The North Korean government recently allowed a pair of American criminals to speak to Western media. Jeffrey Fowle, who has been held in Pyongyang since May, worries that his children in Ohio “might be out on the street,” adding: “If this goes beyond the end of September, then I’m in grave danger of losing my job.” Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American sentenced in April 2013 to 15 years of prison labor, says his health is deteriorating and implores Washington to “send an envoy as soon as possible.” Their crimes? Bae is a missionary guilty of “trying to use religion to overthrow [North Korea’s] political system,”as Newsweek reports. Fowle was arrested for leaving a Bible in his hotel room.
Their ordeals — their “crimes” — shock us as Americans. But this is the norm for the North Korean people. North Korea stands out “for its absolute prohibition of religious organizations and harsh punishments for any unauthorized religious activities,” according to the State Department.
In fact, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is consigned to the lowest tier — the bottom eight — on a U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) ranking. Pyongyang “tightly controls all religious activity and perpetuates an extreme cult of personality venerating the Kim family as a pseudo-religion,” according to USCIRF. “Individuals engaged in clandestine religious activity are arrested, tortured, imprisoned and sometimes executed. Thousands of religious believers and their families are imprisoned in penal labor camps.”
Yet it could be argued that issues of religious liberty are the least of the North Korean people’s worries. After all, North Korea is a place where citizens are required to donate food rations to the armed forces, where people subsist on a diet that relies on “wild foods” — Pyongyang’s Orwellian euphemism for tree bark and grass — during times of scarcity, where children are being orphaned by mass starvation. And yet, the Kim dynasty diverts one-third of its GDP (gross domestic product) to the armed forces, tests long-range rockets and nuclear bombs, and buys new tanks. North Korea has 200 more tanks today than in 2008.
It gets worse.
The government of North Korea is guilty of “a wide array of crimes against humanity” and “unspeakable atrocities,” a special United Nations panel concludes in a sobering report. “The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” according to the 372-page document.
The government-sponsored crimes include “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment … 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.”
The report also finds in North Korea a “complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as of the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association,” noting that between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners are being held in prison camps.
The North Korean regime engages in systemic sexual violence, including rape, forced abortions, and infanticide.
It gets worse.
The North Korean regime engages in systemic sexual violence, including rape, forced abortions, and infanticide. Newborns are regularly killed by drowning and suffocation, the U.N. reports.
Many forced abortions are a function of Pyongyang’s retrograde desire to preserve a “pure Korean race,” according to the U.N. “The concept of ‘pure Korean blood’ remains in the DPRK psyche,” the U.N. report notes, quoting a former North Korean internal-security official. “Having a child who is not ‘100 percent’ Korean makes a woman ‘less than human.’”
Recognizing the “many parallels” between North Korea and the Nazi regime, Michael Kirby, chairman of the U.N. panel, concedes, “I never thought that in my lifetime it would be part of my duty to bring revelations of a similar kind.”
Pointing to the nature and volume of Pyongyang’s crimes, the U.N. condemns “the inadequacy of the response of the international community.” (Of course, in doing so, it is condemning itself.)
“The United Nations must ensure that those most responsible for the crimes against humanity committed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are held accountable. Options to achieve this end include a Security Council referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC) or the establishment of an ad hoc tribunal by the United Nations.”
A Nuremburg-style tribunal or ICC referral may be warranted, but the creaking machinery of the U.N. Security Council — where China routinely shields North Korea from international condemnation and punitive sanctions — prevents any such action. And even if the U.N. Security Council somehow agreed to haul North Korean leaders before the ICC tribunal, the ICC has no power to apprehend the accused. That task would be left to civilization’s first responder and last line of defense — the U.S. military — and that would be an act of war.
No one of sound mind wants another war in Korea. The toll from the 1950-53 Korean War should give us pause: 38,000 Americans, 103,000 South Koreans, 316,000 North Koreans, 422,000 Chinese and 2 million civilians killed during three years of conventional warfare. Six decades later, we have the specter of a mushroom cloud hanging over the sequel.
But there are things we can do.
Preach from the bully pulpit
“A little less détente,” President Ronald Reagan once counseled with regard to another evil regime, “and more encouragement to the dissenters might be worth a lot of armored divisions.” In other words, President Barack Obama, congressional leaders, the secretary of state, diplomats, and other policymakers should draw attention — relentlessly — to the North Korean regime’s illegitimacy, brutality, and widespread assault on basic human rights.
The purpose here would not be to shame Pyongyang — for the shameless cannot be shamed — but rather to challenge its enablers. Toward that end, the White House should shame and name regimes that support the monsters in Pyongyang (China and Russia come to mind), shine a light on the daily plight of the North Korean people, point out the vast differences between North Korea and South Korea, and offer a platform to the DPRK’s expat enemies.
Prepare to prevent
“We’re within an inch of war almost every day in that part of the world,” former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said of the Korean Peninsula in 2012. He wasn’t exaggerating. In 2010, North Korea shelled a South Korean island and torpedoed a South Korean warship, killing dozens of South Koreans. In 2012, North Korea conducted two long-range missile tests. In 2013, Kim Jong-un, the third member of the Kim dynasty to rule north of the 38th Parallel, detonated a nuclear bomb, proclaimed the 1953 armistice “dead” and threatened nuclear strikes against the U.S. And so far this year, Pyongyang has conducted almost 100 missile, artillery, and rocket tests.
The only thing that has maintained the fragile peace in Korea since 1953 is America’s deterrent strength. Yet the U.S. defense budget has fallen from 4.7 percent of GDP in 2009 to 3.4 percent today and to 3.2 percent next year. If current projections hold, it will be just 2.7 percent of GDP a decade from now. The last time America invested less than 3 percent on defense was, ominously, 1940. This is the best way to invite the very worst of possibilities: what Churchill called “temptations to a trial of strength.”
Policymakers should recognize that a well-equipped military is not a liability to cut but an asset to nurture. And people of faith should recognize that the purpose of deterrent military strength is by definition to deter war, not wage it. As President George Washington explained, “There is nothing so likely to produce peace as to be well prepared to meet an enemy.”
A policy of patient preparedness — bracing for the worst, getting through another day, another year, another term without another war — is how U.S. presidents have measured success in Korea for 61 years. Still, in light of Pyongyang’s beastly crimes, one wonders how much longer the friendless North Korean people can hold on.
Pray for transformation
“The real business of your life as a saved soul,” Oswald Chambers wrote a century ago, “is intercessory prayer.”
That brings us to the most important thing we can do as Christians. “The real business of your life as a saved soul,” Oswald Chambers wrote a century ago, “is intercessory prayer.” If, as Asia specialist Minxin Pei observes, “No modern authoritarian dynastic regime has succeeded in passing power to the third generation,” then the Kim dynasty isn’t long for this world. Perhaps our prayers can push it over the edge.
As a kid, I remember a solemn man praying a simple but crazy prayer: “For the conversion of the Soviet Union,” he prayed aloud. For years and years, he offered that prayer during open-prayer time. This was in 1982, 1983, and 1984 — among the coldest days of the Cold War. The atheist Soviet Union will never be converted, I thought. What a silly prayer. But it happened, and it happened peacefully, because so many of God’s people prayed so earnestly for it.
In some mysterious way, intercession works. It pays to recall that Moses, Mordecai, Peter, and Paul were all intercessors. And then there’s Jonah. At the Lord’s prompting, Jonah engaged in a kind of intercessory prayer for Nineveh, albeit less than wholeheartedly, and God changed the heart of Nineveh’s king.
The good news is that God still changes hearts and still hears the prayers of imperfect people like Jonah and us.
Alan Dowd writes at the crossroads of faith and public policy.