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A case for humanitarian intervention in North Korea

By Andrew Carr - posted Friday, 26 November 2010

Time and again during the lead up to the Iraq war, critics argued that there were more important targets for regime change for the west. They were right. North Korea is one of them and it's time we act.

In many countries, time solves the challenge of odious regimes for us. As the years go on, most authoritarian regimes wither away, slowly loosening their control and allowing the country to emerge on its own as a modern nation. Vietnam and Indonesia are such examples close to home. With North Korea, this isn't an option. The regime is growing stronger, building a narrative of racial purity, while the people literally shrink away before our eyes. Thanks to malnutrition, North Koreans are now six inches shorter on average than their neighbours in South Korea.

The world has tried every diplomatic strategy and negotiating tactic to encourage North Korea into denuclearisation and ending its human rights abuses. At times this approach offered moments of agreement and sunshine, only for the world to find out that North Korea was cheating on the deal. There is no sign that North Korea is ever going to voluntarily give up its nuclear weapons. In recent years, the regime's behaviour has become more erratic and dangerous. Having escaped punishment for sinking a South Korean ship in March, killing 46, the North Koreans doubtless expect to do so again after sending nearly 200 artillery rounds into the South. The regime assumes it is safe behind its borders, whatever its behaviour internationally and toward its citizens. It shouldn't be.


The objections to intervening are many, and present important issues to work through. The terrain in North Korea is rough; they really do have nuclear weapons, their military is far more capable than Iraq's and their artillery on the border casts a dark shadow across the 24 million people living in Seoul. Critically, any action would require China's support. While China hasn't joined the world's condemnations over the recent violence, it is a member of the six-party talks, as is Russia, and both are committed to ending North Korea's nuclear program. Change, if managed correctly, would be as much in their national interest as ours. However the biggest obstacle to overcome is the west's own abandoning of support for humanitarian interventions.

During the 1990's there was growing support for the idea that if foreign leaders wouldn't protect the human rights of their citizens, the west should intervene to do so. With Cold War tensions no longer an excuse for doing nothing, action was slowly, far too slowly, taken to help in Somalia, Rwanda, Kosovo, and much closer to home in East Timor. Meanwhile there was an intellectual movement to justify protecting individuals rather than states, most notably the idea of Human Security, the Responsibility to Protect project, and changes in International Law.

For neither the first nor last time, we told ourselves that from now on, state sovereignty would be no justification for the abuse of citizens, or protection from threatening others. And then Iraq happened. While weapons of mass destruction were the main justification used, the triumvirate of Bush, Blair and Howard consistently borrowed arguments to claim the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention for the invasion. Their critics responded in kind, abandoning support for the principle, and doubting (partly-correctly) whether the Americans were able to stabilise and rebuild Iraq as promised.

The alternative to humanitarian intervention in North Korea is to wait and hope that the regime of Kim Jong-Il and family changes its way or falls apart. This approach may sooth our consciences that no harm will be done through our direct action, but it guarantees the continual suffering of the Korean people, facing oppression in the North, and fear in the South. Seeking security, Japan and South Korea may decide to develop their own nuclear deterrents, with other regional countries likely to follow soon after. For a country like Australia, nothing could be more dangerous for our own security.

If we want to end the suffering of the people of North Korea, stop the risk of nuclear proliferation, and end one of the worst human rights abusing regimes in the modern world, only a military intervention can guarantee these aims. It is the only policy that links our humanitarian and security goals. It will rightly be controversial, it will rightly cause us to wrestle with deep moral questions about the strategy we take to remove the regime, and how we rebuild the country in a way that China can accept (it probably won't be a democracy). Despite the lingering bitterness over Iraq, it is time for those of us who want human rights at the centre of our foreign policy to return to supporting the principle of humanitarian intervention, and apply it to North Korea.

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About the Author

Andrew Carr is a PhD student from Canberra, publishing on Australian Foreign Policy, Australian and US Politics, and Culture. Chasing the Norm is his official site to host his blog and academic publications.

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