After more than a decade of wars triggered by the attacks of September 11th, 2001, it is time for a new conversation—one that asks serious questions and welcomes a wide array of serious opinions—on how the United States formulates and executes its national security strategy. To address the implications of these and countless other issues, the Armed Forces Committee at the Harvard Kennedy School has established the Values and National Security Project. This is the third article in an ongoing series seeking to promote dialogue on the early 21st century security paradigm. Read the first and second articles here.
After witnessing the horror that was the Holocaust, in the aftermath of WWII we as a human family collectively promised ourselves “never again.” To ensure this, we codified our promise in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948, it marked the first time in history in which inalienable human rights were expressed on a global scale. Included in the declaration is a right to life, liberty, education, rest and leisure, equal treatment before the law, and freedom from slavery. The declaration explicitly states that no one shall be subjected to torture, or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. The declaration is simple and represents a giant leap in mankind’s progress.
However, the case of North Korea is an area where we as a race are collectively failing. Martin Luther King Jr. stated in his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In the spirit of Dr. King’s call, the United States must lead the charge in dealing with human rights failures in North Korea. Gross human rights violations, even in countries as backward and distant as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, are inseparably tied to the national security of the United States.
North Korea has perhaps the worst human rights records in modern history; atrocities and gross crimes against humanity have been occurring continuously for sixty years unchecked. The U.S. State Department estimates that over 200,000 North Koreans are currently living, working, and dying in a network of six political prison camps. The existence of these camps is no secret. In fact, anyone with access to the internet can download Google Earth and zoom in on fenced-in fortresses in various locations throughout North Korea. We know exactly where they are, and we know exactly what goes on there. The North Korean government uses these camps to oppress those members of its own population whom it deems guilty of any number of seemingly small misdeeds. Accidently stepping on a newspaper showing the face of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jung Il, for example, is enough to get you, your children, and your children’s children thrown into a camp for life. Once in the camps, prisoners are forced to perform often dangerous slave labor, usually until death. Public executions, torture, rape, forced abortions, and starvation are common occurrences in the camps. Literally every Article outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is violated there.
The most famous of these camps is known simply as Camp 14. A man named Shin Dong Hyuk is the only known person born in a North Korean prison camp to have successfully escaped. Last November, I had the privilege of meeting Shin when he spoke at Harvard Kennedy School. He told me of the horrific life he lead in Camp 14. His father and mother were sent to Camp 14 when they were 10 and 12 years old, respectively. Shin compared the camp to a zoo and described couples as being bred like animals. The life expectancy of prisoners is only about forty years. On top of surviving for decades by picking out undigested bits of food from pig feces, Shin was forced to watch his mother and brother be executed before his eyes for simply talking of escape. He himself was tortured for months, once being held over hot coals until he passed out from the pain of his own burning flesh.
The best way to peacefully get Pyongyang to address these issues is to crackdown on the regime’s pocketbooks. More specifically, the international community needs to work closely with China to pursue policies that economically isolate North Korea as much as possible. Nearly 75 percent of North Korea’s total trade is exclusively with China. The UN should work with China to freeze North Korea’s financial assets while still providing food aid. The United States can spearhead this effort by cutting off access to U.S. markets to any individual corporation that seeks to do business with North Korea. North Korea’s economy is largely dependent on money laundering and illicit activities. Tufts Fletcher School Professor Lee Sung-Yoon had it right when he suggested the U.S. should cut off cash flow to Pyongyang by freezing the assets of third-country entities. Individual banks in Southeast Asia and elsewhere that hold North Korean financial assets should be denied access to U.S. banks if they do not comply.
All other issues aside, the existence of these labor camps is a disgrace to the entire human race, and we should not rest until North Korea closes them. We once promised ourselves “never again”. It is about time we kept our promise.
Gregory A. Pavone is a Masters in Public Policy Candidate at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and an Ensign in the United States Navy. The viewpoints expressed in this article of those of the author and do not represent the views or opinions of the United States Navy or the United States Government.