchon landing of massive numbers of North Korean refugees coming south by sea would not be a welcome sight.
As for the U.S., its main concern is – justifiably so – North Korea’s nukes. The proliferation of fissile material to non-state actors hostile to the U.S. has been the existential threat driving American policy in this region for a long time.
While the U.S. is not blind to the suffering of the starving population in North Korea, especially the children, any instability that leads to regime implosion and loss of control over nukes in North Korea is not an end-state that America can readily accept. At the same time, the U.S. can’t ignore the certain fate that the North Korean defectors would face if and when repatriated by the Chinese.
Of course, these issues as I laid out here are actually much more complex and nuanced, but they are enough to map out the overall situation. But wait, I am missing one more perspective: that of the North Koreans.
Which is my point. In all discussion on human rights, we actually talk about state interests rather than the rights of the actual ``humans” in the equation. In this case, that happens to be the North Koreans who are facing two stark choices: stay in North Korea and face starvation (or chronic malnourishment if you are lucky) or attempt to enter China and risk imprisonment and death. The motivation behind both choices is the same: fear.
So, how do we relieve their suffering and improve their quality of life? I haven’t figured that out yet, but I do know one thing. As long as all these forces are propping up the current North Korean regime from collapsing (each for their own reasons), it will be governing North Korea for the foreseeable future.
This means that North Korea’s government is both the primary abuser of human rights in North Korea but is also the only channel that the international community has to improve the situation. So, in any mitigation solution, North Korean government has to be a partner.
Ironic? Yes. Distasteful? Yes. Realistic? Perhaps not right now, but it has to be for the North Korean people to have any chance at a better life.
Jason Lim is a Washington, D.C.-based consultant in organizational leadership, culture, and change management. He has been writing for The Korea Times since 2006. He can be reached at email@example.com and on facebook.com/jasonlim2000.