North Korea’s Moral Challenge to President Biden

November 15, 2021 Updated: November 16, 2021


China and Russia are demanding that the United States agree to lift U.N. economic sanctions against North Korea, which were put in place in 2006 to stop its nuclear weapons programs.

Just last month, Pyongyang fired a newly developed ballistic missile from a submarine in its fifth round of recent weapons tests, violating the sanctions anew. Kim Jong-un’s two trading partners don’t address these serious threats to American interests, but argue that North Korea’s 25.6 million people will face certain famine this winter.

North Korean starvation is real. Not only sanctions, but the failure of the country’s collective farming methods contribute to chronic food shortages. This year’s drought and COVID-19 may turn out to be the last straws. The Kim dynasty juche principle of “self reliance” is as fraudulent as the communist economic theories and personality cult that form the basis of its governing philosophy.

Washington has so far held firm on the sanctions, stressing that it remains ready to meet with Pyongyang without preconditions to negotiate peace. But, as desperate North Koreans begin streaming across that country’s borders with wrenching reports, as happened during the 1990s’ famine, the Biden administration will likely find this stance untenable.

The administration should keep the sanctions and devise a plan to ensure that food aid reaches the needy civilians. Transparency and monitoring any aid program in North Korea will be a challenge, given Kim’s pathological secrecy and singular priority of regime survival. What we can be sure of is that North Korea is one of the world’s most closed societies, with rights and freedoms repressed across the board.

The State Department’s own human rights report asserts that capital punishment is the penalty for “providing information regarding economic, social, and political developments routinely published elsewhere,” which North Korea calls an “anti-state” crime. Independent media is banned, and the internet is available to only a select few in Pyongyang. All print and broadcast media, publishing, and online media is controlled through the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Korea Workers’ Party.

The Washington-based Committee on Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) found that “all citizens are required to participate in monitored political meetings and regular self-criticism sessions to demonstrate their loyalty to the Kim family, and that failure to participate enthusiastically may be punished, including through forced labor, internal exile, detention, or denial of food and medical attention.” Furthermore, “the government installed monitoring programs on every smartphone and tablet that log every webpage visited and randomly take undeletable screenshots.”

ballistic missile North Korea
A new submarine-launched ballistic missile is seen during a test in this undated photo, released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Oct. 19, 2021. (KCNA via Reuters)

How, then, can the U.S. government know whether there is a famine and whether its aid is helping civilians, and not the military? As author Melanie Kirkpatrick shows in “Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad,” government defectors and civilians who manage the harrowing escape across China’s border, and then out of China, are a critical source of information for the outside world. If caught trying to cross the border, they risk being summarily killed or criminally executed, and those caught in China risk deportation to certain detention and punishment. To give one example from the State’s report, defectors said that North Korea carried out infanticide, or made mothers commit infanticide, if they were forcibly repatriated from China.

Nevertheless, some North Korean defectors do succeed and a revealing new report by the UK group Korea Future is based on their interviews. The report focuses on two remaining religious groups, Christians and Shamans who practice magic healing and fortune telling. These communities, though mostly confined within small family groupings, are highly significant. They represent the only organizations known to exist independent of the North Korean government. Their persecution not only attests to the regime’s militant atheism, but to its totalitarianism.

Though Christianity’s vibrancy before the communist takeover in 1948 earned Pyongyang the name, “Jerusalem of the East,” most of the Christians there now are reported to have been recently converted while temporarily in China. A few house churches are known to exist, including one of 16 members all of whom, including its leader, were baptized in China.

Severe punishment awaits those accused of praying in community or possessing religious objects. One 50-year-old woman is reported by an eyewitness to have been beaten for having a Bible. Life sentences in a prison camp is the fate of three generations of another Christian family, including a two-year-old child, revealed Korea Future.

Epoch Times Photo
Collective farms in North Hwanghae Province, close to Pyongyang, as seen from the road between Pyongyang and Kaesong, North Korea, on April 25, 2007. After being ravaged by famine in the 1990s, North Korea again faces serious food shortages. Only 17 percent of the land in North Korea is arable, one of the lowest ratios in the world, according to the U.N.’s World Food Program (WFP). (AFP/Getty Images)

Due process and evidence are not needed to convict believers. Korea Future reported that Christians and Shamans are tortured with low tech methods, deliberate food poisoning, forced squat jumps, position torture, rape, beatings with logs and fists, and sleep deprivation. A former detainee observed Christians who huddled for prayer in the corner of their cell to avoid surveillance cameras. One time they were caught and beaten every morning thereafter for 20 days.

Satellite imagery, key in identifying China’s mass detention of Uyghurs, shows prison camps in North Korea. A HRNK report this month provides high resolution satellite photos of a camp near escape routes into China, revealing rows of  prisoners who work as slaves in military supply factories. HRNK director Greg Scarlatoiu told the UK Daily Mail that these prisoners are subjected to “a relentless vicious cycle of forced labour and induced malnutrition.” He noted that political crimes are punished more severely, with one known prisoner weighing 66 pounds before he died, two years after sentencing.

These reports give a window into Kim’s extremely despotic and secretive regime. Aid distribution must never be left to it or any North Korean subject to its control. According to HRNK, “food supplies are known to be withheld from those that need it most and provided to those who are categorized as loyal or useful to the regime.” Nor can the United Nations be counted on to ensure international aid won’t be diverted. U.N. agencies routinely sub-contract locals, who, in the Middle East, have been shown to discriminate against disfavored minorities. There is simply no civic society group within North Korea able to take on this effort.

The Biden administration should prepare for the worst case scenario in North Korea this winter by insisting that private American and Western aid groups, including religious ones, be allowed free passage to distribute clearly marked American packages of U.S. aid. Safeguards must be put in place to closely monitor this process. Anything less would only strengthen Kim’s military first policies.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Nina Shea
Nina Shea is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute where she directs the Center for Religious Freedom. For twelve years, she served as a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. An international human-rights lawyer for over thirty years, Ms. Shea undertakes scholarship and recommends policies for the advancement of individual religious freedom and other human rights in U.S. foreign policy. She advocates extensively in defense of those persecuted for their religious beliefs and identities and on behalf of diplomatic measures to end religious repression and violence abroad, whether from state actors or extremist groups.