You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Is it Time to Intervene in North Korea?

Negotiations and sanctions haven't stopped the country from being a menace and human rights abuser.

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

The most striking thing about North Korea’s latest nuclear test, which took place just two days before Kim Jong-un’s 32nd or 33rd (we are not sure) birthday, is the world’s uniform reaction of disbelief. Here’s an infamously rogue nation that has already conducted at least three nuclear tests since 2006. And just a month ago, in its only newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, it announced the completion of a hydrogen bomb, and consequently made an official admission of having detonated one of the most lethal weapons of mass destruction known to mankind. Yet no one will take its word for it. What does this tell us?

Both the White House and the U.S. State Department swiftly issued statements questioning whether the manmade earthquake that was detected from North Korea was in fact a hydrogen bomb. The U.N. Security Council condemned the Kim Jong-un regime and swore to toughen sanctions, which have been in place for decades and have not been effective. The Republicans were quick to use the occasion to attack President Obama on his failed policy of “strategic patience,” which Hilary Clinton championed when she was secretary of state. Strategic patience was basically a non-policy, which meant inaction.  

So where does that leave us? The average person now knows the difference between a hydrogen bomb and an atomic bomb, both nuclear, but the former thousands of times more potent. And we are told to not believe that North Korea has the bad kind (both are bad, of course) although it says it does.

One thing that this latest crisis reaffirms is that diplomatically, we have hit a wall with North Korea. Both the six-party talks and the bilateral talks have failed in denuclearizing North Korea. Sanctions don’t seem to make a dent except to devastate the already impoverished and oppressed 25 million people of North Korea. Dumping the problem on China and expecting it to wield its influence over the Kim Jong-un regime has brought us right where we are. The usual methods of foreign relations— promises, contracts, and negotiations—have failed because of one key miscalculation: We keep assuming that North Korea is like us, but North Korea is not like us. North Korea has never kept to its word, and we have never trusted it, so why do we keep repeating what clearly has not worked for decades and hope for a different outcome?

The simple answer would be because we have no option. If negotiations and sanctions do not work, then all we can do is to continue paying North Korea off with an aid package to keep it contained until the next threat, which might or might not be the real hydrogen bomb. And the real fear of a nuclearized and isolated North Korea is the risk of its getting into the hands of those in the Middle East—ISIS or any other bad actor. Then, the only remaining method of containment is an intervention, which would finally put an end to the world’s most brutal regime and its 7o-year entrapment of its citizens. But are we prepared for the consequences?

One thing I have found remarkable following this topic from both inside and outside North Korea, is how rotten that government is at its core, and how infectious that rottenness can be. What distinguishes North Korea from any other nation in the world is its isolation, and the degree to which that isolation is built on lies. The foundational myth of the Great Leader is a lie, and the system largely functions on maintaining that lie by shielding it with a maze of further lies. What I found, when I lived there undercover as an investigative journalist for six months, is that people there, having been born and indoctrinated into a society where lying is a prerequisite for survival, often cannot tell the difference between truth and lies. This was also evidenced among the countless defectors I interviewed in the surrounding regions, in whose testimonies I often encountered lies and exaggeration. 

I was not surprised, for example, when the heartbreaking confession of the world’s most celebrated North Korean gulag escapee and the star of the internationally celebrated book, Escape from Camp 14, Shin Dong-hyuk, whose testimony influenced the changing of the U.N. agenda, turned out to be bogus: Shin had never been incarcerated in Camp 14. Lies are so infectious that even the international media’s coverage of North Korea was often untrue, partly due to the lack of information or misinformation, but sometimes due to dishonesty and opportunism as a consequence of the impossibility of verification. For example, when I covered the North Korean team at the World Cup in 2010 in South Africa, several media outlets, including CNN, reported that the small group of North Korean fans in the stadium were actually Chinese actors hired by Kim Jong-il, when in fact they were North Korean migrant laborers, sent there on a bus from neighboring Namibia.

It appears to me quite logical that North Korea will keep lying to its own people, to the world, to itself to secure its ways. But what about our lies? Why does no one ever talk about the obvious solution of an intervention? What is the real reason for pretending that anything else will work to denuclearize North Korea when it is clear that North Korea has chosen nuclearizing as the only chance of its survival?  

One of the biggest issues of the 2016 presidential election is the refugee crisis. Are we avoiding a situation where we would have no choice but to embrace some of the 25 million psychologically damaged North Koreans, who have been born and raised in the cult of the Great Leader for three generations, and whose value systems are so different from ours that it isn’t certain how long it might take them to become productive members of any capitalist and democratic society?

There is no mystery that the surrounding nations of China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia do not want such an outcome. It is well documented that South Korea can barely tolerate the 27,000 North Korean defectors in its borders. China has no qualms about sending back North Korean defectors who cross its borders, although such repatriation often means execution for them. Japan would not even grant citizenship to Zainichi (third and fourth generation ethnic Koreans who have been living in Japan since the colonial period when they were forcefully migrated there by the Japanese), so the chance of Japan taking on refugees from North Korea appears nil. Putin’s Russia isn’t exactly known for its magnanimous refugee policies. So as long as none of us wants such an outcome, then we will make sure that it never happens. I often think that is what the infamously incompetent six-party talks were really about—to ensure that North Korea never collapses, no matter what the cost.

This would all be logical, if not utterly inhumane, if North Korea weren’t a nuclear force with a potential hydrogen bomb in its possession, holding hostage 25 million human beings. Then what are our options?

There is no easy answer for how to deal with North Korea. But first, we should stop pretending that the negotiations as we have pursued them work. The longer we wait in patience, strategically inspired or not, the more people will die, and the more sophisticated Kim Jong-un’s arsenal will become. At the start of the New Year, President Obama shed tears for American children who have died from gun violence. But children are children everywhere, and perhaps the foremost consideration in relations with North Korea, which former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry has called “the most unsuccessful exercise of diplomacy in our country’s history,” should now be human rights.