It seems like January is the month when my thoughts are steered toward the plight of the people of North Korea, possibly the most brutalized and subjugated people of the entire world (not that brutal human rights violations is meant to be some sort of contest, of course).
Last year I went through a pretty heavy period of North Korea reading: the most powerful book I read was Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. This year, I’m deep into the Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, which is a fictional novel but nevertheless haunting and powerful.
It frustrates me that North Korea is something we don’t talk about as a culture, aside from whatever bonehead things Dennis Rodman has been saying. It may well be that the cultural fatigue induced by Afghanistan and Iraq have curbed the national desire for interventionist politics. Who would want to talk about getting involved with North Korea after the whole Iraq mess? Especially when North Korea has nuclear weapons. Sure, they may not be very good nuclear weapons, but when it comes to nukes, I find the distinction between excellent and decent is rather inconsequential to those beneath their shadows. They also have a powerful mostly-ally in China. So intervention isn’t really a feasible thing.
This is troubling from a humanitarian perspective. What’s the moral course of action in this instance? Iraq was a sobering lesson, regardless of the reasons why it was fought in the first place. I don’t have any answers, only concerns. It is a question where idealism and pragmatism clash directly. No one deserves to live with the kind of oppression and brutality that North Koreans face every day, though. Regardless of the fact that I don’t have a solution, I’m confident on that much.
One thing that I’ve found particular powerful and poignant is hearing the stories of North Koreans who have escaped their country’s regime. Ask a North Korean is an interesting column written by a few North Koreans who have managed to escape the country. Their words are sometimes sad, sometimes amusing, but always powerful. The constant narrative that I found the most striking was how often the desire for Korean reunification is expressed.
I don’t know whose responsibility reunification should be. I can’t help but feel that the US and Russia are responsible for the current division of the country and should take measures to undo the damage that was done. Is that more Western interventionist political posturing? Maybe. Perhaps it’s up to South Korea and North Koreans themselves to pull the country back together and oust the Kim regime.
I don’t know. I’m an outsider, just watching and listening and reading. I certainly don’t have any great insights. I certainly don’t know what the right thing is to do. But I feel that something should be done and it bothers me that more people don’t talk about this particular issue.