Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

North Korea: Clear Evil, No Clear Solutions

Judd Birdsall


June 15, 2012

By Judd Birdsall

The recent publication of Escape from Camp 14, the best-selling true story of a man who was born and raised inside a notorious prison camp, has increased international attention on the world’s most egregious violator of human rights: North Korea. Attention, however, does not necessarily beget answers. Solutions to the North Korean human rights problem remain as elusive as the country’s 28-year-old dictator.

What is clear is the abject evil of the North Korean system. Nothing is morally ambiguous about a regime that widely uses torture, infanticide, forced labor, arbitrary detention and public execution to crush all dissent. Fusing the worst elements of Japanese imperialism and Soviet communism, North Korea exerts pervasive control over its pitiable population and enforces a mandatory cult of personality exalting the Kim family—the world’s only hereditary communist dynasty.

The magnitude of the malevolence is heartrending. During my years of service in the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, I heard countless, painful stories of human tragedy. But the only time I ever cried was in a meeting with North Korean defectors. Tears streamed down my face as the brave men and women recounted their daily struggle for survival—foraging for grass, tree bark and rats—in a land they had been taught to believe was a socialist paradise.

Some of these defectors spoke sorrowfully of family members and friends who had been sentenced to one of North Korea’s many political prison camps. The regime denies the existence of the camps, but they are clearly visible on Google Earth. Some cover hundreds of square miles. The State Department estimates that upwards of 200,000 people—or 1 percent of the entire North Korean population—live out miserable existences as ill-treated, malnourished slave laborers in the gulag. Christians make up a disproportionate percentage of the prison population and are reportedly singled out for particularly severe punishment.

North Korea’s Orwellian nightmare has sparked divergent responses within the international community. The approach taken by most human rights organizations has involved some combination of public condemnation, awareness-raising and covert assistance to people inside North Korea. Many organizations also support and empower the 23,000-strong defector community now residing in South Korea.

On the other end of the spectrum are governments and humanitarian groups that pursue private negotiations and provide overt aid to North Korea. They more or less “buy” goodwill and access to the country by giving assistance. When opportunities arise, they may use private meetings to present the regime with face-saving policy alternatives.

Both approaches have strengths and weaknesses. The former has galvanized international coalitions to lobby sympathetic governments and multilateral organizations (United Nations, European Union, etc.) to press for reforms in North Korea. However, such pressure may be counterproductive, as international criticism feeds directly into the regime’s xenophobic propaganda. And while clandestine assistance directly helps those most in need, the transporters and recipients of the secret aid place themselves in grave danger.

The engagement-oriented approach also has a mixed record. Closed-door negotiations have led to some modest improvements, such as expanded access for humanitarian groups like Samaritan’s Purse. But the regime has proven to be a fickle negotiating partner. In the give and take of diplomacy, North Korea always takes more than it gives. Similarly, the provision of aid, particularly food, has saved thousands of lives but also props up a regime that takes thousands of lives and causes misery for millions. North Korea’s constant food shortages are the fruit of its own disastrous economic and agricultural policies.

In communist North Korea the problems are easy to spot, but the solutions are not. Neither pressure nor engagement can be presented as a silver bullet to the exclusion of the other. Neither has made much difference to date. But both pressure and engagement—and everything in between—are needed to solve a problem as immense and complex as North Korea. The key is coordination. Successful promotion of human rights requires mutual awareness, respect and partnership among the varied actors—with their varied approaches—that share the common goal.

Pressure and engagement, working in tandem over many years, have finally convinced the Burmese junta to begin opening up to the outside world and allow democratic elections. While the North Korean regime shows no sign of easing its repression, the current “Burmese Spring” gives us hope that the combined forces of justice can prevail in even in the darkest places.   

—Judd Birdsall is a fellow with the Institute for Global Engagement and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge. From 2007 to 2011 he covered North Korea and other East Asian countries for the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom.


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