Spotlight: On North Korea, A Call to Action

North KoreaThe Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge, the Rwandan genocide – in each of these cases the world stood by and did nothing while hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, died in horrible and unnecessary ways. In each of these cases, after the fact, the world told itself that it hadn’t fully appreciated the enormity of what was happening at the time – that if it had known, it would have done something to stop it. In each of these cases, that has been a lie.

The Armenian genocide was documented as it was occurring by the American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau. His assessment could hardly have been graver: “I am confident that the whole history of the human race contains no such horrible episode as this.” In his official capacity, he challenged the Ottoman authorities, who insisted that their administration of Armenia was a domestic matter. Again, Morgenthau:

“When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact.”

The first Nazi concentration camp was established in 1933, eight years prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entrance into World War II. In the meantime, the United States maintained a cautious stance towards events in Europe, even going as far as to deny entry to the MS St. Louis when it showed up on the American coast with more than 900 Jewish passengers looking for safe harbor. Canada also turned them away, and the ship was forced to return to Europe – where nearly a quarter of its passengers died in concentration camps.

During a four-year period between 1975 and 1979, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge massacred more than 2 million people – often for the crime of being literate. The then-Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, had this to say to Thailand’s Foreign Minister in 1975:

You should also tell the Cambodians that we will be friends with them. They are murderous thugs, but we won’t let that stand in our way. We are prepared to improve relations with them.

In the end, it took a Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia to stop the killing.

Again, in 1994, the world stood by as 800,000 Rwandans – constituting up to 20% of the country’s population – were hacked to pieces in a spate of killing that lasted four months. And again, the United States was on the wrong side of history. This time, it was the Clinton Administration that, in order to minimize American involvement, did everything it could to slow the response process down at the UN Security Council. The task of obfuscation fell to the Ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright. Later, she would say that “[her] deepest regret from [her] years in public service [was] the failure of the United States and the international community to act sooner to halt these crimes.”

Much of the diplomatic smoke and mirrors hinged on the US’s efforts to prevent the use of the term ‘genocide’ to describe what was happening in Rwanda, which would have triggered a series of international legal obligations. At the time, Susan Rice was serving as a member of the National Security Council, as the director for international organizations and peacekeeping. According to reporting by Samantha Power – the current American Ambassador to the UN – Rice had this to say about the implications of calling what was happening in Rwanda a genocide: “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November election?” The message was clear: do nothing, but don’t call it a genocide.

Later, Susan Rice reflected on her experience:

I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.

Self-flagellation for past mistakes is easy; actually doing things differently if you get another chance is hard. Today, Susan Rice heads the National Security Council for another Democratic president. And again, Susan Rice has participated in the efforts of a president to disengage from a murky conflict zone with countless civilian casualties: this time in Syria.

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So much for words.

Earlier this month, the United Nations drew the world’s attention to North Korea by releasing a report cataloguing some of that country’s worst human rights abuses. By and large, the world has grown accustomed to the Hermit Kingdom’s eccentricities. Poor, bizarre, and dug-in, the militaristic regime is easy to dismiss unless it’s actively throwing a tantrum. The UN’s report was a reminder of the horrors that the Kim family has inflicted on North Korea’s beleaguered citizens: rape, murder, forced-abortions, enslavement, and – often – starvation. A former prison camp inmate told the commission that he was made to burn the bodies of people who had died from starvation and use the remains as fertilizer. The UN’s conclusions are clear: “The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”

I don’t know what to do about North Korea. But I do know that the world can’t plead ignorance at the scale of the suffering. Decades from now, when the regime has fallen and the inevitable flood of documents comes, I wonder if Susan Rice will be saying that she wished she had known more. If she does, I bet she won’t be alone. Don’t believe it.

Here’s what I do know: North Korea cannot survive without China. And the Chinese regime can’t survive without access to Western markets. I also know that the United States and Europe have prioritized their economic relationship with China over the risk of harming trade by demanding that the Chinese do more. When substantive attention is paid to North Korea, the focus is almost exclusively on their nuclear arsenal and not on their human rights abuses.

Those are choices. Choices we’ve made and choices that our allies have made.

Do I know if serious pressure on China could improve the lives of North Koreans? No. But I do know that we haven’t tried. Now, you do too.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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