Recent news reports have emerged of a North Korean defector who alleges that Kim Jong-un tested chemical and biological weapons on his own people. The defector, whom we know only as “Mr. Lee,” says he has the evidence on a storage device that he will present to the European Parliament in the next few weeks. “Mr. Lee” is not the first to come forward in an attempt to expose the Kim regime’s unethical weapons testing on humans. Over the years, there have been several accounts of Kim’s testing on the disabled, including children.
Does this sound familiar? Inhumane testing of chemical and biological weapons on the innocent and disabled? It should. It’s what Adolf Hitler did during World War II. If this seems like a radical assertion, well, it’s not. During WWII, many (including some in the United States) did not believe—and really could not fathom, as it was so atrocious and then unprecedented—that Hitler was committing such heinous and gruesome crimes in the concentration camps. How many more defectors are going to need to come forward before we take these allegations seriously, and do something to intervene? After all, defectors like “Mr. Lee” are not pleading with Beijing to come help them out, they are making a run for the EU to plead for help.
In addition to testing such devastating weapons on his own people, Kim has some of the traits of another brutal, authoritative leader: Joseph Stalin. Kim’s leadership purges are textbook-Stalin. In fact, Stalin was so paranoid about his own commanders, it is said that the former Soviet leader did not like it when his subordinates stood behind him in a room; he wanted to be able to see them all at all times, in front of him. Kim suffers from a similar paranoia—one that leads him to mistrust everyone close to him, including his own family members, and so he kills them off preemptively to avoid being overthrown.
So what can the international community do? Well, for starters, we should not ignore or fluff off reports of Kim’s chemical and biological weapons testing.
North Korea’s increasing nuclear weapons tests should also be cause for concern. As Tom Nichols has asserted, the fact that we cannot be sure who really runs the weapons show in a rogue state such as North Korea makes it difficult to negotiate with it. Secondly, if North Korea is conducting more nuclear weapons tests and indeed testing biological and chemical weapons, its arsenal would be greatly enhanced.
The only country that may still be able to exert influence on North Korea—China—does not seem to be enthusiastic about doing so, and is not particularly fond of the current regime. So what other options are there?
Some have called upon the United States to bring North Korea to the negotiating table and at least talk with its leaders one-on-one. And while the Six Party Talks between North Korea, the United States, Japan, China, Russia and South Korea are a good idea in theory, the conflicting national interests of all parties involved has made negotiating nearly impossible. It seems, then, that a trilateral dialogue between North Korea, the United States and China might be more effective, if for no other reason than it reduces the number of participants.
However, ideally, if we could trust China to follow through, without having to make any grand deals with Beijing as incentive, a bilateral dialogue between China and North Korea would probably be better, since North Korea doesn’t trust America or really any other Western nation for that matter, but it might still be willing to listen to China. So far, however, Pyongyang has remained intransigent. But if the Iran deal holds up, proving that “rogue states” can indeed be reasoned with, perhaps even more pressure can be exerted on North Korea as a nuclear holdout that needs to reform.
The ultimate challenge that the international community will face with regards to North Korea is how to convince the Kim regime to act better without pushing it to war. And we likely cannot do it without China. It’s unclear what strategy would be best for China to employ. Perhaps, taking a cue from Franco’s character in The Interview, Beijing could attempt to approach North Korea and say, “We are same-same...but different. But still same.” That is, China could appeal to North Korea as one “big” Asian power to another, acknowledging their different national-security interests, but asserting that both China and North Korea want a stable, safe Asia continent (regardless of how true this might be, it’s all about diplomacy) and in order to achieve that, both sides have to refrain from biological, chemical and nuclear-weapons testing.
Beijing is probably our only hope to stop Kim. Getting North Korea to play nice with everyone, including its own people, will involve getting China on board.
Rebecca M. Miller is the assistant managing editor and illustrator of the National Interest. Follow her on Twitter: @RebecMil.