Where is our Responsibility to Protect the North Korean People?

Map of North Korea. Selective Focus.
Map of North Korea. Selective Focus.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. - John Donne

Tensions between North and South Korea have been dominating news headlines with claims of a quasi-state of war. Tensions on the Korean peninsula are not uncommon. Unfortunately, neither is the repeated forgetfulness of the international community regarding the plight of the North Korean people.

North Korea was recently catapulted into the conscience of the international community due to the release of the ground-breaking report from the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights, highly publicized allegations of cyber-attacks, and historic votes within the UN aimed at moving beyond the strange antics or ludicrous threats of North Korea's dictators in an attempt to bring some form of international accountability. More importantly, for human rights advocates, there was finally substantive evidence that North Korea was committing atrocities of such a gravity and scale that "does not have any parallel in the contemporary world". Put in laymen's terms, North Korea is committing some of the worst human rights abuses in our world today and we finally have the evidence to prove it. Yet, what have we done to protect the North Korean people who are suffering some of the world's most unspeakable atrocities? Nothing.

It is perhaps too easy to do nothing about North Korea. Known as the 'Hermit Kingdom,' North Korea is one of the most isolated countries in the world today. Add to that, the complexity of North Korea's nuclear situation, its alliance with China, the consistency of its profanity-laced threats, and the unpredictably ruthless nature of its leaders, it is no wonder that commentators only ever analyse and discuss North Korea with very little action taken. Yet Michael Kirby's report has described horrors that absolutely "shock the conscience of humanity." Kirby's report has revealed that today, in 2015, concentration camps exist where systemic policies of famine, torture, forced labour and unspeakable human rights atrocities hold hundreds of thousands captive. Kirby has often compared the witness testimonies he heard from North Korean defectors to those of Holocaust survivors and has stated that "nothing in my life as a judge for 34 years had prepared me for the horrors of what we heard."

This is where the international legal principle of the "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P) may be useful. With much aspiration and good intent, R2P was birthed to collectively pledge that, as members of the international community, we would take action when a state fails to protect its own population. R2P comprises of three separate responsibilities: a responsibility to prevent, to react, and to rebuild. Expanding on the traditional notion of reactive humanitarian intervention, R2P's continuum of protection encompasses a broader range of prevention measures, from the earliest stages of concern, all the way to a long-term commitment to rebuild and ensure post-conflict engagement.

Despite criticism of inconsistent implementation or legal unenforceability, very few commentators have focused on whether or not R2P should even apply to North Korea. In terms of justification, there is little doubt that the government of the DPRK has manifestly failed in its responsibility to protect its own people. Rather than being paralyzed by the political complexities of the region, R2P can offer solutions outside of military intervention. R2P presents an opportunity for the international community to move this powerful concept of "responsibility" from morality to legality in order to protect populations most in need of protection. Let the North Korean people know that the international community was willing and ready to protect them both morally and legally. Who bears the responsibility to protect the people of North Korea? We do.