“Never Again” and North Korea

by Benjamin Studebaker

Last week, the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea released a harrowing report that claims that North Korea is a historically bad place in which to live. North Korea’s badness is “unparalleled in the contemporary world”, and the chairman of the UN committee, Michael Kirby, even went so far as to bring the Nazis into it:

At the end of the Second World War so many people said, ‘If only we had known, if only we had known the wrongs that were done in the countries of the hostile forces’…there will be no excusing the failure of action because we didn’t know–we do know.

The implication of his claim is that the world’s people are all complicit participants in the awful things that happen in North Korea because we allow those things to happen and do not take sufficient action to stop them. This claim, which I call the “Never Again” claim, is widely made whenever any great man-made violent tragedy occurs in the world. I’d like to challenge it.

So let’s take a closer look at what the “Never Again” argument is saying:

  1. States have universal duties to people all over the world, not merely to their own citizens.
  2. Among these duties is the duty to prevent the various crimes against humanity outlined in the UN charter and universal declaration of human rights.
  3. North Korea is violating those human rights.
  4. Therefore, states have a duty to prevent North Korea from violating the rights of its people.

The first question we have to raise is whether it is possible for us to stop North Korea from harming its people. Ought implies can–if we cannot stop North Korea, the notion that we should is meaningless and loses its moral force. There are broadly two ways by which North Korea might be stopped:

  1. Regime Change–the United States (and/or some other country or combination of countries) could use military force to destroy the North Korean government.
  2. Induce Economic Collapse–if China were to withdraw economic aid from North Korea, the consensus view is that the North Korean government would disintegrate.

The United States cannot on its own induce economic collapse, because North Korea shares a border with China. So long as China continues to provide economic aid, North Korea may suffer endemic famine, but it will not disintegrate wholesale.

We can recall that North Korea is a nuclear power–the most recent estimate puts its stockpile at one or two dozen nuclear weapons. This makes military intervention in North Korea potentially highly costly. The United States may have a splendid first strike capability against North Korea, which is to say that the United States might be able to use counterforce nuclear weapons to destroy North Korea’s arsenal, if it knows where they are. For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that the United States knows where the North’s weapons are and is prepared to use counterforce nuclear weapons to destroy the North’s stockpile. It then has to mount a land invasion of North Korea from the south in tandem with the South Korean army (presuming that the intended outcome is that the South will annex the North and unify Korea). This would likely cost a lot of money and require lots of troops. The United States sent around 326,000 troops to the Korean peninsula during the Korean War to supplement South Korea’s 602,000. It spent almost $350 billion in today’s dollars on that war. The US suffered 36,574 troop deaths along with over 100,000 injuries. South Korea suffered well over 130,000 troop deaths, and North Korea lost 2 or 3 hundred thousand. China, which intervened in that war on behalf of the North also lost over 100,000 people.

A new Korean War today would likely involve fewer grounds troops and more airpower. North Korea has also stagnated since the Korean War–its military is now much weaker. Consequently, we would expect casualties to be reduced and the war to be shorter, assuming China does not intervene on behalf of the North as it did in the 50’s. For comparison, the US only lost around 4,400 troops in Iraq, despite an extended occupation. I would expect the United States to swiftly gain air superiority over North Korea and pursue a policy of shock and awe, destroying the lines of communication by which the North Korean army operates and decimating its forces from the sky. The North Korean army would experience confusion and disarray, its morale would collapse, and its forces would melt away.

But let’s keep in mind what all this entails–billions of dollars in spending, a large troop deployment, many fatalities in the North, and the use of counterforce nuclear weapons. And what happens after North Korea collapses? We have to stay and help South Korea consolidate control over the country. And all of this assumes that China is indifferent to the North’s fate, an assumption that is rather optimistic.

Why does China care about the survival of a thoroughly barbarous regime? Strategic reasons–if Korea becomes unified under the government in Seoul, American troops will be stationed directly on China’s border, in the same territory from which China was invaded by Japan in 1931. Within five months, Japan broke Manchuria off of China, and a few years later Japan launched a full scale invasion of the Chinese mainland. It is categorically not in China’s interest for potentially hostile troops to be placed in territories on its border. In the event that China goes to war with the United States (assuming that the US has neutralized China’s nuclear weapons with its counterforce supplies or that the US and China are fighting a limited war in which neither side uses WMDs), it wants to force the US to invade it amphibiously (which is much harder to do) and thereby prevent US invasion. It is for this very reason that China refuses to withdraw support for North Korea and allow it to collapse, and it is for this reason that China is likely to be very hostile toward any attempt by the US and South Korea to reunify Korea.

For this reason, people who make the “Never Again” argument tend to point the moral finger at China–China is preventing the US and South Korea from resolving the problem, and China could itself resolve the problem at much lower cost by simply withdrawing economic support. However, this argument implies that China should undertake a policy that will substantively harm its citizens security against land invasion for the benefit of North Koreans. The collapse of North Korea would likely also produce a refugee crisis, with China being forced to take in and care for large numbers of North Koreans, who would attempt to migrate to China en masse to enjoy its higher living standards (you know you’re in bad shape when even China, with its $6,000 per capita GDP, looks good). If China were to do this, it would be placing higher moral value on the lives of North Korean citizens than it would be placing on those of its own people. North Koreans do not pay taxes to China, they are not in any kind of reciprocal arrangement with China. If anything, North Korea extorts China for economic aid knowing that China must provide this aid to prevent US troops from being stationed on its border and to prevent itself from having to take in large numbers of distressed North Koreans. The Chinese government is not a charity. It has a Human Development Index score of .69, which ties it with Turkmenistan–China is not a particularly developed country. Chinese citizens do not enjoy high standards of living. Why should China use its resources to help North Koreans rather than its own citizens (citizens who pay taxes to China under the expectation that China will use that money to improve their lives), and why should China accept a security risk on their behalf?

Crimes against humanity do not happen in a vacuum. The people of North Korea serve in Kim’s army, they carry out his orders, and they run his death camps. There is no rebel movement, no resistance faction. Kim Jong-un is not doing this to people that he owns or enslaves, the people of North Korea are committing these atrocities against themselves. Kim’s regime is merely an expression of the poverty of the political and moral philosophy with which the entire population has been indoctrinated. Is it the job of China or the United States to intervene on behalf of those who accept and even carry out the regime’s brutalities, to undertake substantive expense in men and material on their behalf?

It is quite possible to construe the notion that the US or China would spend citizens’ tax dollars on the destruction of the Kim regime as an immoral betrayal of the social contract, as an inappropriate misappropriation of funds citizens give with the expectation that they themselves are the intended beneficiaries. Not only would American and Chinese taxpayers see their dollars to go to a cause in which they have little stake (or, in the Chinese case, a contrary stake), but in the American case citizens might be asked to fight and die for those who not only do not fight and die for themselves, but who even fight and die for the very regime that abuses them.

Yes, by arguing in this way, we break the “never again” promise, but it was a promise we never should have made in the first place. We are not going to commit unlimited national resources to protecting foreign peoples from themselves, from governments of their own creation that they themselves sustain. It’s fundamentally too morally demanding and too unreasonable. If Michael Kirby and others wish to fight Kim Jong-un’s regime, let them start a private militia, raise funds for it like a charity, and go to North Korea to fight and die against the North Korean People’s Army themselves. If this is a cause many private citizens truly believe in, the donations will be substantive and the volunteers many. I doubt their resolve will last long when they see their comrades in arms die, and when they see that the people shooting at them are the very ones they had hoped to liberate.