North Korea's menace has been all over the news, including its missiles tests, visible preparations for a sixth nuclear test and its threats to attack a U.S. aircraft carrier and to reduce the U.S. to ashes with a "super-mighty preemptive strike." Assorted experts, debating how to handle the rogue regime of Kim Jong Un, have been weighing the pros and cons of trying yet more sanctions, new negotiations, tough talk, pressure on China, displays of military might, actual use of military force to take out North Korean missiles or even nuclear facilities, or assorted permutations of all these options and then some.
Amid all the strategizing — much of which envisions somehow continuing to "manage" the North Korea problem — it's easy to sideline a basic and profoundly important element of the Pyongyang regime, a quality we should take into account quite thoroughly, front and center, before considering any course that might leave the Kim regime in power. The feature I'm talking about is the raw moral obscenity of Kim's North Korea.
That obscenity might seem so entirely self-evident that it needs no repeated mention. We know that Kim is a tyrant, ruling a country that doubles as a prison for its 25 million people. We know that Kim keeps power by doing horrible things to those who fail to please him, including members of his own family. It was all over the news in 2012 when he swept aside his uncle and purported mentor, Jang Song Thaek, who was abruptly denounced and executed. Kim's regime appears to have been behind the horrific assassination with VX nerve agent of Kim's half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, just two months ago, in a Malaysian airport.
We know that Kim runs a state which last year year sentenced a visiting American student, Otto Warmbier, to 15 years at hard labor for the prank of taking down a political propaganda poster from a hotel wall in Pyongyang — thus turning Warmbier into a likely bargaining chip in North Korea's long-running hostage games (this weekend comes news that North Korea has added another visiting American to its current haul). We also know, as reports over the past dozen years have richly documented, that a native North Korean showing disregard for the totalitarian propaganda of Kim's regime would risk being executed outright, or possibly exiled incommunicado, along with three generations of his or her family, to the brutal labor camps in which the regime currently holds an estimated 80,000-120,000 political prisoners.
But that scarcely begins to sum up the systematic depravities with which the totalitarian Kim regime has held onto power for three generations, from founder Kim Il Sung, to his son Kong Jong Il, to the current Kim Jong Un (who inherited power upon the death of his father, more than five years ago). For decades, reports of the Kim-family regime's atrocities have been seeping out of North Korea, including a landmark report in 2003 from the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea on North Korea's prison camps ("The Hidden Gulag"), and another groundbreaking report in 2012 on what amounts to North Korea's system of political apartheid ("Marked for Life: Songbun, North Korea's Political Classification System").
The evidence, especially the testimony from defectors, has been so harrowing that a few years ago even the United Nations finally took serious notice, and set up a Commission of Inquiry (widely referred to as the COI), which in 2014 produced a 372-page report on human rights — or the complete absence thereof — in the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea.
This report, one of the best things to emerge in our time from an often morally obtuse UN, concluded, in the words of a summary released by the UN (boldface is mine):
…crimes against humanity have been committed by officials of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, pursuant to policies established at the highest levels of the State. These crimes against humanity entail extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation."
(That "prolonged starvation" refers not only to the horror of starving prisoners to death in the camps, but also to the mass famine of the mid-1990s, in which the Pyongyang regime dealt with a shortage of food by using its central planning apparatus to sustain the ruling party and one of the world's largest standing armies, while deliberately depriving of sustenance those deemed least loyal to the regime. By some estimates, one million or more North Koreans starved to death.)
The COI further concluded that the crimes of the North Korean regime were "ongoing" and that (again, boldface is mine):
…the gravity, scale and nature of these violations committed by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea can be characterized as a totalitarian state that does not content itself with ensuring the authoritarian rule of a small group of people, but seeks to dominate every aspect of its citizens' lives and terrorizes them from within."
That's the reality behind both the kitsch and the arsenal of Kim Jong Un. That's the reality that produces those crowds of North Koreans who turned out to cheer frantically for Kim Jong Un last Saturday, when he celebrated the 105th birthday of his grandfather Kim Il Sung — founder of this grotesque totalitaran dynasty — by parading missiles through the streets of Pyongyang.
Any attempt to bring down Kim Jong Un is high-risk, fraught with the danger that his regime might open fire across the Demilitarized Zone with a bombardment that could inflict mass casualties in Seoul. The risks have grown over the years, as one U.S. administration after another has kicked the problem down the road, with failed nuclear deals under Presidents Clinton and Bush, followed by President Obama's passive and disastrous policy of "strategic patience." Under President Obama, the U.S. basically bore witness and relied on sanctions, while the threats began to accelerate and compound dramatically. The Kim regime restarted its plutonium-producing nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, went public with a uranum-enrichment facility that the regime had previously denied (and appears to have since expanded), torpedoed and sank a South Korean frigate, shelled a South Korean island, carried out missiles tests galore, conducted four nuclear tests (bringing the total to date to five, including a first test on Bush's watch, in 2006, followed by the four on Obama's watch, in 2009, 2013 and two in 2016) and advertised its program to develop submarine-launched missiles.
All this must be taken into account, as President Trump contends with the unenviable task — part of the Obama legacy — of defusing the ticking bomb that is North Korea. But somewhere in there — in choosing between strategies of "managing" the Pyongyang regime, versus bringing it down — it would behoove the U.S., South Korea and free nations around the globe, to keep squarely in mind the monstrous character of Kim's totalitarian state. By any moral measure, this is a regime that needs to be obliterated.
Yes, there are good arguments to be made that in matters of geopolitics, the moral course may not always be wisest. In World War II, Roosevelt and Churchill determined that to defeat Nazi Germany, they had to ally themselves with Stalin's Soviet Union. In today's world, the U.S. cannot solve every problem, or right every wrong. But the menace of North Korea resides not simply in its increasingly dangerous arsenal, but in the horror that the Kim regime, ensconced in the cockpit of a nation state, has been allowed for decades to carry on with its reign of sickening and systematic cruelties — while the world looks on, and passes resolutions, and writes reports, and talks about it, but basically, for fear of Kim's weapons and savagery, lets it ride.
It is now more than three years since the UN released its utterly damning report, and 14 years since HRNK released satellite photos of the North Korean gulag plus accounts of the atrocities routinely inflicted within. That this setup carries on, basically unimpeded, is corrupting to any decent world order, and hideous for those directly in its thrall. It is, quite simply, wrong.
Someday, the Kim regime will fall. Whether that comes sooner or later, whether it comes in some manner of our choosing, or, against the totalitarian odds, from inside North Korea itself, all these things are hard to predict. But one thing I'm sure of. When the Pyongyang regime falls, and its inner recesses are exposed to daylight, the free countries of the world are going to face quite a reckoning of conscience. In calculating the sacrifice that might be needed to bring down Kim Jong Un and his obscene regime, one of the questions we should also be asking is, what are we sacrificing if we don't?
Claudia Rosett is Foreign Policy Fellow with the Independent Women’s Forum, and author of the Encounter Books Broadside, What To Do About the UN.