North Korea: The Untouchable State?

In today’s current international climate, North Korea represents a giant question mark on the international agenda. No state knows how to deal with the ‘North Korean issue,’ as North Korea commonly positions itself as an individual actor on the defensive from the rest of the world. This began when Kim Il-Sung introduced the philosophy of Juche, or self-reliance, which then influenced North Korea’s development. This can even be exemplified by looking at satellite photographs of North Korea at night. Where the surrounding countries of China and South Korea are gleaming with electricity, North Korea is distinguishable by its stark contrast; a sea of blackness. This can be attributed to the rapidly failing economy of the state since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and, with it, the ally’s cheap and available trade, especially oil. Since this downturn in North Korean imports, the country has economically, politically, and emotionally struggled. As North Korea declined, so did its ability and willpower to promote successful human rights initiatives.

Portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-un by Nicor

The human rights abuses have significantly increased because of the so-called self-reliance of the North Korean state. For example, the country relies on foreign aid to feed millions of its people, and it is estimated that up to two million people have died since the mid-1990s because of a lack of food due to natural disasters and economic mismanagement. This foreign aid, however, is minimal to none, because North Korea has successfully alienated itself from the rest of the international community, and identified itself as an ‘enemy’ to the Western world. The United Nation’s Commission on Human Rights in North Korea has gathered evidence into some of these human rights abuses. The worst of them take the form of prison camps, known as kwanliso, where it is believed that North Koreans who are seen as opponents of the government are being starved and executed, numbering up to a few hundred thousand. It has also been reported that there are still up to 120,000 prisoners being held in these camps. This has caused the Western world to draw distinct parallels between North Korea and Nazi Germany. Amnesty International also states that North Korea is currently participating in the practice of torture as well as a prevention of freedom of expression on its citizens, which is further heightened by the tightening of controls to prohibit the communication of North Koreans to the outside world. While North Korea largely commits these atrocities against their citizens on a daily basis, their public platform insists the silent state is doing what they can to promote human rights, supported by their ratifying of four key international human rights treaties. However, despite this, it has been proven that political and civil rights are nonexistent; organized political opposition, independent media, and free trade unions are prohibited; and religious freedom is largely repressed.

The Arirang Mass Games in Pyongyang, by Stephan

Undeterred by this vast array of human rights abuses, North Korea has remained untouchable. One of the reasons for this is due to their media silence. North Koreans only receive official media from the North Korean state, and no Western media is allowed. In addition to this, due to North Korea’s policy of self-reliance, the West has no idea what is actually happening in the declining state, as they are largely prevented from traveling there. This media and knowledge gap contributes to the main source of North Korea’s power; their supposed nuclear weapons capabilities. North Korea has said that they have conducted successful nuclear tests in 2006, 2009, 2013, and 2016, with the final test being a hydrogen bomb. North Korea has also stated they are on a path to making long range missiles. While the Western world has doubts regarding these capabilities, as proof is minimal and is mainly constituted by North Korean dialogue, the fear still exists. North Korea was and continues to remain a consistently volatile enemy of the Western world. Talks have been in place so as to stop North Korean nuclear production in exchange for lifting of United Nations sanctions on the state, however North Korea has often backtracked on these negotiations.

This begs the question, what now? While is it doubtful that North Korea has the extensive capabilities they claim to have, it is possible they have something. Due to the unpredictable leaders of North Korea, it would be unwise for the West to intervene. North Korea continues to threaten that, if there is a humanitarian intervention of any kind to combat the human rights abuses, they will launch an attack on South Korea, a United States ally. Due to the inability to know for certain how long the missiles’ range is, it is a problematic situation. The west cannot interfere without direct threat to their allies, or themselves. While the United Nations Human Rights Council decided on Wednesday to appoint a panel of experts to discuss legally prosecuting North Korean leaders for crimes against humanity and is therefore attempting to solve find a solution to this problem, no such solution has yet been made. Until then, North Korea will remain untouchable in regards to stopping the human rights abuses that plague the country.

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