What About Human Rights in North Korea?


Yesterday, a group of independent human rights specialists called for United Nations member states to investigate the ongoing human rights abuses in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

What’s going on in North Korea is no joke. Allegedly, there are hundreds of thousands of people held in what have been described as “gulags” and “concentration camps.” These camps have been open since the 1950s and have been used as a tool for repressing any form of political dissent.

According to the UN article:

“Many prisoners have been declared guilty of political crimes such as expressing anti­socialist sentiments, having unsound ideology, or criticizing the Government,” said El-Hadji Malick Sow, who currently chairs the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. “But all it takes to be sent to the camps is reading a foreign newspaper.”

According to the experts, up to three generations of family members of detainees are sent to the camps on the basis of guilt by association, or yeonjwa je.

What should we do when liberty is abused abroad? Do we have a moral obligation to help these people? What about state sovereignty?

State sovereignty and human rights have been diametrically opposed through much of history. The very definition of state sovereignty means autonomy over domestic affairs. Therefore, when considering intervening for human rights, one must make a choice: What is more important, a state’s sovereignty, or its people’s liberties?

Unfortunately, in the world of international affairs, reaching out to defend a people’s liberties takes a lot more than just slacktivism, as was seen with the “Save Darfur” crowd. It requires thinking about precedent, the loss of American soldiers’ lives, and paying for expansionary wars. The United States does not have the capital or patience for more war.

Sadly, this means that the United States should sit idly by while the DPRK forces its own citizens into work camps.

Human rights violations in Sri Lanka

Human rights violations in Sri Lanka

This is nothing new. Should we intervene in North Korea, we should also consider intervening in 
Uzbekistan, where there is compulsory sterilization and torture is common practice. Or what about 
Turkmenistan? They purged anyone with Russian citizenship in this past decade and once imprisoned, like the DPRK, prisons suffer from overcrowding and inadequate nutrition and medical care. We should also consider the human rights violations in Tibet, Sudan, Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, Burma and Sri Lanka.

The frank and sad fact is that the United States does not have the resources nor the incentive to help these people.

So why do we always hear about North Korean human rights violations and none of the other above-mentioned atrocities?


South Korea and Japan are both under the United States’ nuclear umbrella; should any rogue state attack them, we have promised that we will respond with nuclear force. Unfortunately, the primary security threat to these two countries has been testing their own nukes for a while now, and this past month, threatened South Korea with “final destruction” during a debate at the United Nations Conference on Disarmament.

All of the press we are seeing about North Korean labor camps is meant to vilify DPRK. It is much easier to get a reluctant, liberal public to go to war if there are moral motivations in addition to security. Anticipate a greater call for intervention as the UN continues “investigating” North Korea.

The American people should not support intervening in North Korean labor camps; it is an excuse, like looking for nuclear material in Iraq in 2003, to preemptively invade the country, this time with the UN’s blessing. The American public should wait for North Korea to become an actual security concern for us or our East Asian allies. Ideally, however, the mutually assured destruction nature of nukes will prevent North Korea from acting beyond rattling its sabers. Indeed, by not intervening now, we may save more lives from deterring war than from intervening in the labor camps.