Skip to main content

The danger of North Korea is no joke

By Joshua Stanton and Sung-Yoon Lee
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Mon May 12, 2014
A North Korean soldier patrols the bank of the Yalu River, which separates the North Korean town of Sinuiju from the Chinese border town of Dandong, on Saturday, April 26. A recent <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/17/world/asia/north-korea-un-report/index.html'>United Nations report</a> described a brutal North Korean state "that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world." A North Korean soldier patrols the bank of the Yalu River, which separates the North Korean town of Sinuiju from the Chinese border town of Dandong, on Saturday, April 26. A recent United Nations report described a brutal North Korean state "that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world."
HIDE CAPTION
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • North Korean state media hurl foul insults against Obama, South Korea president, others
  • Writers: U.N. report finds vile words nothing like the hate crimes against its own people
  • Writers: Obama administration can't ignore regime that assists Iran, Syria, terror groups
  • They say Pyongyang must be convinced by strong sanctions that change is its only choice

Editor's note: Joshua Stanton, an attorney in Washington, has advised the House Foreign Affairs Committee on North Korea-related legislation and blogs at OneFreeKorea. Sung-Yoon Lee is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies and assistant professor at the Fletcher School, Tufts University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writers.

(CNN) -- In the past weeks, North Korean state media have called the female President of South Korea a "dirty political harlot" and an "old prostitute"; the gay chairman of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on North Korea "a disgusting old lecher with 40-odd-year-long career of homosexuality"; and, in a loathsome screed, referred to U.S. President Barack Obama as a "monkeyish human monstrosity."

Still, North Korea's exceptionally vile words pale in comparison to its criminal actions.

In North Korea, racism isn't just talk. That U.N. Commission of Inquiry's report summarizes testimony from North Korean refugee women and former border guards who say that the regime forcibly aborts or murders the babies of refugee women sent back to North Korea by China, on the presumption that the babies' fathers were Chinese, to maintain the myth of state-mandated "racial purity." It described a system of hereditary discrimination, based on perceived political loyalty, that denies lower-caste North Koreans opportunities for education, employment, and even food.

Joshua Stanton
Joshua Stanton
Sung-Yoon Lee
Sung-Yoon Lee

The report asserts that Pyongyang fines women for wearing pants or riding bicycles, and forces thousands of them into sexual slavery by denying them an adequate supply of food. As for gay North Koreans, Pyongyang denies that they even exist, and said the report was spurred by lies and "hostile forces."

North Korea's repellent language and actions teach us some uncomfortable lessons:

First, North Korea's remaining defenders on the far left do not deserve to be described as liberal or progressive. Although increasingly fewer in numbers, these ideologically committed apologists echo Pyongyang's justifications for its nuclear weapons programs, deny its responsibility for crimes against humanity, and -- despite Pyongyang's repeated violations of the 1953 Armistice -- insist that only a peace treaty can prevent war. To defend Kim Jong Un's rule, they must also defend its racism, its sexism, its homophobia, its class discrimination, and its extreme repression.

Second, we should stop infantilizing North Korea and dismissing it as ridiculous. The temptation is understandable. The North Korean regime's very weirdness causes much of the world to dismiss its invective as the rant of a regime that is merely isolated, eccentric, and misunderstood.

But North Korea is not just a bizarre abstraction --- an impoverished kingdom ruled by a young, overly well-nourished hereditary leader with an affinity for the National Basketball Association. It is a murderous regime that is approaching nuclear breakout, and whose human rights violations, according to the Commission of Inquiry, "have no parallel anywhere in the world." North Korea's words reflect the character of its political system. They manifest the malice of a regime that practices hate and inflicts it on its own people and its neighbors alike. It's time to treat Kim Jong Un like the threat to civilization that he is.

North Korean drones raise fears
Defector lifts curtain on North Korea
North Korea's arsenal by the numbers

Third, North Korea is not a problem the Obama administration can keep ignoring. North Korea has been caught assisting Syria's nuclear weapons and chemical weapons program; has sold ballistic missiles to Iran and Syria; and has sold arms to Hamas and Hezbollah. Yet, it has not been penalized for most of these actions. Indeed, North Korea may be the most influential regional actor in history in relation to its economic, political and cultural power, and the size of its territory and population. Over the past two decades, this poor, aid-dependent, isolationist state has outplayed the biggest and wealthiest nations in the world, including the United States, China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea, on high international politics -- nuclear diplomacy.

Fourth, North Korea can't be appeased or patronized away. Since the mid-1990s, Pyongyang has reaped billions of dollars from the U.S. and its allies in return for empty pledges of de-nuclearization while forging ahead with its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Since 2008, North Korea has refused to show up at six-party de-nuclearization talks, in spite of U.S. and South Korean offers of aid. Despite years of aid and engagement, North Korea shows no interest in reform, has become more dangerous to South Korea as well as to its own people, and has become more hostile to the U.S. and the world. Today, North Korea is on the verge of a fourth nuclear test.

North Korea must be held to the standards of the civilized world. For decades, diplomats and nongovernmental organizations alike have excused Pyongyang's transgressions, lies and crimes out of a desire to maintain relationships with it at all costs.

The consequences of such appeasement are telling: Aid doesn't get to the hungry, disarmament deals collapse, U.N. sanctions leak, and a regime sustained by hate and contemptuous of human life and dignity acquires the bomb. Pyongyang uses its access to the civilized world to supply its increasingly wealthy elite with cash, while, according to the United Nations, 84% of North Korean households have poor or borderline food consumption. The world cannot sanction and subsidize the same regime at the same time. It must first pressure Pyongyang into understanding that change is its only choice, by taking the enforcement of U.N. Security Council sanctions seriously.

For once, actions must have consequences. For Pyongyang to enjoy the benefits of civilization, it must live by the standards of civilization. Accepting Pyongyang's hate at face value is a first step toward credibly presenting Pyongyang with that dose of reality.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT