Writing in The Washington Post, Roberta Cohen, Co-Chair of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, writes about how to prevent the execution of “standing orders at North Korea’s political prison camps (the kwanliso) to kill all prisoners in the event of armed conflict or revolution.”
It was Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s founder, who gave the kill-all order. His son Kim Jong-il reaffirmed it. Ahn Myong-chol, a former guard, testified before the U.N. commission that, in the event of upheaval, the guards are “to wipe out” all inmates so as “to eliminate any evidence.” He said that drills have even been held “on how to kill large numbers of prisoners in a short period of time.” Guards in other camps, as well as former prison officials, have confirmed this account.
Cohen then makes several recommendations to address this danger, starting with imposing accountability on those responsible now. First, she calls for the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s (COI) report to be brought before the U.N. Security Council for a resolution that would impose targeted sanctions, in line with the COI Chair’s recommendation.
Unfortunately, we’ve only seen the first signs that our U.N. Ambassador and noted genocide-prevention expert Samantha Power is interested in leading (or joining) a push for any such resolution. And without U.S. leadership, who will lead? Ban Ki-Moon?
The voice of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon should be heard, too. Because Ban is Korean, he is often excused from taking the lead on human rights issues in North Korea, but when crimes against humanity are found and atrocities warned, he should be expected to use every tool at his disposal.
I’ll go a step further. Korean history should remember Ban Ki-Moon as a bystander in the greatest humanitarian tragedy in the history of the Korean people — one whose toll, once counted, will almost certainly (even greatly) exceed even the terrible human cost of Japan’s occupation.
Cohen also calls on the Congress to pass, and for the President to sign, H.R. 1771, the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act. The House is expected to vote on the bill this afternoon.
Cohen’s next call is an appeal to “humanitarian and military forces” to consider the urgency of saving the camps’ prisoners in their contingency planning. It’s one of those important questions that always seems too unlikely and hypothetical to plan for until it actually happens. By the time the hypothetical is a reality, of course, it’s too late to plan. Here is how she puts it:
Bringing the prisoners to safety must be part and parcel of any strategy developed to respond to a collapse in North Korea. While protecting civilians and securing nuclear weapons will appropriately be uppermost concerns in a time of chaos, it is in the camps that the most acute cases of hunger, disease and ill-treatment will be found. It is essential that humanitarian organizations and military forces focus now on how to rescue survivors.
Of course, the U.S. and South Korea do have a set of operational plans for a collapse in North Korea, called OPLAN 5029. The plans are classified, so for all we know, Combined Forces Command has already formulated detailed plans of the very sort Cohen recommends.
Who would come to the rescue? In a private e-mail, which she gave me permission to quote, Cohen said that her intent is to encourage U.S. diplomats to talk to their Chinese counterparts about planning for a sudden collapse with the minimum possible loss of life, meaning that Cohen is thinking of a benevolent entry by Chinese forces, who are much closer to the camps geographically than anyone else. Cohen knows that for now, the odds are against this, and she points me to this piece at 38 North, arguing that China will never cooperate.
Cohen isn’t alone in suggesting that China should have a role in stabilizing a post-collapse North Korea; Bruce Bennett of RAND also suggested as much based on the simple mathematics of stabilization operations. South Korea has been cutting back its active duty military, and doesn’t have sufficient reserves to occupy and stabilize North Korea today (though it seems entirely possible that South Korea could assemble that reserve force if it had the political will to do so). One potential complication of inviting* a Chinese intervention, however, aside from China’s general lack of a benevolent incentive, is the possibility that once in, it won’t get out again so easily.
[* Cohen writes in to clarify that she isn't "inviting" anything, but is acknowledging what might well be inevitable. It's a fair point, and I didn't mean to imply that the invitation would have been Cohen's, so I'm happy to clarify that.]
What about a rescue by U.S. and ROK forces? The most optimistic view I can offer here is that if there is a general mutiny of North Korean forces, and if we were confident that the operation would be unopposed, it might be possible to reach the camps with aircraft operating from ships offshore. The idea would be to provide protection and deliver essential humanitarian supplies until larger forces can arrive to evacuate the prisoners and rescuers.
(Nor should we overlook the immense public interest value in showing the world images of the camps and the state of the prisoners. There are still people who deny the Holocaust, after all. Noam Chomsky minimized and dismissed, and arguably denied, reports of the Cambodian genocide, and if you deny this denial — as Chomsky now does — then read what Chomsky himself wrote about the subject as it was being revealed to the world.)
The hardest part of such an operation would not be getting in, but getting the rescuers and prisoners out safely. That would require an open road to a port or a large airfield. ROK forces may well lack the equipment, the logistical sophistication, and the will to carry out that kind of operation alone. A small force in such a remote area would find itself dangerously exposed. There are more factual contingencies in this topic than one could possibly discuss within the Post‘s word limits, but the logistical and military obstacles would be severe, to say the least.
One wonders how likely it is that such a collapse would precede a massacre of prisoners. One of the most overlooked means the regime uses to control its people is mutual internal isolation. Simply sending a message from one city to another can be difficult, and sending an unmonitored message would be a near impossibility. In the event of unrest, Pyongyang would certainly flip the “kill switch” for Koryolink, cutting off North Korea’s only legal cell phone network.
In addition, the North Korean Army (NKPA) answers to a completely different command than the Ministry of Public Safety forces that control the camps. Because the camps are widely dispersed, the NKPA units controlling the roads and ports near different camps would fall under different corps commands. That means a separate contingency plan would be needed for each camp.
Sadly, there may be no militarily practical way to prevent a massacre without the cooperation of at least some of the North Korean forces in control of the area near any given camp. At best, we may only be able to prevent massacres in some of the camps.
Which brings us to the paramount importance of information operations, which should be designed to cause the MPS to disobey kill orders, or to hesitate as long as possible before deciding to obey them. What should our message to the guards and wardens in the camps be? As Cohen says, “Guards might think twice about carrying out an order to commit a massacre if they know they would be held accountable.” They must know that if they carry out orders to massacre prisoners, they will be tried and held accountable.
But there must be a positive incentive, too; after all, the guards must already suspect that they’ll face trial for what they’ve already done if the regime falls. As difficult as this may be to accept, we must be willing to consider offering guards who protect the lives of prisoners at least a partial amnesty for their crimes against the prisoners up to that point in time. (An offer of a full amnesty creates a perverse incentive to mistreat prisoners now, before the act that qualifies the guard for amnesty.)
In the end, as with so many problems in North Korea, this may be a problem with no external military solution. The liberation of North Korea must inevitably depend on the liberated themselves. Planners should always be prepared to seize opportunities that present themselves, of course, but sometimes, one must make one’s own opportunities. The most plausible opportunity to save the prisoners of North Korea’s gulag may be to encourage and support North Koreans — most likely, among the security forces — who would rebel against central authority, and to incentivize acts of mercy to North Korea’s most vulnerable people.
This all sounds impossible now — even wildly hypothetical — but it’s certainly not fanciful; thus, the existence of OPLAN 5029. The idea of a popular uprising in Syria or Libya sounded equally impossible at the beginning of 2011. And unless people speak of impossible things — even when these impossible things are also inevitable — they will be unready when those things come to pass.
North Korea’s camps have long been one of the main tools employed by the Kim regime to hold on to power. One day, their dismantling will give rise to a new Korea in which monuments will be erected not to the Kim family but to its victims, which have been abandoned by the international community for too long.
To this day, we are still debating why we did not bomb the railroad tracks to Auschwitz, or why we did not arm the Poles and Jews who rose against the Nazis in Warsaw in 1943 and 1944. That’s why the discussion Roberta Cohen has started this week is such an important one.