In the ‘new world order’ of the 21st Century, western states sell wars as the takedown of tyrants in the name of morality. George W Bush called for war in Iraq to remove the “homicidal dictator” Saddam Hussein and “liberate the Iraqi people”. Obama justified intervention in Libya to stop the “colonial crusader” Gaddafi, who “brutally repressed” and forced a humanitarian crisis on his own people. Recently in Syria, Obama has similarly argued that Assad “must go” after “escalating repression” against civilians.
Yet, in this age of international human rights, where cosmopolitanism justifies interventionism, North Korea and Kim Jong Un’s regime remain untouched. Despite United Nations commissions detailing their human rights abuses, there has been little call for intervention like that in Syria. Rather, Western nations appear to pick and choose whose humanity is worth fighting for, suggesting the entire rhetoric is redundant in justifying aggression.
It is widely accepted that human rights abuses in North Korea, as US Ambassador Samantha Power says, “are some of the worst in the world”. The 2014 UN Report of the Commission on Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK contained 372 pages detailing only some of these abuses. The report covered the systematic oppression North Korean citizens face every day: food deprivation – with 28% of children under 5 classed as chronically malnourished, no right to travel, no freedom of speech and no right to life.
North Korean prison camps, the Kwanliso (관리소), have existed nearly as long as the country has, and they are so well known that Google Maps shows them. Escapees have likened them to Nazi concentration camps. Kang Chol-Hwan (강철환), who was in Yodok (요덕) camp for 10 years, stated “fundamentally, it is the same as Hitler’s Auschwitz.” Citizens and their families who commit political offenses, including insulting the dear leader, can be sent to camps where they face torture, starvation, rape and death. There are currently over 200,000 prisoners, and estimates indicate over 400,000 have died in incarceration. The Kim regime does not aim to eradicate a religious or ethnic entity, but targets the ‘hostile class’ for no reasons other than political alignment, familial history or perceived disobedience.
fundamentally, it is the same as Hitler’s Auschwitz
Nevertheless, while Assad “must go”, Kim Jong Un has suffered nothing more than an international scolding. Boycotts, sanctions and the current so-called threat of International Criminal Court hearings have not reduced human rights abuses, which North Korea actively denies. So why, in an age where human rights justify foreign intervention, does North Korea get a free pass?
On one hand, while we accept that the Kim regime is abusive to its own people, the abuses are not perceived as ‘horrific’ enough to warrant action. North Korea’s isolationist policies prevent information about human rights abuses from reaching our discussions. Heartbreaking images that mobilize people around a cause, from ‘Napalm Girl’ to Kevin Carter’s image of famine in Sudan, have not surfaced from North Korea, where oppression has become an accepted norm. Prisoners’ sketches and satellite images do not pull at heartstrings in the same way as a photo of a dead boy on a beach.
Western nations are not only culturally different and thus disassociated with North Korea, but satirize the entire country and its political system to the point where people’s sufferings are nothing more than a punchline. From films like Team America to The Interview, North Korea is treated like a joke, trivializing human suffering until it is ignored. While Charlie Chaplin’s The Dictator is, in retrospect, criticized for mimicking Hitler’s regime for entertainment, North Korea remains ‘funny’ and is used to get laughs by comedians such as Jimmy Fallon, John Oliver and Margaret Cho. No one will support humanitarian action against North Korea if they cannot take the sufferings of its people seriously.
This aside, there is an overarching reason that humanitarian intervention has not occurred in North Korea – humanitarian rhetoric is a smokescreen used to draw support for wars that fundamentally are driven by power, resources and interests.
humanitarian rhetoric is a smokescreen
Wars of expansion and aggression, which have reigned as the norm for hundreds of years, are no longer acceptable in the modern state system where sovereignty rules and borders are seen as permanent, especially by the West. Wars in the name of protecting interests, such as oil or expanding geopolitical influence, are not justified in their own right. Hussein was forced out of Kuwait in 1991 and Russia still faces sanctions after annexing Crimea.
However, actors still fight for power, they just increasingly use humanitarian rhetoric to justify aggression to the public and to the world. Bush relied on humanitarian rhetoric to justify Iraq but most agree that the war was actually about control over oil and influence. In 2008, Russia invoked the “responsibility to protect” to intervene in Georgia, which holds resources and geopolitical significance. Crisis in Libya, and now in Syria, puts American-invested oil and regional influence at risk.
Politically, strategically and economically, aggressors stood to gain from these ‘humanitarian’ acts. However, North Korea does not have a wealth of resources desired by the West, nor does it have a unique geopolitical significance considering both South Korea and Japan are seen as allies. Furthermore, many military analysts agree North Korea poses no actual threat – the USA has even stated it is “fully capable” of stopping North Korean missiles. So while up to 3.5 million died in a state-exacerbated famine in the 1990s, and systematic repression is embedded into everyday North Korean life, lacking interests and threat deem intervention unnecessary.
systematic repression is embedded into everyday North Korean life
Furthermore, some argue that Western nations want the Kim regime to continue. Having an unstable dictator located next to South Korea and Japan, two allied countries, gives the USA an excuse to retain their military presence in the region, geopolitically counterbalancing Russia and China. Furthermore, Western countries use Kim’s dangerous leadership to justify retaining and even increasing their own nuclear fleets. David Cameron continues to justify Trident as defense against North Korea, despite military analysts’ repetition that the threat is over-exaggerated.
This is not to recommend intervention in North Korea, rather to suggest that the use of people’s sufferings to justify aggression overseas is nothing more than an excuse. North Korea’s human rights abuses are abundant, and 29 million people have to live through its Orwellian dystopia every day. Yet since intervention would hold no political, economical or strategic benefits, human rights abuses do not warrant violence. If countries pick and chose who gets to benefit from our aggressive cosmopolitan rhetorics, the notion of humanitarianism becomes defunct. Countries are selfish, not selfless, and we must remember this when leaders use moral reasonings to validate violence.