The North Korean human rights crisis has recently been getting increased attention from the international media. There have been articles and op-eds in influential publications such as The Economist, New York Times, Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and many others. This is a welcome change from the traditional focus on security issues and North Korea’s reclusive leaders.
It is worth considering why this has happened, and also what has held back international attention on this issue in the past. The answers may help those who are interested in maintaining and building on this new media focus on the North Korean people.
There are several triggers for the new attention. Firstly, North Korea in general is a hot topic this year after Kim Jong Il’s death, with a lot of interest in North Korea under its new, untested and unknown leader, Kim Jong Eun.
[imText1]Secondly, important new publications have provided focal points for attention on the regime’s human rights abuses. Blaine Harden’s book, ‘Escape From Camp 14’, which chronicles the story of Shin Dong Hyuk, the only North Korean refugee known to have been born and raised in a political prison camp, rams home the severity of the ongoing atrocities through straightforward descriptions of Shin’s harrowing experiences.
The recent release of the second edition of David Hawk’s ‘The Hidden Gulag’ has also provided an essential update on the North Korean prison camp system, based on extensive research and interviews with former inmates and prison guards. These publications and the publicity surrounding them have helped expose wider audiences to the reality of North Korea’s human rights abuses.
But human rights and humanitarian crises, things which are inextricably linked in North Korea, have been happening for decades now. So why has it been so difficult to get anything like this level of international attention focused on this issue until now?
[imText2]Firstly, as The Economist pointed out in its leader on North Korea’s crimes against humanity, “the scale of the atrocity numbs moral outrage.” Many people find it hard to recognize that horrific human rights abuses on this scale, comparable to the nadirs of human cruelty in the 20th Century, can still be happening today. Frankly, for many people going about their everyday lives in their world of Facebook and iPhones, the severity and scale of the human rights abuses in North Korea is hard to comprehend.
Also, this issue has lacked a North Korean equivalent of Aung San Suu Kyi or Ai Wei Wei, a North Korean individual who could advocate for their people on the international stage and give the issue a human face. That is starting to change with more North Korean refugees, including Shin Dong Hyuk, making admirable efforts.
Confounding this is the relative lack of English language literature. Although Shin Dong Hyuk arrived in South Korea in 2006, it is only now, after an American journalist wrote his biography in English and released the book this year, that the rest of the world is really getting to know his incredible story. People on the outside know very little about any aspect of the lives of the North Korean people. The success of books such as ‘Escape From Camp 14’ and Barbara Demick’s ‘Nothing to Envy’ shows that there is high demand for insights into the human aspects of life in North Korea. It is a demand which is not yet being met.
[imText3]In the absence of prominent North Korean human rights defenders, the only North Koreans known in the outside world have been its reclusive leaders. Again, The Economist expressed regret that their reporting had suffered because “it is easier to lampoon the regime as ruled by extraterrestrial freaks than to grapple with the suffering it inflicts.” It is illustrative that when Kim Jong Il died, one of the worldwide trending terms on Twitter was “Team America”, a comedic film portraying a puppet of a ludicrous Kim Jong Il obsessed with weapons of mass destruction (who also turns out to be an alien cockroach).
Media focus on ridiculing the leadership and portraying the North Korean people as goose-stepping soldiers or fanatical loyalists participating in highly orchestrated celebrations of the state has made North Korea seem even more other-worldly and has made it harder for the international audience to empathize with the North Korean people. Efforts to humanise and normalise the North Korean people and make their lives and challenges more relatable are therefore an urgent requirement.
Further, when compared with other human rights and humanitarian crises around the world, there is a distinct lack of celebrity advocates for the North Korean people. It is notable that this year’s Save My Friend campaign for North Korean refugees really took off in South Korea when celebrities became involved. The age of the internet and social networking sites has been hailed as giving everybody a voice. But conversely this also means that the average Twitter user, with just a handful of followers, is whispering into a storm. Celebrities on the other hand can reach millions of followers with a single tweet. This factor means that getting more high profile individuals to advocate for the North Korean people is crucial.
The politicization of the issue in South Korea and the Seoul government’s historically troubled approaches towards their rival state is another factor that has arguably slowed the international uptake on this issue. Many South Koreans have a poor understanding of the human rights and humanitarian issues happening just a few miles to the north. If South Koreans, sharing the same language and now living in a country which is home to around 23,000 North Korean refugees, took more interest in the lives of the North Korean people then it would be easier to spread awareness to the rest of the world as well.
It is also clear that the traditional attention on nuclear and security issues has crowded out discussion of the suffering of the North Korean people. The focus on security issues is understandable given that, including the U.S., there are four nuclear weapon states in the region, three permanent members of the UN Security Council, and because of the danger and costs to major world powers and the global economy of potential conflict on the Korean Peninsula. However at this level of international politics, the story is of locked, Cold War-style stalemate. Different countries have strong and competing interests on the Korean Peninsula, and they consistently undermine the strategies being pursued by others, leading to a distinct lack of sustainable progress and a tiresome cycle between negotiations and provocations.
Excited commentators have sometimes described the Korean peninsula as a powder-keg waiting to blow up, but if this were true then there have been enough sparks over the decades to make it explode several times over. In reality, mutual deterrence has been effective, and save for limited provocations the general picture is one of stability. People are justifiably losing their interest in the high politics, and this may be providing an opening for more attention on the more dynamic level of the North Korean people.
Focusing on the North Korean people’s crisis is more important than focusing on the security issues or its reclusive leaders. This is not just because the North Korean people’s stories ought to be known as they are the ones who have suffered the most out of this whole situation. It is also because, ultimately, change in North Korea will have to come from within, so a focus on the people is an important part of changing the whole situation.
Raising international awareness is necessary to mobilize people and resources to come alongside the North Korean people and help empower them to push for change inside their country and ultimately bring this crisis to an end (what route this change takes, we cannot know). There is no silver bullet solution in North Korea, and it will require a lot of effort from different actors using a variety of approaches to encourage, facilitate, and accelerate change inside the country. Sustained focus on the people is also important to show policymakers of all countries, as well as North Koreans themselves, that citizens all over the world are concerned with the plight of the North Korean people.
The recent increase in international attention on the challenges facing the North Korean people is an important development. Maintaining and building on this will be crucial for translating awareness into long-term interest and action that can help empower the North Korean people, and eventually bring about the change in North Korea that we all want to see.