This year has and will deliver continental-sized shifts in the global political landscape. New administrations in the United States and the Republic of Korea, major changes to China’s Politburo Standing Committee, and ongoing political flux across Europe will reposition our known political compass points. But one of the biggest changes looks likely to come from a small corner of north-east Asia, namely North Korea.
Pyongyang’s recent tests of ballistic missiles and the suspected murder of Kim Jong Nam should come as no surprise to global policymakers. North Korea has been on a deliberate march toward nuclear deterrence since the 1960s, while its support and participation in acts of terror have grown in stature and frequency in recent years.
Given the current political condition in which South Korea finds itself, Pyongyang appears to sense an opportunity to cement itself as Asia’s immovable force. The terrorisation of its nationals abroad is a deliberate part of this strategy.
How will our changed world respond to North Korea? Diplomatic overtures in recent years have lacked the urgency, intimate knowledge, and policy coherence which has been required. I have seen first-hand how many states, particularly in Europe, appear to believe that North Korea’s nuclear weapons (not to mention its human rights violations) could be negotiated away for political or economic reasons.
But as Nicholas Eberstadt recently explained to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “Sovereign governments simply do not trade away their vital national interests.” It is beyond the realm of reason to think that a North Korean Government that keeps millions in hunger and poverty, hundreds of thousands in concentration camps, has withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, violated two International Atomic Energy Agency agreements, two Agreed Frameworks, and six United Nations Security Council resolutions, would willingly negotiate away its only bargaining chip.
“Engagement and dialogue can and do work in many situations. North Korea is not one of those situations.”
Engagement and dialogue can and do work in many situations. North Korea is not one of those situations. North Korea’s rulers cannot put an end to their policies of human rights abuses. Nor can they relinquish their nuclear program. They are not ignorant of the costs of Libya’s rollback of its nuclear ambitions. Nor are they oblivious to the consequences that befell totalitarian regimes who initiated social and economic reforms or lessened their grips on violence.
Calls for negotiations with Pyongyang grow louder by the day, but we must not let reason yield to misplaced hope. The North Korean Government has repeatedly stated that it will not relinquish its nuclear weapons. Why doubt this? For North Korea’s elite, promises of personal wealth, immunity from war crimes, or foreign economic investment count for naught. They have the blood of millions of innocent people on their hands which cannot be washed away. They know that with reform will come retribution.
Given recent developments, the former UK Ambassador to North Korea, David Slinn, posed the question: “Is it possible to even think of negotiating with [somebody] who believes it is OK to use a deadly nerve gas in public in a foreign country?” North Korea’s new tools of lethal intent clearly demonstrate one point: that it will seek survival at any cost. The world cannot continue to endure such an existential threat. It is high-time that we adopt a new and radical approach.
It is taboo, yet entirely reasonable to expect states to initiate policies that seek the demise of the North Korean regime in a controlled and non-violent manner. No status quo can last forever, especially one as catastrophic as that which exists in North Korea, and any effective foreign policy should acknowledge this point.
“No status quo can last forever, especially one as catastrophic as that which exists in North Korea, and any effective foreign policy should acknowledge this point.”
The rise of the Cheollima Civil Defense, an underground and seemingly powerful group that operates inside and outside of North Korea to save the lives of its vulnerable citizens, suddenly allows us place our hope in a revolutionary actor who tells us that change is not just conceivable, for it already exists. This group’s brave actions, which have been supported by the governments of the US, China, and the Netherlands, should be supported more widely.
As a member of the UK’s International Development Select Committee, I know it is vital for a network of international experts to commit to planning the rebuilding of vital infrastructure and services in North Korea. We must learn from cases such as Iraq and put in place rapid response strategies in the event of regime failure in North Korea 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. The governments of the US, UK, South Korea, and European powers are in strong positions to begin this urgent task today.
“The time to speak out against North Korea has, to a certain extent, already been and gone. History will judge those who turned a blind-eye, appeased North Korea, or disempowered the exiled community. Soon, actions and not words may be crucial if millions of North Koreans are to be saved.”
The time to speak out against North Korea has, to a certain extent, already been and gone. History will judge those who turned a blind-eye, appeased North Korea, or disempowered the exiled community. Soon, actions and not words may be crucial if millions of North Koreans are to be saved. Unification, democratization, marketization — these can all come later. First, we must carefully consider how we can help free North Koreans.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the anti-Nazi dissident, proclaimed that “Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.” This is especially true in the case of North Korea. When change arrives, governments, civil society, and other stakeholders, including the United Nations, should be ready for the responsibility that Bonhoeffer described. Bonhoeffer was executed at Flossenbürg concentration camp in April 1945, just one month before the liberation of Germany. The same fate must not befall those in North Korea’s concentration camps. We may only have one chance to help North Koreans reclaim their country; and it is a chance that we must not surrender.
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.
*A version of this article was originally published in the Korea Times on March 28th 2017.