How to Deal with North Korea

Policies for a perennial problem-state.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea long has been recognized as one of the globe’s most difficult challenges. For two decades concern over Pyongyang’s nuclear program has dominated international attention toward the Korean peninsula. The new United Nations report on the North’s human-rights practices reminds us that the DPRK most directly is a threat to its own people.

What to do about the North Korean problem has troubled three successive U.S. administrations. All have variously tried engagement and isolation, without success; embraced South Korea and Japan, allied states threatened by Pyongyang; and pressed China, the North’s only ally, to intervene. The result is a tentative nuclear state seemingly ruled by an immature third-generation dictator willing to terrorize even his own family. At least there have been few direct consequences for America, which has sufficient military capacity to deter all but the insane or suicidal, neither of which, thankfully, appears to characterize the leaders in Pyongyang.

Not so lucky are the residents of North Korea, however. There never has been any question about the extraordinary nature of DPRK tyranny. Among others, The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea has published devastating reports on North Korean human-rights practices. But the United Nations just released its own gruesome analysis. The UN typically fills its official human-rights bodies with human-rights offenders—China, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Gaddafi’s Libya, etc. However, Pyongyang’s practices are so grotesque that even the normally tolerant world body took notice.

The UN issued 372 pages of detailed findings. But the 36-page summary report alone is devastating. The finding is simple: “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed” by the DPRK. “In many instances, the violations found entailed crimes against humanity based on State policies.” While far too many nations today mistreat and even murder their peoples, North Korea’s policies are extraordinary and extreme by any standard.

Yet the challenge facing the U.S. and other nations regarding human rights in the North is a lot like the security problem: what to do? The Kim dynasty has demonstrated no interest in disarming. Nor has it ever hinted at the slightest interest in treating the North Korean people better. Arguing that human rights should be an international priority doesn’t change matters.

Trying to convince the isolated and militaristic regime that a more pacific policy is in its interest so far hasn’t worked. Trying to convince the same leadership that it also should dismantle the political system that it dominates is even less likely to succeed. It seems callous to focus on security, but that almost certainly remains the correct priority. If the allied states ever persuade the North to reduce its threatening capabilities, there will be far greater opportunities for political change. Emphasizing the latter at the start seems more likely to preclude any movement on any issue.

However, the human-rights report might be more effectively directed at another nation, the People’s Republic of China. The PRC is North Korea’s chief enabler. (For a time South Korea shared that title, with its bountiful subsidies as part of the Sunshine Policy.) The reasons are understandable, if not necessarily laudable. For China the DPRK is a friend linked by blood ties in war, a buffer that keeps U.S. and allied troops away from the border, an ally that complicates American policy in East Asia, a resource to be exploited economically, and a threat that generates allied pleas for assistance.

Washington’s push for Beijing to press the DPRK more seriously, repeated during Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent China visit, founders on the PRC’s perception of its interests. The North is unpredictable, except for always being ever unreasonable and difficult. Even its legendary stability is no longer certain, with the execution of Kim Jong-un’s uncle, his supposed mentor and regent. Nevertheless, Beijing fears destabilizing the peninsula more than it fears North Korea nuclearizing the peninsula.

To change China’s position requires addressing that government’s concerns, particularly regarding the impact of a united Korea allied with America at a time when the U.S. appears committed to a policy of soft containment. The DPRK’s growing reputation as a human-rights outlaw might help.