Note from the author: This post is the fourth of my four-part series on the North Korean Regime. I recommend reading the other parts before this one for understanding, but doing so is optional. To find the other parts, scroll down and click on “View all posts by A. Price.”
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) consistently acts like a toddler in its negotiations and diplomatic relations with other countries. They consistently refuse food and humanitarian aid that their citizens desperately need for petty political reasons. The World Food Program (WFP) was denied access to North Korea in 2005 because its monitoring process was too intrusive for North Korea’s standards. Because of this type of behavior, it is apparent that the DPRK wishes to mishandle food aid and allow their rural citizens to starve and die before accepting the WFP’s guidelines.
Food and Humanitarian Aid
The Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK; the regime) insists on inserting itself into food aid distribution and consistently passes policies that would manipulate citizens into subservience to the regime. One such policy would make the receipt of food aid contingent on reporting to one’s government-sanctioned job. This effectively stifles any chance at economic mobility for poor and rural people. Such a policy is against the conditions of the World Food Program, but instead of complying with the WFP to receive the aid, they let their citizens starve. The WFP has a humanitarian interest in feeding these people, so they are left at a crossroads: supply food aid according to North Korea’s standards or allow North Korea to starve its rural citizens.
Because of the WPK’s toddler-like nature, it is imperative that food and humanitarian aid are not contingent on the government’s cooperation. Historically, the US has made food aid contingent on the dismantling of specified nuclear programs. This leaves the WPK with the choice: give up our nuclear program or let our citizens starve. For them, this is a no-brainer. The WPK cares much more about politics and big blow-up things than the starvation and suffering of its citizens. This is why it is increasingly important that food and humanitarian aid are not contingent on the cooperation of the government.
Because of the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea, China is the only country directly bordering North Korea. This means that China has the highest amount of undocumented North Korean refugees. China is compliant with the North Korean regime’s disgusting agenda. Instead of complying with the United Nations (UN) guidelines for refugees, China heavily polices bordering towns and consistently returns refugees to the abusive DPRK. Because of this, refugees must travel all the way through China to another country before being able to fly to a safe place such as South Korea where they can seek asylum.
Because of the threat of being deported back to North Korea and subsequently thrown into a prison camp, many refugees, specifically those assigned ‘female’ at birth (AFAB), fall victim to human trafficking. Because of the One-Child policy and selective abortions, China now has a disproportionate level of people in male bodies as opposed to those in female bodies. This incongruence means that many men cannot find or afford brides and many North Korean AFAB people are sold as brides to poor Chinese men. The people in these situations rarely feel safe in their new homes and often fall victim to abuse, blackmail, and rape.
The UN must step into China to enforce its guidelines for refugees. China must become a safe place for North Korean refugees to seek asylum. Until then, these people will continuously fall victim to deportation and human trafficking.
The DPRK is a participant of the UN. The UN has treaties and guidelines surrounding the topic of human rights, but they are not enforced. The DPRK has signed seven different human rights treaties including the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). As you have seen throughout this series, these treaties are not enforced by the United Nations or any other organization interested in human rights.
As a participant of the UN, the US should apply pressure for the enforcement of the UN’s treaties and policies. North Korea consistently fails in its Responsibility to Protect (R2P) its citizens, calling for international actors to step in and protect these citizens. The WPK has proven that it does not care about these people and will not let go of its power without a fight. North Korea’s citizens will continue to be treated terribly as the collective group of outside countries chooses not to intervene, constituting one of the most significant and worst human rights situations in recent history.
How You Can Help
North Korea is one of my special interests. I could write about this topic for the rest of my life. I encourage you to look into this issue (resources linked below) and spark your own interest in the North Korean human rights situation. I encourage you to consider, if you can, donating to an organization that I really believe in. They are called Liberty in North Korea. They are working on the ground to help North Koreans escape the regime through a 3,000-mile secret escape route. Their website includes many resources and even a blog written by people personally affected by the North Korean regime.
Below I have linked some resources for you to explore at your leisure.
Note from the author: This post is the third of my four-part series on the North Korean Regime. I recommend reading the first two parts before this one, but it is not required to understand this part. To find the other parts, scroll down and click on “View all posts by A. Price.” If the last part is not available yet, be sure to check back in during the upcoming weeks when it will be posted.
As you are reading this, there are children in labor camps who have no idea that a world exists beyond their barbed wire. They believe that the entire world is confined within the fences that hold them. They have never heard of countries, the regime that holds them there, or the existence of people who look different from them. They were born to enslaved, imprisoned parents and taken from them before they could even wean off breast milk. They have never felt as though they’ve had enough to eat. They have lived in a constant state of overwork and malnutrition for their entire lives. They don’t know about the Kim Dynasty or the regime. All they know is that the guards who hold them there are above them. They hold all the power in the world in their batons and rifles. The lingering threat of death holds their minds captive, reducing them to survivalists, doing anything they can to stay alive. They catch mice, rats, and moles to eat. They avoid confrontation with the guards and hide their pain so as to not disappoint the powerful guards with their lives in their hands.
There has only ever been one known escapee from these horrifying “Special Total-Control Zones” where children born to prisoners are held for their entire lives. Shin Dong-Hyuk had no idea that a world existed where food was sufficient until one of his friends told him about Kim Jong-Il and the world beyond the prison camp. When the guards left them alone outside for a split second, he and his friend decided to make their break. His friend fell unconscious due to the high voltage barbed wire fence, and Shin used his friend’s body to climb out and run away. He never saw his friend again, and his deepest regret is not going back to rescue him. Hear him tell his story here.
Status of Legal Code
The Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK) intentionally writes laws in abstract, vague language. The laws are never communicated to the general public who are supposed to be following them. This gives the regime complete and total power over the criminality of these citizens. If a person of a high Songbun (class) wants a person of a lower Songbun to be arrested for any reason, they will simply interpret the law to mean whatever they want it to mean and have that person arrested. Common offenses include “conspiracy to subvert the State”, “treason against the Fatherland”, and “illegal trade.”
Guilty Until Proven Innocent
When a person is accused of having broken a law, they are immediately detained by police. Rarely are they told the reason for their arrest or the rights that they have. They are brought to a jail where they are not told the amount of time until their trial. The only form of bail is the informal bribery of the guards. Only a lucky few with resources and connections are able to leave the station at this point in the process.
When their trial date comes along, they have no say in the outcome. If they do not prove themselves to be innocent beyond a reasonable doubt, then they are assumed to be guilty and sentenced at the judges’ discretion. For most of them, their only hope is that a family member has bribed the judge in their favor. In most cases, this bribe costs their family everything that they have, ruining their lives and pushing them deeper into poverty.
Forced Labor as Punishment
The main form of punishment used by North Korea is imprisonment in forced labor camps. They believe forced labor to be a form of repatriation in that when a person works for their country, they will grow an appreciation for it and be less likely to commit a crime against it. That, of course, is just what they tell people. The WPK knows that the purpose of these prison camps is to exploit the slave labor of people deemed “undesirable” and to feed the ego of the state. They know that the people in these prison camps are being tortured. I truly believe that if the WPK could do anything to possibly make the lives of these people worse, they would do it without question. The WPK is the embodiment of evil, and being in a labor camp controlled by them is completely and unfeasibly miserable.
Human Rights in Prison Camps
This section, in particular, will detail some of the torture endured by prisoners. If learning of this torture will be of particular detriment to your mental health, I recommend ending here and reading any of the other articles on this site that may be easier for you to stomach.
When in a North Korean labor camp, guards have full and complete discretion over the lives of the prisoners. Guards in this situation grow increasingly sadistic as they continue their jobs and commit heinous acts in the name of their regime, justifying it by dehumanizing the people under their control. Most people, especially those with female anatomy, do not leave these camps without being the victim of rape, most of the time on multiple accounts. All people lose copious amounts of weight during their stay due to malnutrition. If a guard wants you to eat dirt, you eat dirt. If they want you to grab the high-voltage fence, you grab the high-voltage fence. There is no limit to the power that the guards have over you.
Prisoners are randomly and sporadically accused of withholding information from the guards. They are then subject to intense interrogation techniques. When Shin Dong-Hyuk was young, his mother and brother were accused of trying to escape. He was suspected to have information about this plan. As a result, he was subject to torturous interrogation. He lost the tip of his right middle finger, his face was sliced open with a weapon, and he was hung over a fire by his hands and feet. He still bears the scars from this torture. When he inevitably had no information to give the guards, he was forced to watch his mother and brother be hanged and shot in a public execution.
Trigger Warning: the next image is a depiction of torture.
There is no happy note on which to end this article. The lives of incarcerated people in North Korea are miserable. They are subject to the worst human rights violations worldwide. I encourage you to take a moment for your mental health after reading this article so that together we can put an end to this inhumane treatment. Be sure to read my next article, the fourth part of this series, titled, “Steps That Outside Governments Can Take Toward Ending the Human Rights Violations of North Korea.”
Note from the author: This post is the second of my four-part series on the North Korean Regime. I recommend reading part one before this, but it is not required to understand this part. To find the other parts, scroll down and click “View all posts by A. Price.” If the other parts are not available yet, check back in during the upcoming weeks when they will be posted.
Content Warnings: cults, mass manipulation, death by suicide, honor killings, abusive governments
Charles Manson of the Manson Family convinced his followers to murder nine people who criticized him. Marshall Applewhite of Heaven’s Gate convinced thirty-nine members to commit suicide in hopes of leaving their bodily “containers” and ascending into a spaceship hidden behind the Hale-Bopp Comet. Jim Jones of Jonestown convinced nine hundred and nine people to drink poisoned kool-aid in a mass suicide mission. What quality unites all these people and gives them the ability to hold such great power over their captive audience? The answer, of course, is charisma. When a charismatic person with a hunger for power learns how to manipulate a group of people, there is no limit to the amount of power that they have access to.
My specialty in human rights research is in religion and cults. I have been studying religion and cults informally for many years, and formally since my start at UAB. While reading Sandra Fahy’s book, Dying for Rights (cited in Part 1 of this series), many red flags stood out to me. Every new thing I learned added evidence to my theory that North Korea would qualify as a cult under pretty much every model of qualification widely accepted by professional researchers of religion and cults. Below, I break down North Korea’s regime and classify it as a cult based on three main criteria:
First and foremost, the group must have an all-encompassing leader who has convinced the group that they are perfect and can do no wrong. This person could be a real person or a theoretical, such as a god or deity. Second, there must be an in-group vs. out-group system of understanding. Members of the group believe that they are fundamentally different, usually fundamentally better in some way than non-members of the group. Third, the leader must exercise excess control over the lives of the members of the group. The most comprehensive model of examining the treatment of cult members by their leaders was created by Steven Hassan and is called the BITE Model of Authoritarian Control. It is widely accepted that groups are cults insofar as they comply with the BITE model. I will better explain what this entails in the section of this article titled, “BITE Control.”
Cult of Personality: The lore of Kim Il-Sung and His Predecessors
Kim Il-Sung came to power in 1949, only 4 years after the peninsula was divided at the 38th parallel. Tensions between North and South Korea were steadily rising, and the 38th parallel was not yet demilitarized. Kim gained power through the rising hatred of South Korea and the Allies of WWII. He was a very charismatic leader who gained popularity through manipulation, false promises, and specialization*. He gave himself the name “Supreme Leader” and convinced the public of North Korea that he was sent from a god to Make Korea Great Again.The public was convinced that he was immortal, infallible, and omnipresent, similar to the concept of “God” in most religions. To this day, each North Korean home has a picture of Kim Il-Sung, and if they are found to have damaged it or taken it down, they are sent to prison. When he died in 1994, the country publicly cried out and anyone found not to be mourning was sent to prison.
*In this context, specialization is the process by which leaders of groups make the members feel as though they are inherently different, or inherently better than non-members.
The story of his immortality had to be revised. They now told people that Kim Il-Sung willingly gave up his position as Supreme Leader because he wished for his son, Kim Jong-Il, to take over. They were told that he honorably sacrificed his life for the betterment of his country by empowering his son. Kim Jong-Il carried on his cult of personality until his death in 2011 when the process was repeated. His son, Kim Jong-Un, took over and is still in power today. Each citizen still believes that the Supreme Leader holds the power of the Universe, only dies when they choose to give up their position, and grasps a level of understanding that others cannot even aspire to.
Us vs. Them
Since the division of the Korean peninsula after the surrender of Japan that ended World War II, North Koreans have internalized that they are fundamentally different from other people. They believe that immigrants and their descendants with non-Korean ancestry are spies from other countries, South Koreans and Americans are inherently evil, and any outsider who criticizes the state is disrespecting their Supreme Leader and the god who sent them. By internalizing their national identity as the most important aspect of themselves, they are manipulated into devoting more and more of themselves to the regime, to the point of death. By internalizing the dehumanization of non-North Koreans, they can justify the threats of extreme violence by the regime toward other countries, such as the lingering threat of atomic war.
BITE stands for behavior, information, thought, and emotion. Groups are evaluated as cults insofar as they control these four aspects of their members’ lives. View the official Bite Model here.
B – Behavior Control
Any behavior not approved by the state is punishable to the fullest extent of the law, at the discretion of the judges who are appointed by the regime. As one can expect, these judges do not make decisions based on the actions of the accused. Their decisions are overwhelmingly based on one’s Songbun (or class), explained in part one of this series. People of North Korea, especially those of lower Songbun do not have control over their actions. Anything they do can and will be used against them at any chance the police force gets, without prior knowledge of any laws they may be unintentionally breaking. This strongly exacerbates the imbalance of power and starkly divides classes. In the third part of this series, I will delve deeper into the prison system of the DPRK and the corruption that comes with it. Check out the third part of this series titled, “Control by Threat of Force: The Abuses of the Criminal System of North Korea” for more information.
I – Information Control
The only media that North Koreans have access to (legally or otherwise) is 100% state-sanctioned. State-sanctioned media reporters are instructed to use certain pitches, tones, and audiovisual illusions to strategically convey their message. When watching this media, citizens are said to be put in a dissociative state, similar to the experience of those in other cults hearing leaders speak, where any meaningful information is not received. Critics of North Korea refer to this as brain fog. When this is the only media not punishable by law, it is difficult for citizens to ‘see through the fog’ for any information that could enable them to tap into their human rights or political ability.
The DPRK extends this brain fog to the media that it allows to leave the country. Think about what you know about North Korea and if you have ever heard any clear, concise information about the human rights abuses occurring there. It probably looks foggy. They are not shy about admitting their use of this strategy.
“One of our strategies is that when the Americans look at our interior, we make it murky as if wrapped in a fog.” (Fahy, Sandra. Dying for Rights: Putting North Korea’s Human Rights Abuses on the Record. p. 93 Columbia University Press, 2019.).
This is a quote from a North Korean government directive. All information that is approved to leave is scrambled up, mistranslated, and recorded until the perfect amount of confusion and manipulation is communicated. This is why it is important for people like you to spread any information you have about the DPRK to others. Without our help, the fog will effectively stifle any chance of help for these people.
T – Thought Control
A huge way that cults control their members is through indoctrination and the discouragement of skepticism. As seen in the last section, the only media that North Koreans are allowed to consume is state-sanctioned and heavily indoctrinating. If it is found out that any citizen is participating in skepticism about the regime, they will be thrown in prison camps. All community members are forced to report anyone that they hear questioning the regime, and it is not easy to find a group of people who share your concerns without a high risk of being ratted out. It is dangerous and isolating to question the regime, so people avoid doing so.
E – Emotion Control
Each week, every citizen of the DPRK over 14 years of age must attend and speak at a “self-evaluation meeting” with their community. In these meetings, they are forced to tell their community how they could have been better citizens of the regime during the past week. They will admit to times they accidentally bumped into their picture of Kim Il-Sung, or how they complained about being tired after laboring all day. This enforces the culture of juche, the concept of self-sufficiency that guilts North Koreans into suffering and even dying before asking anyone around them for help. These meetings more harshly affect those of lower Songbun, as they are more likely to feel as if they have let their regime down by simply being poor. This type of emotional control leads to the regime’s harsher control over its citizens.
How to Process this Information
Personally, learning about this initially took a bit of a toll on my mental health, so I encourage you to at least take a few deep breaths and do something to take care of yourself. By simply being aware of the ways by which the North Korean regime gains and maintains power over its citizens, you are looking through the fog that the regime intentionally placed over itself. That is a heavy burden to bear. Reading and knowing about these gross human rights violations takes a lot of cognitive and emotional resources. I encourage you, the reader, to take a few minutes after reading this post to process how you are feeling. Do some self-care. Maybe drink some water or follow a 10-minute yoga flow tutorial on youtube. Cry if you need to; you are allowed to feel. Take care of yourself so you can be better equipped to help put an end to these violations in the future.
Note from the author: This post is the first of my four-part series on the North Korean Regime. To find the other parts, scroll down and click “View all posts by A. Price.” If the other parts are not available yet, check back in during the upcoming weeks when they will be posted.
Content Warnings: mass financial abuse, famine, malnutrition, dehumanization, classism, starvation
Imagine grocery shopping for your family, and instead of finding a variety of food choices, you find a store filled with a surplus of children’s socks, different colored hats, and beach toys even though you live nowhere near the coast. The only food you can find in the store is a few loaves of moldy bread, a small produce section filled with rotting vegetables, and a frozen section with freezer-burned packaged meat. The best you can do is buy a bag full of rotting vegetables and plant them in the ground behind your house, careful not to be caught doing so by the police. The soil you remember being rich with vitamins has turned to gray dust, and everything you plant dies before sprouting. Your family will live off the rotting leftovers from last week’s grocery trip until you can scrounge together enough scraps to make it through. You know that your neighbor has a secret garden that does moderately well, so you sneak over to offer her what’s left of your money in exchange for a few vegetables. If the police catch you exchanging goods, you and your neighbor will be charged for participating in a free market, thrown in a prison camp without a fair trial, and held for an unregulated amount of time.
The only media you’ve ever seen tells stories of a utopia; the Kim family is sent from heaven to make the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), also known as North Korea, the most wonderful place to live. They tell you that people in other countries, like South Korea and the United States, live under terrible governments who do not care for them the way the Kim family cares for you. In the end, you have no reason not to believe them. You have never seen the conditions of other countries and any criticism of your regime has been consistently disputed throughout your entire life. The stark reality of your consistent mistreatment exists in a dichotomy with the ideals that you have been brainwashed to believe to be true.
Approximately 20 million rural North Koreans live in this reality…
The class system of North Korea is called Songbun. At birth, each North Korean citizen is labeled as core, wavering, or hostile based on their place of birth, status, and the national origin of their ancestors. For example, a person whose ancestors immigrated from South to North Korea will be given a low Songbun and be assumed to have genetically inherited hostility towards the government. One’s Songbun can never be changed, as it determines every aspect of one’s life including how resources will be allocated to your community and how much mobility you will have throughout the state.
The Command Economy
The Workers Party of Korea (WPK), more commonly known as the North Korean Regime, holds tight control over the command economy and uses it to abuse all people of low Songbun, specifically those who live outside the capital, Pyongyang. Instead of ordering the production of valuable goods like food and home maintenance products for their communities, they overproduce menial things, like children’s socks and beach toys. Many do not have the mobility to go to a neighboring town for resources, and as I will expand on later, many believe that they deserve to starve if they are not entirely self-sufficient.
This economic system has the dual effect of limiting opportunities to participate in the job market. People are not allowed to sell products unless they are commanded to do so by the WPK. Because the WPK is not tasked to create job opportunities for rural people, these people have no opportunity to make money, which only exacerbates the problem of reduced resources.
The March of Suffering
The culture that encourages the idea of “suffering for the greater good” is called juche. Juche is the Korean term for the culture of self-sufficiency. It is an idea that is pushed hard into the minds of all North Koreans. Asking for help, depending on friends or family, or participating in a small-scale economy of goods with your neighbors makes you an inherently weak person because you are expected to work harder instead of “begging”. This idea is so ingrained in the minds of North Koreans that they will accept immense abuse from higher-ups at the expense of asking for help or demanding rights.
Starting in 1990, a great famine swept the nation under the rule of Kim Il-Sung. He coined the term “The March of Suffering” to refer to the famine. Using this name, he convinced those who took the hardest hit, the rural people of low Songbun, that they were doing the most honorable thing for their country by suffering in this famine. They were dying for it. Kim Il-Sung glorified their suffering by convincing them that not only did they deserve it (juche), but that their suffering was contributing to the greater good of the country. He had such control over the minds of these people that they loyally followed him straight to their graves.
Handled correctly, this famine could have lasted no longer than a year, and would not have become nearly as severe as it has. Instead, estimates from Crossing Borders suggest that between 240,000 and 3.5 million people have died in the DPRK from malnutrition since 1990.* The famine has outlived not only Kim Il-Sung but also his predecessor Kim Jong-Il.
*The reason for such a wide range of statistics is that collecting accurate data in North Korea is virtually impossible. I expand on the use of outside media control in the second part of this series titled, “How the North Korean Regime Uses Cult-Like Tactics to Maintain Power.”
Suppose the topic of North Korea is interesting to you and you want to work towards clearing up the fog surrounding the nation. In that case, I highly recommend Dying for Rights: Putting North Korea’s Human Rights Abuses on the Record by Sandra Fahy. This book is very informative and one of the only easily accessible, comprehensive accounts of North Korean human rights. It is where I learned most of what I know about the DPRK. It set the baseline on which I built my entire comprehensive understanding of the social systems at play.
As I will expand upon in the rest of this series, it is imperative that people outside of the DPRK “clear the fog” and find ways to look into the state. One of the biggest motivators for activism is awareness. As people on the outside, some of the most valuable things we can do are spread awareness, garner activism, and bring that activism with us into our participation in the government, whether that be running for office or simply voting for people who share our concerns.
**As the world pieces together the details from the Singapore Summit, Trump’s praise of Kim Jong-un solidifies his disregard for human rights violations and violators. In this blog, reposted from last summer, Verbeek identifies subordination as an obstacle to peace. He also says dialogue, if successful, may be a viable option. Only time will tell…
On August 8, 2017, following a news report that North Korea had succeeded in miniaturizing a nuclear warhead to fit its class of intercontinental ballistic missiles, President Trump, on a working vacation at his Trump golf resort in Bridgewater, New Jersey, proclaimed “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States . . . they will be met by fire and fury like the world has never seen”. I have been trying to imagine what this unprecedented fire and fury would look, smell, and feel like. In his peace declaration commemorating the 72nd A-bomb anniversary the mayor of Hiroshima, Kazumi Matsui, provides some hints as he invites us to imagine what happened in Hiroshima that fatal day of August 6, 1945 at 8:15 am:
“Let’s imagine for a moment what happened under that roiling mushroom cloud. Pika — the penetrating flash, extreme radiation and heat. Don — the earth-shattering roar and blast. As the blackness lifts, the scenes emerging into view reveal countless scattered corpses charred beyond recognition even as man or woman. Stepping between the corpses, badly burned, nearly naked figures with blackened faces, singed hair, and tattered, dangling skin wander through spreading flames, looking for water. The rivers in front of you are filled with bodies; the riverbanks so crowded with burnt, half-naked victims you have no place to step. This is truly hell”.
The mayor of Nagasaki, Tomihisa Taue, in his 72nd A-bomb anniversary peace declaration, mirrors this horrific image,
“On that day, the furious blast and heat rays reduced the city of Nagasaki to a charred expanse of land. People whose skin hung down in strips staggered around the ruined city looking for their families. A dumbfounded mother stood beside her child who had been burnt black. Every corner of the city was like a landscape from hell. Unable to obtain adequate medical treatment many of these people fell dead, one by one”.
Science has made great advances in the development of nuclear arms, and the power of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki pales in comparison to the power of today’s nuclear arsenals. Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s bombings created hell on Earth, and it seems almost impossible to imagine what the fire and fury that Mr. Trump talks about would amount to. I wonder whether Mr. Trump has an idea of the degree of hell that he can unleash if he sees it fit to do so. Like I am doing here, he may have looked back at the pictures of the charred remains of the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and of the wounds on the bodies of those who were not instantly incinerated. In fact, I do not think that it is a coincidence that Mr. Trump’s threat to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) resembles President Truman’s threat to Japan made in early August, 72 years ago. Calling for Japan’s surrender, Mr. Truman warned Japan to “expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth“.
Mr. Trump’s threats to the DPRK follow a series of threats directed at the USA and its Southeast Asian allies by the DPRK’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un and his military leaders. It is likely that a threat delivered on August 7, 2017, by North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho to a gathering of foreign ministers from the US, China, South Korea, Japan, and other Southeast Asian countries, was instrumental in Mr. Trump’s “fire and fury” threat of August 8, 2017. As Mr. Ri Yong Ho told this gathering, “Should the US pounce upon the DPRK with military force at last, the DPRK is ready to teach the US a severe lesson with its strategic nuclear force”.
Behavioral science tells us that there are a limited number of possible responses to a threat. One is a counter threat, another is attack, and yet another subordination. Each of these responses represents an obstacle to peace. A fourth approach is an offer of dialogue, which, if taken upon, can be a catalyst of peace. If Mr. Trump launches a preemptive strike in response to the threats of Mr. Kim Jong Un, it is likely that China will come to the aid of the DPRK, irrespective of whether the preemptive strike is nuclear or conventional. An English language editorial in China’s unofficial state newspaper, Global Times, targeted at an international audience, suggests as much: “If the US and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.” If Mr. Kim Jong Un launches an attack on the USA in response to Mr. Trump’s threats China will likely remain neutral at first: “China should also make clear that if North Korea launches missiles that threaten US soil first and the US retaliates, China will stay neutral”.
Judging by what has transpired thus far, neither Mr. Trump nor Mr. Kim Jong Un can be expected to respond submissively to the threats of the other, and so additional counter-threats, attacks, or offers of dialogue are options remaining to them. I expect that threats and counter-threats will prevail for a while and then taper off unless and until the DPRK launches more missiles or conducts another nuclear test. For Mr. Trump issuing threats scores points with his supporters and bumps up his approval ratings. For Mr. Kim Jong Un issuing threats signals to his military command that he is in charge and may help keep challenges to his regime from within the military at bay. The danger to the world is the possibility that someone misreads a radar image or misinterprets a military training exercise as ‘the real thing’ and sets in motion the chain of events that leads to either Mr. Trump or Mr. Kim Jong Un, or both, pushing buttons to launch nuclear warheads. The reality is that both in the democratic USA and in the DPKR dictatorship the decision to rain fire and fury on the citizens of another country rests with the one man at the top.
As a scientist, I share the view of other concerned scientists that there are no military options to the North Korea issue and that dialogue is the only viable option. Both as a scientist and as a private citizen, I believe that a nuclear strike of any kind, irrespective of who is carrying it out, is morally unacceptable and a crime against not just human life but against all of life.
I am familiar with the arguments for nuclear deterrence and for so-called justified nuclear strikes. As a young man I had heated debates with my step-mother about whether or not the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were justified. My step-mother spent part of her early youth in a Japanese internment camp in Indonesia. Her Dutch family was rounded up by the Japanese army when it invaded Indonesia in 1942 and she and her mother were interned in one of these infamous camps where an estimated 3,000 Dutch women and children perished. She stated that the nuclear bombings saved her life because they led to her liberation from the camp. The policy of the Japanese military regarding foreign women and children in internment camps and male prisoners of war toward the end of WWII was “kill all leave no traces” (1). General McArthur wanted to liberate Java but was ordered not do to so by the joint chiefs and President Roosevelt. It was indeed Japan’s 1945 surrender to the Allied Forces brought on by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s bombings that led to the liberation of the survivors of the internment camps and the surviving prisoners of war. While I feel great joy that the lives of my step-mother and other surviving victims of Japan’s wartime aggression were saved, I continue to believe that nothing justifies unleashing hell on earth through a nuclear attack. The fact that my step-mother and I had this debate illustrates the insanity of war.
If dialogue is the only option for the North Korean crisis, what is the outlook for a successful dialogue between the USA and the DPRK? It is actually quite good. While Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un’s father, engaged in military first politics, Kim Jong Un has launched a new doctrine calling for simultaneous progress on nuclear deterrence and economic development. Work in political science suggests that the DPRK will start focusing on its prosperity instead of its self-preservation once it no longer has to worry about its own destruction (13). Political scientist John Delury, a member of the nonpartisan and nongovernmental National Committee on North Korea, sees the prospects for peace this way:
“Trump can now help him pivot to the economy, as Kim appears to have wanted to do all along. However unlikely a pair the two might seem, Kim and Trump are well positioned to strike the kind of deal that could lower the grave risks both their countries (and the region) now face. Such a move would also allow Trump to reaffirm U.S. leadership in a region critical to U.S. interests, and to finally start resolving a problem that has bedeviled every U.S. President since Harry Truman.”
I believe that the prospects for peace as outlined by John Delury are real, but it will take statesmanship and savvy, not brinkmanship and bluster to realize them.
Nobel Prize Laureate Niko Tinbergen writes that scientific research is one of the finest occupations of our mind, and ads that, with art and religion, science is one of the uniquely human ways of meeting nature, in fact the most active way. By developing ways to harness some of the fundamental powers of nature, science has brought us hell on earth in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Science also brings us new insights into the natural bases of peace. Rather than the traditional perception of nature as an arena of unmitigated violent competition, new fields like peace ethology show us that life sustains itself primarily through networking, rather than through combat (2). Applying what science teaches us about our evolved abilities for peace and how to harness them will not bring us heaven on earth, but it will surely move us away from human-made gates of hell.
Dr. Peter Verbeek is an Associate Professor in the Anthropology Department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He teaches in the Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights program and does research on how humans and other animals make and sustain peace.
Footnotes: 1) Stichting Japanse Ereschulden – English; 2) Verbeek, P. & Peters, B.A. (Forthcoming). Peace ethology:Behavioral processes and systems of peace. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Publishers.
**As Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump prepare for the North Korean Summit in Singapore on Tuesday, this repost from last Spring sheds light on the complexity and seriousness of this summit.
by GRIFFIN LEONARD
A lot has been said recently about the seemingly worsening relationship between the US and Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK). Unsurprisingly, much of the commentary revolves around the Trump Administration at a time where the new President seems confronted by numerous international “situations.” The dropping of a MOAB in Afghanistan and missile strikes against Syria, when taken together with heightened tensions between the US and the DPRK, paint a broader picture of the direction the Trump Presidency is taking. While this may be helpful to Americans as they try to understand their President’s decisions, putting Trump as the centerpiece of analysis has the dangerous potential to obscure other important factors, namely the continuity and change that has marked the US-DPRK relationship. Only by including both in our analysis can we begin to understand the events unfolding on the Korean Peninsula.
Like any relationship, that of the US and DPRK does not exist in a vacuum. Their bilateral relations are well known. Diplomatic efforts have failed to yield real progress towards a resolution of the tensions on the Korean Peninsula, much less move towards a sustainable arrangement between the parties involved there. Border incidents that have claimed the lives of South Koreans, North Koreans and Americans have been ongoing for as long as the current border has existed. These incidents have, of course, been the cause of heightened tensions at different times between the US and DPRK.
The relationship is also subject to changes in the international environment. Authoritarian practices in South Korea following the end of the Korean War forced the US to consider what exactly the South Korean people had inherited from the devastating conflict. The terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 raised concerns of nuclear terrorism and therefore nuclear proliferation more generally. The growing power of China in military and economic terms continues to raise the significance of the steps they are or are not willing to take in trying to tackle the issues at hand on the Korean Peninsula. These and other global trends influence the measure of significance which the US attaches to the Korean Peninsula at any given time; and the way by which they choose to engage with the DPRK.
There is no doubt that the election of Donald Trump could be, or cause, another significant change in the US–DPRK relationship. Of central importance is Trump’s demonstrated impulsive and inconsistent behaviour, especially when it comes to how he communicates with others. He differs from other Presidents because not only are the policies towards adversaries and allies in question, but as an international community, we find ourselves wondering how he will behave on a more basic level. Will he put aside basic and long-standing diplomatic decorum, aggravating other world leaders with hostile rhetoric akin to what he employed during his campaign for the Presidency?
The same countries and their leaders that Trump dealt out insults to as 2016 ticked by are the same countries and leaders that he must deal with in 2017.
Of more concern is whether Trump will be able to communicate a clear message to adversaries at all. It remains to be seen whether Trump can frame the many public announcements he has to make in a way that appeals to his domestic support base (something all politicians do) but also conveys the US’ position on important matters to other world leaders, adversary and ally. Doing this requires consistency and coherency across the many mediums through which the President now communicates: social media, informal television interviews and formal White House events and statements. The outlook is not good so far.
It has been widely reported that the Trump Administration’s statements regarding the DPRK have been hostile and inflammatory. This is undoubtedly true. An important aspect to note is that through deliberate decision-making or gaffe, much of the communication by the Trump Administration has created confusion among the parties invested in the Korean Peninsula.
I will explain this point using two examples. First, the vague statement released by Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, following a recent missile test by the DPRK and Trump’s refusal to answer questions on the matter on American television. Trump has long promoted the idea that not to reveal his next move is, in and of itself, a smart move. The issue is that when states do not want to fight over an issue, they seek information about how far they can push their luck, making as large a gain as possible (whether this be in terms of prestige or something more material) while avoiding direct conflict. In other words, they attempt to discern when to yield. To do this, a state must have some idea of what their adversary is willing and/or capable of doing to resolve a dispute in their own favour.
For all the absurdities of the North Korean regime, it is highly unlikely that they want to ever see a direct confrontation with the US. Vagueness on the part of the Trump Administration keeps the DPRK in the dark as to where the line is and increases the chance that they will trip right over it. The DPRK wants to make gains in the form of developing its missile capability. Trump needs to find a way of communicating to their leadership when, where and how the US is willing to act; therefore, talks with DPRK are far from being complete.
The second example is the mistake made by Trump and other officials when an “armada” heading towards Australia was said to be heading in the direction of North Korea. Inaccurate information compounds all the issues related to ambiguity mentioned above. What is more, this error unsettled South Korea with politicians and media outlets questioning Trump’s will and ability to deal with the DPRK. This response should, perhaps, not be unexpected. Given their common border, the DPRK could inflict massive damage on South Korea through conventional weapons alone. Similarly, Japan feels threatens due to their proximity and the 50,000 US troops stationed there. Experts vary in their predictions of by which date the DPRK could develop a missile capable of reaching the US.
Taking these two examples together, while it is clear the rhetoric emanating from the White House is inflammatory, it is less clear whether it is effectively conveying information to the parties involved regarding America’s stance and intentions.
It is important to say that this is not simply a matter of finding Trump to be a distasteful person. His public performance in dealing with this issue is of real significance. While academics debate whether rhetoric utilised by politicians has any influence over the course of events in foreign affairs, policy makers themselves seem to place great importance on the public pronouncements made by state officials. In reading the autobiographies of former US Presidents, one quickly realises that they believe their words are important in directing the course of events; therefore, we should not be surprised that politicians place a lot of value in their own words! The South Korean response to Trump’s mistake in stating that the US was sending an armada towards the Korean Peninsula is an indicator of the importance that other world leaders place in the statements of their colleagues. Trump’s statements can heighten tensions with adversaries and offend allies whom he claims he would persuade to take more of the financial burden of dealing with said adversaries.
Regarding the DPRK, few governments, if any, are so committed to the “performance” of governance. Large portions of the DPRK’s state structure are committed to promoting the party line to both the domestic population of North Korea and the international community. Strict media and Internet control by the state demonstrates the significance attached to the control of public information.
DPRK officials do this precisely because they know that other state leaders and intelligence agencies monitor speeches by regime officials, television broadcasts, and internet traffic, to read between the lines and get a better picture of what happens in their secretive society. Similarly, they would remain committed to trying to glean information from the televised interviews, public speeches and, yes, even tweets of Donald Trump’s Administration. To think otherwise is naïve.
It is easy to allow our focus to drift too quickly to new developments in this unfolding situation. Some elements of the continued tension between the US and DPRK, while not as exciting or topical as Trump’s Presidency, are equally as important in explaining the current state of affairs. One such element is the presence of nuclear weapons. Three parties involved in the dispute, the DPRK, US and China, are nuclear capable to one degree or another.
In an indictment of nuclear deterrence theory, the very manoeuvres–diplomatic, military and otherwise–that both the US and DPRK make due to the significance they attribute to a dispute in which nuclear weapons are involved, may be the very thing that, deliberately or otherwise, spark the use of military force on the Peninsula. Even if it were true that, as proponents of nuclear deterrence advocate, weapons of mass destruction make the cost of entering and engaging in conflict so high that no reasonable state leader would consider doing so, the constant need to balance armaments leads to an arms race that only serves to heighten the tensions one wishes to avoid, increasing the risk of unplanned escalation. It should not be lost on us that this current round of tensions was triggered, in large part, by exactly this: the DPRK undertaking missile tests. Moreover, as explained below, not only could state leaders consider using nuclear weapons despite knowing the consequences, they have!
It is simply a convenient out to equate the problems generated by nuclear weapons with the current occupant of the White House. Throughout his presidential campaign, the question of whether (Trump) was the “type of person” that we would want having control of the US nuclear arsenal was often raised. While this question is reasonable at face value, it suggests that the threat of nuclear weapons does not have so much to do with the weapons themselves as the person empowered to use them or the state that possesses them.
As to the last point, having to ask this question of US electoral candidates belies the idea that certain types of states can be trusted to possess nuclear weapons. One could argue that democratically elected leaders must consider domestic support for a decision to use nuclear weapons, whereas dictators do not. However, of all the situations in which we can imagine decision-makers considering the use of nuclear weapons, cases in which contemplation could be given to domestic support for the idea make up only a small portion. It is likely that such a situation would be characterised by small time-horizons and partial information. If nothing else, it is perfectly consistent with democratic systems that a person we would not want in charge of nuclear weapons can be elected.
Here we are back to the notion of whom. If there are types of people we cannot trust to be in charge of nuclear weapons then perhaps there are types of people that we can trust too?
In the well-known documentary, The Fog of War, in which Robert McNamara imparts lessons from his life, he describes the parties involved (and the world) as having “lucked out” in avoiding nuclear confrontation during the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Regardless of what one thinks of John F. Kennedy, perhaps it is not too strong to say that he was a more experienced political operator than Donald Trump. Yet, even JFK and the leaders of the Soviet Union and Cuba–all rational people, per McNamara, came exceptionally close to making decisions that could end their societies, as they knew them. McNamara concludes the combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations. This is not due to the character of one particular person but the inescapably imperfect process of human decision-making.
The failure to understand both the current events and long-term processes at work in this situation has consequences beyond a lacking analysis. Trump and the members of his administration need to be included in any understanding of US-DPRK relations. On one hand, the Trump Administration undoubtedly plays a role in determining the course of events regarding the Korean Peninsula, so attempts to downplay the administration’s significance is to remove their accountability for the dispute’s trajectory. On the other hand, to ignore ongoing issues, such as the presence of nuclear weapons in this dispute, suggests a fatalistic perspective where the resolution of all international affairs rests on the shoulders of one person – the US President. There are a multitude of drivers of this conflict and thus a multitude of levers that can be pulled in trying to steer the course of events towards a peaceful resolution. Groups of concerned people tackling the issue of continued nuclear stockpiling are only one example. While we rightly continue to understand our political leaders’ decisions, holding them to account for the consequences thereof, it is important to remember that they are not the sole causes or agents of social change.
Griffin Leonard is a third year PhD candidate at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago. His research analyses the role of US Presidential rhetoric in determining militarised interstate dispute outcomes involving the US since 1950. His expertise is in American foreign policy and diplomatic history.
Human beings often use words without understanding their full semantics or definition. Torture is one of those words. The reality of torture, in its actual definition and context, will remain an unknown experience for majority of humanity. Torture, for some, is part of their new normal. The purpose of this blog is to look briefly at the human rights violation of torture through the lens of cultural relativism and moral universalism.
A similar story
In 1994, 19-year-old American Michael Fay lived in Singapore. He made international headlines when a conviction of vandalism and sentencing to six lashes by caning became his punishment. Caning is a part of the corporal punishment system in Singapore. Most recently, a Saudi diplomat received caning lashes for molestation. At the time of Fay’s arrest, President Clinton described the punishment as too harsh, and the Singaporean government reduced the lashes to four. Fay received his lashes and returned home. I mention Fay as an entry point for Otto Warmbier.
I followed Warmbier’s case when it began in January 2016. He was a student from the University of Virginia, sentenced by the North Korean government to 15 years of hard labor over offensive behavior while on a backpacking tour in the country. The accusation brought against him of trying to steal a sign from the hotel where he was staying, resulted in an immediate conviction, considering the action as a “hostile act” and attempt to hurt the working class of Koreans by undermining solidarity. Theft in the People’s Republic of Korea (PRK), regardless of object or size, often results in a public execution or beatings in prison camps and schoolyards as a means for deterring future behaviors. He is an enemy of the state.
Amnesty International notes North Korea’s propensity for arbitrary arrests and detentions. The US State department, at the time of his arrest, called for his immediate release, stating the punishment is “unduly harsh” and if he had been in any other country, the incident would not have resulted in this treatment or conviction. Warmbier, after 18 months as a prisoner in North Korea, died on June 19 in Ohio, following a “humanitarian gesture” of release by the North Koreans.
My initial interest in Otto was his reasoning/logic for travelling to the totalitarian “hermit kingdom” without knowledge of the culture. Yes, due to the fact, he is an American citizen, an appeal for his release and return was a correct gesture by the State Department at the time. However, if he was released in January 2016, what would he or anyone else have learned from that exchange? As Americans, we have cultivated and bought into an American exceptionalism ideology that often highlights our ignorance of international cultural norms and behaviors, thereby positioning us with the short end of the stick. Our American exceptionalism repetitively accuses other countries of torturous treatment of prisoners and other Americans, yet we somehow fail to see the plank in our own eye.
The men in both cases were accused, convicted, sentenced, and received punishment in accordance of the laws in the nations where they were guests. The US government described both punishments as torturous or unfair treatment. Many comments and explanations made and given spoke of the men’s character; however, no one mentioned about their knowledge of the culture of the country’s they visited (lived in, in Fay’s case) or the choice each man made that resulted in a behavior that was punishable by law. Perhaps these men are innocent of the crimes; only they know.
Sally Engle Merry suggests the misunderstanding over culture and human rights narrows to whether the application of rights is culturally relative or universal. She asserts that “Rights are understood as a uniquely Western idea… Culture, on the other hand, is understood as homogenous, integrated system of belief and values attached to a relatively small and isolated group of people. It was this conception of culture which spawned relativism as a moral perspective. Cultural relativism is the social discipline that comes of respect for differences – of mutual respect.” She concedes our understanding of culture informs our knowledge of rights. The notion of human rights found their basis in the identification and protection of civil and political rights, as determined by cultures willing to uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Since 1948, human rights have expanded, and continue to expand, to include the global collective of humanity, framed and spoken in “the preeminent global language of social justice. The changes correlate with some fluid elements of national cultures like McDonaldization, the use of smartphones and social media; changing and adapting to global influences like globalization. In other words, globalization and the application of human rights are determined by and dependent upon the pliable features of a national culture. PRK remains a significant outlier because of national sovereignty.
In “Human Rights along the Grapevine”, Mark Goodale agrees with Merry using a clarifying caveat. He points out that the writers of the UDHR did so with an “anti-internationalism” delegation in mind. To Roosevelt, the understanding and implementation of the UDHR for citizens in countries closed to creating laws that protected human rights, “a curious grapevine” would bring to pass the information about the new normative system. As individuals learned about their human rights, they could initiate a change in culture, from the bottom-up, which cultivates a new national culture that honors the universality of human rights, through the respect and honoring of human rights on a national level first. He suggests the UDHR provides a standard by which global humanity can identity and measure the protection or violation of human rights under specific governments, particularly regarding repression and subjugation. It is important to know that the UDHR does not and cannot override national sovereignty. National sovereignty reigns supreme when it comes to what takes place within the borders of a country. Do human rights require acceptance on an individual country basis—culturally relative–or should they find recognition and protection through global application? Returning to the Warmbier case, let us look at the accusation of the torture by the US.
Torture: Pot meet kettle
Torture, for Callaway and Harrell-Stephenson, is the most significant human rights violation because it not only violates the individual but also instills a system of fear within a society, removing a sense of security. Several international law, covenants, conventions and declarations conclude that torture is a direct violation of a person’s rights and dignity. Article Five of the UDHR states, “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. Article Two of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) reads, “Each state party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.” The United States is a state party to the CAT, yet even in the declaration of agreement, there is a stipulation that invokes national sovereignty:
That the United States considers itself bound by the obligation under article 16 to prevent `cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’, only insofar as the term `cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’ means the cruel, unusual and inhumane treatment or punishment prohibited by the Fifth, Eighth, and/or Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States
It is tempting to think totalitarian and authoritarian regimes are uniquely guilty of torturous actions. Bobby Sands of Ireland as well as former prisoners of Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo), and the photographic evidence from Abu Ghraib are reminders that democratic governments, including the US, can also perpetrate human rights violations. Let us briefly discuss Gitmo and Abu Ghraib as examples of how America treats enemies of the state and prisoners of war based upon the conditions the government stated within the CAT.
“It is very, very scary when you are tortured by someone who doesn’t believe in torture…” Ahmed Errachidi
Callaway and Harrell-Stephenson observe that for the Nazis, the removal of Jews to concentration camps brought about an ‘out of sight, out of minds’ perspective to the population. Apuzzo, Fink, and Risen assert the denial of torture as “enhanced interrogation techniques” positions the US as an entity that contradicts its values by employing tactics that stand in direct opposition to those values. In their article, they present the case that the US frequently conducts arbitrary arrests based upon nonexistent or flimsy evidence. Arrests regularly fails to provide due process to those in custody, flagrantly participates in behaviors where the lines remain blurred as “amounted to torture or succeeded in extracting intelligence”, and discard prisoners without explanation or charges to return to their home countries and families as shells of who they once were.
Gitmo is synonymous with the torture of prisoners by the US. Testimonies of former prisoners, interrogators, physicians, and medical and government documentation speak to the humiliating and abusive tactics utilized by American soldiers and CIA personnel to obtain “information” which could be used to capture and prosecute additional enemies of the state. However, as mentioned in the 60 Minutes interview, torture may not result in the victim providing useful information. The prisoner simply says what is necessary to end the suffering.
Former President George W. Bush determined waterboarding, a technique that stimulates the feeling of drowning and induces stress, does not constituting torture. President Obama in 2009 disagreed, banned its use by the US, and sought to close Gitmo during his presidency. During the 2016 election, Donald Trump promised to reinstate waterboarding and torturous acts, stating, “I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” The collection of stories in the NY Times piece is consistent with the photographs from Abu Ghraib. The photos taken by American soldiers reveal the dishonoring, degrading, and torturous action inflicted upon prisoners of war in American custody. Given our treatment of prisoners, whether actual enemies of the state or someone arrested due to mistaken identity, America has little credibility when attempting to call out PRK on torture.
The line between cultural relativism and universality is thin. The United States, as active perpetrators of torture and degrading punishment including waterboarding, stands cheek-to-cheek with the country it seeks to name and shame into submission. The Curious Case of Otto Warmbier challenges the authority of national sovereignty and cultural relativism in the light of human rights and their universal application. The call to protect human rights is an all or nothing call; there is no in-between. To stand on the values of truth, justice, and law for one person, one area or country, you must stand for it for all persons, areas or countries.
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