The Embarassment That Lingers

26 Apr

It’s a mistake for any progressive party or pundit, to allow conservatives to grab this issue without condemning it.

The North Korean gulag has persisted for twice as long as its Soviet counterpart did. Yet the world looks away. The United States expends its diplomatic energies in negotiations over the regime’s tinpot nuclear and missile programme, with little to show for the effort. South Korean brethren have other things on their minds—the political left wants better relations with the North, while others just wish it was not there. As for China, an ally, it forcibly repatriates North Koreans who have fled across the border, even though they face execution.

Rarely does the gulag intrude. Perhaps the scale of the atrocity numbs moral outrage. Certainly it is easier to lampoon the regime as ruled by extraterrestrial freaks than to grapple with the suffering it inflicts (The Economist is guilty). Yet murder, enslavement, forcible population transfers, torture, rape: North Korea commits nearly every atrocity that counts as a crime against humanity.

A world that places any value on the idea of universal human rights should no longer overlook North Korea’s enormities. China should end its shameful forced repatriation of North Koreans and allow the Red Cross and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees into border areas. It should also cease sheltering the Kims at the UN, which should launch a commission of inquiry. America and South Korea, especially, must not hide behind nuclear diplomacy, but press harder on human rights. On April 15th the state’s young new ruler, Kim Jong Un, marked the centenary of his grandfather’s birth. This third-generation seed of the Kim dictatorship must now be confronted with his own murderous inheritance—a blot on humanity.

It’s not that I want better relations with North Korea. I want China, the Koreas, and Japan to have better relations, and for both Seoul and Pyongyang to stop using their respective populations as counters in a pissing contest between two Potemkin villages. It’s not just that these monstrous gulags linger like athlete’s foot, but that generations of world leaders have lacked the inspiration to end a fratricidal war or to pause long enough from the Middle East or Eastern Europe, to devise a political solution in a forgettable corner of Northeast Asia. I’m amazed conservatives still make a virtue out of what is really the inability to control their emotions and think clearly, both pathologies usually reserved for criminals. The lack of concern except for religious groups indicates, that few constituencies find the Koreas compelling enough for them to expend lobbying capital. Other interests are weightier. I don’t cheer this probable fact, but I also do not support uncritical acceptance of certain interests’ intervention in failed states – as in Africa – that cannot defend themselves against rapacious corporations. I also dread the prospect of such moralizing infusing the current fad for R2P with even more crusading zeal. There might not ever be an end to the militarization of foreign policy and the wholesale trampling of sovereignty by those states with the power to prey on weaker states.

Really, if ridding the world of gulags is so important, then any other sort of compromise loses its moral opprobrium. That even conservatives cannot contemplate such altruism leading from a complete reappraisal of their own intransigence, indicates just where at least half the ethical fault lies.


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