We are told that North Korea is a Hermit Kingdom ─ mysterious, unknowable, and impenetrable. But this is simply not the case. Those of us involved with North Korea are acutely aware of what is happening within its borders.
We know that a famine, exacerbated by government action and inaction, deliberately starved to death between 250,000 and 3.5 million innocent North Koreans in the mid-1990s. We know that government officials routinely commit acts of torture and sexual violence upon vulnerable women and girls. We know that returned female escapees, who are often trafficked and sold into prostitution or marriage in China, and who become pregnant in the process, undergo forced abortions upon their repatriation ─ lest the ‘pure’ Korean bloodline becomes tainted. And we know that the government runs a nationwide system of concentration camps that hold up to 200,000 people.
These facts should not surprise us, rather they should inform our actions. We cannot afford not to know that the Government of North Korea has committed crimes against humanity for over six decades. To do so would be an abrogation of our duty as compassionate, free, and responsible human beings.
To talk of Yodok and Hwasong concentration camps in the same breath as Auschwitz and Belsen is not an exaggeration. North Koreans, and up to three generations of their families, have been sent to these camps for the crime of being ‘politically impure’ and many have not returned.
North Korea’s horrors should not suffer distance or time. Nor should they be far from our thoughts, because what is happening in these concentration camps is not a part of the past. Terrible atrocities and crimes against humanity are happening today in North Korea, now – as I write this, and even as you read this.
To this end, the United Kingdom’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, which I serve, continues to raise these issues. Parliaments across the world have discussed with horror the events that have unfolded in Syria, Libya, South Sudan, Yemen and elsewhere. We have contemplated the suffering of ethnic and religious minorities at the hands of Daesh and other likeminded actors. Sadly, far fewer protest about the atrocious human rights abuses and restrictions on fundamental freedoms in North Korea. This must change.
What must the world do to end suffering in North Korea? It would surely be a suspension of reason to assume that any government which keeps millions in hunger and poverty, hundreds of thousands in concentration camps, withdraws from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, violates two Agreed Frameworks, and six United Nations Security Council resolutions, would negotiate away its security in good faith. North Korea’s rulers will not be oblivious to the consequences that have befallen totalitarian regimes who initiated reforms or lessened their grips on violence.
As difficult as it may seem, there are ways and means for the governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Korea to exercise their leverage over Pyongyang. Stricter and better enforced sanctions on a raft of luxury goods; the dismissal of North Korean slave labourers in Europe and further afield; increasing information inflows to North Korean citizens; and the recognition that diplomatic relations with Pyongyang are effectively a façade, would all have notable effects. We must also do far more to convince China that the economic, political, and humanitarian costs of supporting Pyongyang outweigh any benefits.
But if there is one strategy that must be implemented, it is this: the international community should prepare for change to come to North Korea. No status quo can last forever ─ especially one as catastrophic as that which exists in North Korea ─ and we cannot afford to wait until the moment of change to react.
Examples from recent nation-state transitions evidence a need for effective preparation. We must learn from cases such as Iraq and put in place rapid response strategies for food and medical aid, and from Burma, where we have seen that democracy building is a slow, painful process, which requires persistent support over time in a coordinated manner by the international community to promote progress.
We must begin to quietly support a meaningful opposition in North Korea. We must support and train North Korean exiles in leadership roles so that they may one day take ownership of their country. And we must build support for change in North Korea among international partners.
Over a decade of concerted engagement and pressure has not significantly altered North Korea’s behaviour. Millions of its citizens continue to suffer untold abuses and hardships, while the regime continues its march towards comprehensive nuclear deterrence. It is therefore high-time to recognise our failures and to help quicken fundamental transformations inside North Korea. Change will come, that is assured, and we must be ready to help. Let us pay heed to the words of the anti-Nazi dissident, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who said that “Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility”.
This article was originally published in the Chosun Ilbo on February 14th 2017.
Fiona Bruce is Co-Chair of the United Kingdom’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, and a serving Conservative Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom.