As I write this, advocacy groups nationwide are recomposing the tested strategy of using economic isolation to coerce an oppressive, backward regime to improve its human rights practices. The regime, unfortunately, isn’t North Korea; it’s Indiana. That strategy, however, is a moral muscle memory to those of us who came of age as America and Europe mobilized to boycott and sanction apartheid out of existence. Then, when President Reagan came out for “constructive engagement” with South Africa, he was met with such universal outrage that congressional Republicans abandoned him and overrode his veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. Until F.W. de Klerk put South Africa irreversibly on the path to democracy, breaking the cultural or economic boycotts would have been career suicide for any celebrity, and would have risked a shareholder revolt in any corporation.
By May of 1990, however, Nelson Mandela was a free man, and South Africa was on that path, irreversibly. By then, it did not trouble my conscience to accept a temporary job there. I arrived there just late enough to watch apartheid die from the vantage of a conservative mining town just outside Johannesburg, one repeal at a time, but just soon enough to witness a system that was grossly unjust, profoundly loathsome, and only recently and reluctantly self-aware of this. The best thing that could be said of it was that it was a far cry from North Korea.
So it has always been. Tell me what you boycott and I’ll know what you hate; tell me what you hate and I’ll know what you believe; tell me what you believe and I’ll know who you are. I might even tell you.
In 1986, half of the Republicans in Congress (including then-freshman Sen. Mitch McConnell) defied President Reagan and voted to override his veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which imposed a wide range of trade and economic sanctions against South Africa, but relatively few financial sanctions. On that occasion, Edward “Ted” Kennedy, the Senate’s most important proponent of that legislation, said, “The Senate’s action today expressed the best ideals of the American people. The message to countries all over the world is, the United States will lead, and we’re proud to lead.” Can anyone imagine Jim Webb or Rand Paul saying such a thing today without recognizing it as a strip-tease of burlesque electoral cynicism?
Reading the text of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act today, I’m struck by the similarity of strategies between that bill and the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, although the bills’ specific legal authorities are very different.
Ted Kennedy’s leadership of anti-apartheid sanctions legislation is one of the issues where history remembers him the most fondly today. History has been less kind to Ronald Reagan’s opposition to it. Today, Ted and Bobby Kennedy’s anti-apartheid legacy carries on, through the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, which has emerged as the strongest liberal force for sanctions against North Korea. Say what you will about the Kennedy family — and no one will accuse it of political neutrality — but it’s hard to argue with the moral consistency of those positions on both South Africa and North Korea. Nothing speaks more highly of their principle than the fact that they’ve pressed the Senate to pass legislation that was drafted at the direction of a conservative Republican Committee Chair, Ed Royce.
Don’t tell me the sanctions didn’t work against South Africa. They certainly did not work in the way that North Korea sanctions would, but to many of the white South Africans I met then, the prospect of rugby and football matches against New Zealand and Australia did much to compensate for their fears about their future as a minority among an empowered majority. South Africans were also sensitive about their nation’s image, as all people are, and as Koreans are to a far greater degree than most. Yes, many South Africans expressed their resentment of the sanctions, but they also grudgingly accepted the importance of lifting them. That acceptance allowed de Klerk to win the general election of 1989 and the referendum of 1992 (by which time change was a fait accompli).
There are, of course, more differences than similarities between North Korea and South Africa. The former oligarchy is far more determined, malignant, and violent, but it is also more vulnerable to financial isolation. Unlike South Africa, North Korea does not sit on mountains of gold, diamonds, and platinum, and it has a relatively greater reliance on the hard currency that runs through our banking system.
From a strictly moral perspective, there is no principled argument that it was unjust to engage the apartheid regime, yet just to engage North Korea’s. For all its evils, apartheid did not consign hundreds of thousands of people to political prison camps, or starve a million or two to death. For that matter, North Korea is every bit as racist as South Africa ever was, and even manages to have its own system for imprisoning a majority of its people in economic injustice, poverty, and hunger from the cradle to the grave. (It also compounds the sins of mass starvation, domestic terror, arbitrary execution, and democide with both sexism and homophobia.) Despite the world’s unfocused outrage, North Korea denies the very commission of its crimes against humanity, a nearly sure sign that it means to go on perpetuating them, as long as we allow it to.
Let’s also be clear about this: all foreigners in North Korea are engaging with the regime — either intelligence agents, or a hand-picked elite beholden to its preservation and enrichment. Those who claim to be engaging with “ordinary” North Koreans are either fooling themselves, or trying to fool you.
To me, however, the most striking thing about the comparison between South Africa then and North Korea now is the extent to which the arguments about engagement and isolation mirror each other, except with their polarities reversed. Today, it is conservative Republican Ed Royce who is the conscience of the Congress on North Korea policy, who is leading a bi-partisan coalition to isolate North Korea, and who is challenging the cynicism of the State Department. Below the fold, I’ve reprinted liberal Democratic Representative William Gray’s response to President Reagan on anti-apartheid sanctions. At one point, Gray even invokes North Korea sanctions (which then included sanctions under the Trading With the Enemy Act) as a comparison to those against South Africa.