I wish I could claim authorship of the term “North Korean exceptionalism,” Marcus Noland’s description of the civilized world’s tendency to bow to North Korea’s obnoxious cruelty, to the point of excusing it from every obligation of law, treaty, or humanity. I understand the reasoning behind North Korean exceptionalism: North Korea is a special case. Its terrible history of war/occupation/poverty/whatever makes it a special challenge to draw it out of its shell. Therefore, we must take a gradualist approach that compromises our standards in the name of patient progress.
My criticism of the gradualists is that while they’ve failed to secure even gradual progress in North Korea, they’ve also endangered or diluted the standards themselves. North Korean exceptionalism to “no access, no food” has not only prolonged North Korea’s chronic food crisis, it threatens to teach aid workers (and other dictators) that they can break that life-saving rule elsewhere. North Korean exceptionalism to the rules of media ethics turns journalists into propagandists who publish deceptive and inaccurate stories and hide their own compromises from their readers. North Korean exceptionalism to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty dilutes the influence of the U.N., and of the member states that enforce sanctions, and almost certainly paved the way for Iran’s nuclear program. North Korean exceptionalism to rule that the sponsorship of terrorism invokes specific legal consequences has brought North Korean terrorism to the United States itself. As with all efforts to appease or “engage” Pyongyang, we are left asking ourselves who changed who.
Another example of North Korea exceptionalism is the so-called family “reunions” Pyongyang occasionally permits between those it has abducted and/or imprisoned, and their loved ones in South Korea. The reunions are carefully monitored by the North Korean regime, meaning that the experience becomes a brief, torturous emotional imprisonment for all involved, filled with carefully scripted lies, and terminated by the negotiated re-abduction of the hostages. To call such a sham a “reunion” may be the greatest lie of all. Lost amid all our celebration that Pyongyang has permitted another iteration of this torture is that the hostages have a universally guaranteed right to go free, to enjoy a true reunion with the people they love, and to live what remains of their lives with them:
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country. [Universal Declaration of Human Rights]
Justice Michael Kirby, the Chairman of a U.N. Commission of Inquiry that found the North Korean government responsible for “crimes against humanity, arising from ‘policies established at the highest level of State,’” now enters this controversy. (Readers will recall that Pyongyang responded to Justice Kirby’s report by calling him as “a disgusting old lecher with 40-odd-year-long career of homosexuality.”)
North Korea’s use of a lottery system to allow a fraction of the families separated by the Korean War to meet is “extremely cruel”, former High Court judge Michael Kirby says.
North and South Korea agreed earlier this month to hold a weekend reunion in October for separated families — only the second to be held in five years — with 100 people to be selected by each side to take part.
Mr Kirby, head of a UN commission that published a searing report on the rights situation in North Korea last year, noted that the country is believed to have taken some 120,000 South Koreans — most as the North Korean troops retreated.
With more than 60,000 people in South Korea hoping for reunification with family members — many who are now “of considerable age” — North Korea’s capricious agreement to sporadically allow small groups to meet is far from enough, he said.
“At the present rate of 100 being given that privilege, many, many will die before the numbers are accommodated,” Mr Kirby told reporters in Geneva.
“It is extremely cruel of the administration of (North Korea) and a breach of fundamental human rights to deny the opportunity for families to be reunited.
“It is really a barbarous practice.” [Australian Broadcasting Company]
Kirby also criticized Pyongyang’s arbitrary cancellation of previous “reunions,” and accused it of “exacerbating the suffering of the families longing for contact.”
“It is simply unacceptable that [knowledge about] their whereabouts, whether they are alive or dead, what happened to them, and having contact with them is left to a lottery,” Mr Kirby said.
“It’s hard to express the anguish of the people who live in hope of making contact with their relatives in North Korea.”
Kirby called on journalists and “the international community” to hold Pyongyang accountable for its crimes against humanity, including the abductions, calling it “particularly barbarous, and is something akin to international piracy.”
Many of the crimes committed in the country “shock the conscience of mankind,” he said.
“It is not open to the world community to turn away.”
Not all of the world has turned away, of course. Japan has been particularly strident in demanding the return of its abductees, who number in the dozens. By comparison, South Korea’s abductees number in the tens of thousands, if one includes those abducted during the Korean War, or held back in violation of the 1953 Armistice. Yet South Korea’s government has seldom demanded the return of its abducted citizens, adopting the gradualist approach and yielding to North Korean exceptionalism. Every few years, a bulb flickers on in Seoul as it occurs to someone that Pyongyang’s hostages have a right to go free.
President Park Geun-hye called Tuesday for a fundamental solution to the issue of families separated in South and North Korea following the 1950-53 Korean War.
The two Koreas have agreed to stage temporary reunions for 100 separated family members from each side on Oct. 20-26 at Mount Kumgang, a scenic mountain resort on the North’s east coast.
The planned reunions are a part of a recent deal that defused military tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
“South and North Korea should find a fundamental solution to the issue of separated families,” Park said in a Cabinet meeting, noting that family reunions held once or twice a year could never heal the pain of separated family members. [Yonhap]
And almost as quickly, that bulb flickers out again.
Instead, it is left to my very own congressman, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D, Va.), to propose an amendment that recognizes something approaching the right of families to be reunited. It adds this condition for the one-year suspension of crippling financial sanctions against Pyongyang:
(8) made significant progress in planning for unrestricted family reunification meetings, including for those individuals among the two million strong Korean-American community who maintain family ties with relatives in North Korea.
Connolly proposed this amendment to the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act in 2014. The Republican Chair and Democratic Ranking Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee both accepted it enthusiastically, and the Connolly Amendment lives on in the current version, H.R. 757. Let’s hope that Seoul picks up on Congressman Connolly’s cue. The likely alternative is that Pyongyang’s hostages are doomed to die as slaves in North Korea, far from those who love them.