How Do You Solve a Problem Like North Korea?

War and Peace


As I write this post, North Korea has declared martial law in preparation for nuclear testing. My cynical side wonders when the people of North Korea aren’t under martial law, but even so this move shows Kim Jong Un’s expectation that the international community will retaliate for the unauthorized tests. Experts expect that the test will be conducted sometime between now and the inauguration of South Korea’s newly elected president Park Gyun-Hye later this month.


For South Koreans (as well as expats living in the ROK), this is just another example of the type attention seeking, dangerous actions we have come to expect from our northern neighbor. Standing in the strange space between outrage and complacency, it has become clear that no existing strategy has worked to curb such actions. One desires to simply ignore the antagonistic temper tantrums, but then you remember the human rights violations, and the possibility that the one time you do choose to ignore North Korea is the time when it chooses to act out the loudest. 


We have come to a point where we must develop a new strategy for how to deal with countries such as North Korea. Let’s be honest, North Korea does not play by the same rules as the majority of states. It stands as one of the few states left nearly completely isolated, wrapped in its Westphalian ideals of sovereignty. It was not until this week that the country could even be viewed via Google (before and after images). It sees no outside government or international body as having any authority over its territory or how it is governed. Further, it denies any issues affecting its citizens aside from occasional food shortages.


To be blunt, barring a complete governmental takeover, this is not going to change. Kim Jong Un is not going to wake up one day, see the error of his ways and open the country’s borders. He is not going realize imprisoning people in Soviet era style gulags for being related to someone who might have listened to a foreign radio broadcast is wrong. He will always use food aid as a political bartering tool, and he will always tax it and limit its dispersal once it has been received. Some might find this to be a cynical view, but I would argue it is simply realistic. We need to be realistic if we are going to find plausible solutions.


The question remains: how do you fix a problem that doesn’t want fixing? What do you do with a country like North Korea that denies the existence of human rights violations within its borders, blatantly violates international laws, and does not recognize the authority of outside entities? Is it possible to improve the livelihood of the country's citizens and to maintain peace and security in the region?


Current efforts to address the situation in North Korea are underway. It is expected that a United Nations Commission of Inquiry will be established during the February/March 2013 session in Geneva. This commission will investigate the vast human rights violations in the country, from the prison camps to the systematic starvation of its people, to the abduction of nationals and foreign nationals. According to Human Rights Watch, “abuses are so widespread, severe and systematic that the human rights situation in this country stands in a category of its own.” Further, current UN sanctions have been strengthened and new sanctions have been implemented focused on travel bans and the freezing of assets. These additional sanctions are in reponse to the recent missile launch in direct violation of UN resolutions.  


These are great steps, specifically the Commission of Inquiry. However, a more creative strategy is needed. I do not claim to know what that strategy must look like, but I do know that as far as South Korea's involvement is concerned, both Kim Dae Jung's Sunshine Policy and Lee Myung Bak's more confrontational strategies have fallen short. This nuclear test is a perfect example. No one, not even China, has been able to convince the North Korean government to end its nuclear program. This has to change. If we continue pushing failed policies, we will continue to see poor results.


It is time for new ideas, new understandings, and new strategies. Without these, North Korea will continue to test the limits until it eventually breaks them.



Follow Corrie on Twitter @corrie_hulse



DPRK, Human Rights, North Korea, United Nations