No doubt, the conference celebrating the one year anniversary of the UN COI Report was a valuable “state of affairs” gathering in terms of understanding the turbulent events of the past year. I do believe that I can say with confidence that any individuals who watched or attended the anniversary conference, hosted by CSIS, can scarcely argue that there was not a sense of nuance within the information provided and discussed. However, in the same breath, there was doubtlessly a cautious sense of disappointment with the conference – at least, for some in the crowd. As a spectator to the entire event, though I ultimately find immense value in the scale and meaning of the conference, I have the same criticism of this event as I have had of nearly all North Korea-related events that I have attended:
The easy questions were answered, but the hard questions were nowhere to be found. First: what is the difference between an easy question and a hard question? It all depends on depth. Here is an example: the current “craze” in North Korean affairs is the human rights aspect of the situation (No doubt, due to the release of and the response to the COI and recent events regarding defector testimony). To this end, there is an endless supply of easy questions:
Are there gross Human Rights abuses in North Korea? Yes.
Is there physical evidence of these abuses? Yes.
Are these abuses carried out as a matter of state policy? Yes.
Do the methods of these abuses manifest themselves in the forms of torture, prison camps, and the sort? Yes.
Can the leadership be held accountable for the execution of these abuses? Yes.
Is there any reason to believe claims by the North Korean government dialog regarding human rights in the DPRK are merely a US plot in the US-controlled UN? No.
But when we delve deeper – particularly to the point there human rights and security concerns begin to overlap – the questions become more difficult; not necessarily difficult to answer, but, rather, difficult to stomach…
Let’s take another example: clearly, human rights is the focus right now – and organizations such as LiNK, HRNK, and even my own Truth and Human Rights in North Korea have done much to push the importance of human rights considerations in the grand scheme of dialog surrounding North Korea. However, at the end of the day, the story does not and will never end with just human rights. When asked as to whether or not the North Korean situation can be resolved by primarily focusing on the human rights aspect of the situation, most reasonable experts, activists, and watchers will either say no or hesitate to answer. Even LiNK, which has had very real and notable success in rescuing North Koreans and spreading awareness, admits that advocacy and work on the human rights front is unlikely to resolve the situation by itself.
That raises further questions: what are the limits of human rights advocacy? If human rights work cannot solve the problem, what can? What is the endgame for North Korea should the human rights focus run out of steam, leverage, or, dare I say, effective relevance?
These are hard questions.
It is easy to understand why these questions are hard. For starters, they put a finite limit on the efficacy of human rights-focused work in the grand scheme of North Korea dialog. Secondly, they run the risk of lending further legitimacy to the looming sentiment that force may be necessary to achieve an endgame in North Korea. Needless to say, the use of force scenario itself is unideal in that it embodies a possible (perhaps likely) lose-lose situation for both sides should it be pursued – resulting in a situation wherein the “solution” is clear, but the will to pursue that option is absent. This impasse – the MAD concept in a nutshell – can be easily avoided should one simply avoid the topic and the hard questions associated with it. That being the case, we usually like to avoid even remotely talking about this issue and, thus, most North Korea related events bear this criticism from me.
I must reemphasize that, though producing answers to questions such as these can be difficult, intellectual difficulty is not what makes them hard questions. Rather, it is stomaching the possibility that the North Korea endgame may not be pleasant that makes them and others hard. With limits on human rights advocacy, population empowerment, and other solutions that do not involve bullets and bombs, solutions that do involve bullets and bombs come ever so closer to the edge of necessity. Of course, the problem with this side of the argument is that no party is willing to shoulder the possibly enormous human cost of a conflict between the two Koreas – even if it were in the name of liberating the people of the North. The result? We wait. We wait for something, anything, to happen. We might wait for months, years, or even decades for something – good or bad – to happen.
I will not discuss the problems with defining exactly what we are waiting for (Chiefly, the widespread use of the word “collapse”) – Different day, different article. However, what is clear to me is that there is a certain apprehension associated with discussing this possibility or even asking questions that may lead to discussing this possibility on most fronts of the issue. This much is visible at most relevant events – and even at the COI anniversary conference.
We have doubtless come very far with human rights and we have every reason to believe that we can and will go even further; however, at some point, we will have to confront certain possibilities. These questions and others will require answers sooner or later. The answer may be hard to stomach, but they will at least put all of our efforts into a context – albeit, painfully. At some point, this discussion needs to be had, and I await the day and conference during which we can have this conversation. Part of me hopes that it will happen at the next COI anniversary conference, but another part of me hopes that there will be no need for such a conference… but is that even possible, or likely?
Another hard question.