Ask A North Korean

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.

3 thoughts on “Ask A North Korean

  1. I don’t know how firm of an ally China is for North Korea. North Korea is a destabilizing force in the region, and I doubt China wants to see any part of Asia become a firestorm. If (god forbid) North Korea were to make good on any promises to attack South Korea with nuclear weapons, I imagine the first warheads to land on North Korean soil would be emblazoned with a gold star.

    That said, China’s behavior is reminiscent of America’s “Monroe Doctrine” of the 1800’s: they won’t interfere with existing Western presence in Asia, but they won’t stand for anyone reaching further. If America got involved in liberating North Korea, we’d have a war on our hands; we might have the last war on our hands.

    To top it off, nothing galvanizes a people quite like an outside threat. If the US or South Korea marched into North Korea, we would be seen as attackers, not liberators. Even without Chinese intervention you’d end up with a protracted war and a final outcome that looks more like occupation than liberation.

    Luckily, if there ever were a popular uprising (which there could well be), North Korea has a much easier path to peace than a lot of other countries. You don’t have subjugation of one religious group by another or multiple cultures vying for bloody dominance. You have a people under the thumb of an oppressive regime, and a stable nation with a shared history right next door. World politics may mean this war must be fought internally, but if they can ever pull it off, they’ll probably be successful in finding their liberty.

    1. It is interesting that unlike other humanitarian crises, there is no religious or ethnic conflict at work. If the current regime is toppled, I would put the odds of success for a reunified and/or free North Korea as very high, certainly much higher than countries like Afghanistan or Iraq.

      1. For an appropriate historical comparison, look at East and West Berlin. The differences between the sides are completely manufactured, and once those artificial barriers are taken down things can change.

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