On Feb. 29, the U.S. State Department announced a deal with North Korea. The country, under the new leadership of Kim Jong Eun, agreed to suspend its uranium-enrichment program at its Yongbyon facility, to halt long-range missile launches and to allow limited international inspection in return for 240,000 metric tons of food aid from the United States. This deal was not unprecedented. During North Korea’s famine in the 1990s, the United States tried to use food aid to lure North Korea to the nuclear bargaining table. As Georgetown University Professor Andrew Natsios argues, these efforts have generally been unsuccessful in diminishing North Korea’s nuclear threat. Similarly, John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, pointed to North Korea’s continual flouting of commitments it has made to halt the progression of its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for aid.
Yet the media discussion, focusing on the impact – or lack thereof – the deal would have on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, shows how critical attention regarding North Korea is disproportionately focused on national security issues and occludes the grave human rights abuses under which the country’s citizens suffer. The nation is an island state on multiple fronts: the apartments of North Korean citizens are outfitted with loudspeakers that blast propaganda from the party-controlled station and foreign visitors allowed to enter the nation are led on carefully maneuvered tours of Potemkin prosperity. Our limited amount of authentic information either comes from academics – such as our own Professor Siegfried Hecker – who are allowed to enter North Korea to examine its nuclear facilities, or defectors who often speak under conditions of anonymity.
Much of the media attention seems to focus on the threat of a nuclear Korea to world security and, in the midst of this discourse, discussion of the country’s political, physical, and psychological repression of its citizens is unfortunately drowned out. When the media does cover human rights issues in North Korea, the focus is typically on food shortages.
Unfortunately, North Korean citizens not only face the threat of starvation, but around 200,000 are subject to persecution through political concentration camps, where tortures and executions are common and relatives of prisoners are also subject to imprisonment. Furthermore, these human rights abuses are not perpetrated by North Korea alone. Citizens who seek to escape the politically repressive North Korea by way of neighboring China are treated as illegal “economic migrants” by the Chinese government, making the refugees subject to arrest and deportation. China, openly flouting its commitment to the United Nations’ 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, refuses to grant the refugees protection, instead allowing them to be repatriated to face punishment in North Korea, including “beatings, torture, detention, forced labor, sexual violence, and in the case of women suspected of becoming pregnant in China, forced abortions or infanticide,” according to Roberta Cohen of the Brookings Institution.
North Korea has many facets that make the nation a media spectacle, ranging from its burgeoning nuclear capabilities to the late Kim Jong Il’s fondness for Hennessey cognac. Yet lurking behind North Korea’s military danger is a torturous system of economic and political repression that robs its citizens of dignity and freedom. This political repression is at least indirectly aided by China, whose government provides some of the last significant economic and political support for the North Korean regime. We may never learn to love North Korea’s bomb, but it is important that discussion of the country’s military capabilities does not overshadow important attention to the status of its repressed citizens and endangered refugees. We owe it to the North Korean citizens not to let their humanitarian crisis be eclipsed by our media’s fascination with nuclear issues.