North Korea ups the ante. Will the world's democracies fold?
Tensions are rising in the Korean Peninsula, following confirmation by international investigators that North Korea torpedoed a South Korean ship in March, killing 46 sailors which were South Korea’s worst military fatalities since the Korean War ended in 1953.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak vowed to cut off nearly all trade with North Korea and to deny North Korean merchant ships permission to use South Korean sea lanes. South Korea also plans to broadcast propaganda messages into the North and to drop leaflets by air.
The United States is planning joint military exercises with South Korea in a show of resolve.
China does not want to do anything that might further inflame the situation, while its friends in North Korea are talking about going to war.
As for the United Nations, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters at his monthly press conference at UN headquarters in New York that the evidence laid out in the report of the international investigators "is overwhelming and deeply troubling." Ban Ki-moon expressed his grave concerns, not only on behalf of the United Nations but also personally as a South Korean citizen. “I have a very strong attachment and even a sense of responsibility,” he told reporters. “Now, serving as Secretary-General, this is most troubling for me to see what is happening in the Korean Peninsula - that’s my motherland.”
The Secretary General said that the Security Council will be conferring on what “appropriate” measures to take against the rogue regime. What that means is anyone’s guess, since China will most likely use its veto power to make sure that North Korea gets no more than another slap on the wrist following the ineffective sanctions imposed after North Korea’s missile and nuclear arms testing.
China’s solicitude for North Korea should not be surprising, considering that China has been North Korea’s largest trading partner and supplier of assistance (through subsidized trade and direct transfers). Moreover, as pointed out by the Congressional Research Service, “Beijing values North Korea as a buffer between the democratic South Korea and the U.S. forces stationed there, as a rationale to divert U.S. and Japanese resources in the Asia Pacific toward dealing with Pyongyang and less focused on the growing military might of China.”
For its part, the United Nations itself is still throwing North Korea a lifeline, so to speak. Irrespective of its government’s aggressive actions, humanitarian aid to North Korea will continue, promised Ban Ki-moon. He emphasized the needs of the malnourished children, calling them “the leaders of our future generations.”
After his formal news conference was over, I approached the Secretary General and asked him what level of confidence he had that the humanitarian aid would actually reach the people in North Korea who needed it. I reminded him how previous aid projects to help the people sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme had failed.
All that Ban Ki-moon could say in response was that “We have to try.”
Unfortunately, it is a doomed effort. The North Korean regime has a habit of raiding the UN piggybank. For example, it convinced the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to provide hard currency payments without any safeguards. Those funds ended up lining the dictator Kim Jong-Il's pocket. At least $20 million was transferred from the UNDP directly to the North Korean regime for so-called development projects. The UNDP enabled North Korea to use UN-affiliated accounts to launder money and to import dual-use technology. As a consequence of this scandal, the UNDP had shut down its North Korea operations, but has since decided to resume them.
The terrible malnutrition that Ban Ki-moon laments is a direct result of the regime’s cruel neglect and mismanagement. It lets its people suffer from severe food shortages and a near-total breakdown in the public health system while it squanders money on nuclear arms and missiles. The UN’s World Health Organization has managed to get some limited rations delivered to less than a third of the neediest people. While the World Health Organization claims it has international staff monitoring distribution of food aid, reports have surfaced that people getting food are giving it back to the government.
As long as this closed regime stays in power, there is little the United Nations can do to really break through and reach the imprisoned population with humanitarian aid, even with the best of intentions. The aid will be squandered by Kim Jong-Il and his henchmen, as they have done before with development assistance. The UN is simply enabling the government to continue to survive.
The back of this regime must be broken by strangling its economy and quarantining entry and exit of ships to and from North Korean ports suspected of carrying nuclear or other military equipment and materials. There is no other way to save its people.
Article Seven of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court defines various categories of acts that constitute crimes against humanity including murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation or forcible transfer of population, imprisonment, torture, rape, sexual slavery or enforced prostitution, persecution and enforced disappearance of persons. North Korea is guilty of virtually all of these horrendous crimes against its own people, yet nothing is being done to hold its leaders to account.
Even if the International Criminal Court should take some action against the North Korean regime, it will mean nothing. Kim Jong-Il need only look at what is happening with Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir as an example. The Court issued a warrant for al-Bashir’s arrest more than a year ago on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. Not only is al-Bashir still free, but he will be serving yet another term as president. Two top UN officials in Sudan are even planning to attend his inauguration ceremony.
Decisive action against North Korea, beyond what the United Nations is capable of doing, is needed immediately. Will the world’s democracies finally have the courage it takes to put this aggressive dictatorship in its place once and for all? So far, it does not look promising.