The North Korean Public: Not Our Enemy
The humanitarian crisis in North Korea has become hidden by politics and media perception. It deserves to be the center of our concerns and negotiations.
Through my exposure to South Korean and Western media, I have seen numerous portrayals of North Koreans: the evil spies on a TV show, dangerous terrorists and criminals. In general, North Koreans seem to be consistent go-to villains in the media, whether in reality or fiction.
While this perception is, of course, not completely unexpected given the totalitarian and volatile nature of the country, it has unfortunately led to the near-complete disregard of the humanitarian crisis in North Korea.
It is difficult to feel empathy for those from a country that we recognize to be an enemy, something that I struggled with when I was first considering starting to tutor English to North Korean refugees.
For years, the rationale has been that the issue of human rights should not ‘get in the way’ of the larger goal of denuclearization. During the United States-North Korea 2019 Summit, President Trump waived all concerns regarding human rights in the region and focused solely on denuclearization.
This is not to say that denuclearization is not an important subject to be addressed. As a Korean-American living in Seoul, I have every reason to be invested in North Korea’s denuclearization as I am perhaps one of those that will be most affected should North Korea choose to deploy their nuclear weapons.
Yet, the importance of denuclearization does not mean that the plight of the North Korean public, which I consider to be a matter deserving of equal concern, should be ignored.
According to an assessment by the Human Rights Watch, the average North Korean has been surviving on just 300g per person a day, or the estimated weight of 3 apples a day. On the other hand, Americans consume around 2kg per day. Furthermore, the UN has consistently reported acts of systematic and widespread human rights abuses by the North Korean regime, including murder, abuse, forced labor, and toture. According to Thomas Buergenthal, who served on an International Bar Association panel investigating North Korean prisons and is a survivor of Auschwitz, the “conditions in North Korean labor camps are as severe and brutal as the Nazi camps were.”
Knowing these facts, it would be unfitting to still view North Koreans, in particular the public, as the enemy. The North Korean public deserves our compassion, not our hatred. Viewing the North Korean people as hostages in their own country will help us elevate the question of human rights in the country higher up on the priority list.
Not only do the North Korean people deserve our attention, but also our focus in talks with North Korea. The topic of human rights violations and the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the country warrants a near equal amount of attention as denuclearization in negotiations.
Even North Korea views the known importance of denuclearization as a free pass for the country’s humanitarian crisis. For example, in the past, when the UN has pursued possible human rights violations in North Korea, North Korea responded by threatening to resume nuclear tests.
However, North Korea is able to use nuclear tests as leverage in negotiations because they too are aware that we view human rights as a low priority. While it is very possible that there will be drawbacks to taking a stance against the North Korean government’s treatment of its citizens, this does not make the situation any less deserving of our attention. How can we expect the North Korean government to make their human rights situation a priority when even we don’t?