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.
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.
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.