Over the past few months, I and the rest of the foreign affairs team at Westminster have spoken on Israel-Palestine, Ethiopia’s civil war in Tigray and, last week, human rights abuses in Hong Kong.
It is important to react to international tragedies as they are happening so the international community can work together to stop them. However, it is equally important that attention is not diverted from oppressive states and regimes which don’t make the 6pm news.
This is why yesterday at Westminster I raised the looming humanitarian crisis in North Korea at Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office questions. It is an issue which really should be higher up the Government’s agenda.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is neither democratic nor a republic and only covers half of Korea. It is a despotic regime ruled by the Kim family as enforcers for Beijing since 1948. Human rights are frequently violated and public executions common for crimes as petty as listening to K-Pop or watching a foreign film.
There is no freedom of speech, only freedom to praise the Supreme Leader. The infamous prison camps hold thousands of individuals, many of whom are born, suffer and die within their fences. Slavery is effectively institutionalised, with children being used as labour on state-run farms and mines.
Prisoners of war and their descendants have been trapped in brutal mining camps, the revenues from which are funnelled into North Korea’s military and nuclear missiles programme.
Its insane quest for nuclear weapons threatens international stability and security. More than 70 years on, North Korea remains a totalitarian zombie state – barely clinging on but clinging on nonetheless. It is also a country of 25 million people.
In a rare display of openness, Kim Jong-un called on officials to “wage another, more difficult ‘Arduous March’ in order to relieve our people of the difficulty, even a little”. The phrase ‘Arduous March’ is used by North Korean officials to refer to the brutal famine of the 1990s, in which as many as three million North Koreans died.
That famine was triggered by the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of the only states to maintain economic connections with the Kim regime. This famine that may now be looming has been triggered by a perfect storm of economic mismanagement, natural disasters and Covid policies.
State-run farms have led to agricultural inefficiencies which are compounded by large-scale crop failures due to flooding caused by typhoons last year.
TO this day, North Korea maintains that it has yet to have a single case of coronavirus – though this is a regime which is hardly the beacon of transparency.
Its lockdowns have taken totalitarianism to another level. The border with China, its sole ally, remains closed. With no-one coming in or out, there is little food coming into the hermit kingdom to alleviate the food crisis caused by crop failures. Corn prices have fluctuated dramatically, with a kilo of corn costing more than a month’s wages at times.
The UN Special Rapporteur on North Korea noted back in March that deaths from starvation had already been reported, while there are growing numbers of children and elderly people resorting to begging to feed themselves.
In the same report, the Special Rapporteur urged the international community to provide support to the people of North Korea in combating the pandemic as well as to increase support to humanitarian actors in meeting their essential needs. If it does not, then an unstable vicious regime combined with a starving populace of 25 million people can surely only end badly.
As awful as the pandemic has been, it has shown the potential for global international co-operation. Such co-operation is needed now more than ever on North Korea. If the UK’s Indo-Pacific tilt is to be taken seriously, then it should take seriously the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in North Korea.
The international community needs to respond and pressure the North Korean regime to allow aid into the country. It should continue to urge the North Korean tyranny to get its priorities right and invest in its people, not in its military delusions of grandeur.
That the oppression of the North Korean people has been allowed to go on for so long is an indictment on the international community. Fighting against abuses of this scale requires the appropriate amount of resources to effectively challenge it.
As noted by the Special Rapporteur: “Failing to take action may be legal, but it is not justifiable under the UN Charter.”
I don’t expect the world to change North Korea overnight. I don’t expect Kim Jong-Un to suddenly embrace liberal democracy or fawn over the west like Trump did with him. I do hope, though, that the world does not forget the people who, even now, are suffering under this brutal regime. International co-operation and international solidarity are needed now more than ever to help the people of North Korea.