By Carter Thompson, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs and Sophia Hapin, HRNK Research Intern
May 6, 2021
North Korea and the Kim regime are synonymous with nuclear weapons proliferation and isolationism. However, there is much more occurring that fails to reach the mainstream media when it comes to North Korea. While the regime’s nuclear priorities fill the news, a much darker truth continues unencumbered—crimes against humanity. North Korea runs merciless political prison camps in which arbitrarily imprisoned individuals are forced to endure brutal crimes, including torture, starvation, forced abortions, and enslavement. Justice Michael Kirby, Chair of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, stated that the crimes being committed in these camps rival those committed by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust. How then, is nothing being done? Perhaps it is the Kim regime’s nuclear capabilities or the protection of Russia and China’s veto power on the United Nations Security Council shielding North Korea. Maybe the complicated legal framework of sovereignty and intervening in a state’s affairs erects an additional barrier. Undoubtedly, all of these factors play a role. However, is it possible that there is another contributing factor, something grimmer, something that is not being asked in the highest levels of academia and international governing bodies regarding passivity—do we just not care enough?
The idea of “not caring enough,” or passivity, is not new. It has been discussed in regard to crime and inaction as far back as 1970. In States of Denial, sociologist and criminologist Stanley Cohen discusses passivity in the context of external audiences witnessing states committing crimes against humanity, claiming that passivity and indifference from external audiences is very simple to explain because it is “quite abnormal to know or care very much about the problems of distant places.” In other words, passivity masks itself as rhetoric that sovereignty should not be infringed upon, and the sentiment that such issues are other peoples’ problems to address. This process is self-sustaining because today’s passivity “makes future action less likely.” Indifference drives individuals to disassociate and creates a narrative of otherness amongst peoples separated by distance, resulting in consistent inaction. Perhaps, most relevant to the world’s response to North Korea is the evidence that human rights come second to economic and national interests in the minds of international actors, as atrocities that do not affect spectating countries’ domestic interests are generally ignored. , 
However, in the context of international relations and especially in the case of North Korea, it is easy to dismiss passivity. Thus, it is important to consider passivity in a historical context in order to shed light on the current situation in North Korea.
Passivity Towards Rwanda
Entire books have been written on the role that passivity has played in the international community’s failure to respond to crimes against humanity from Srebrenica to Rwanda, and a glimpse into the Rwandan Genocide, in particular, casts light on the current situation in North Korea. In 1994, before the Rwandan Genocide, General Dallaire, Force Commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, received intelligence of the impending violence, and appealed to the UN Security Council (UNSC) for armed reinforcements in order to halt or limit the catastrophes, claiming that a force of even 5,000 soldiers could have prevented the genocide. While this is contended amongst some scholars, the consensus is that armed intervention could have saved at least hundreds of thousands of lives. Logistical issues seemingly played a role, as the UN claimed that they could not intervene because they relied on individual states, who refused to put their soldiers at risk, to provide troops. More excuses arose in the wake of the disaster, with claims that there was limited intelligence at the disposal of key decision makers. The costs of intervention, namely sacrificing one’s own resources for distant peoples, were simply too high.
However, evidence emerged following the Rwandan Genocide that provided a clearer picture that indifference and passivity underpinned the international community’s failure to intervene. While many states discussed their concern, nobody offered their own services because “they did not care enough to put their men and money on the line.” Consequently, in the wake of the genocide, analysts assert that the United Nations Security Council stands “indicted for its failure to act decisively to protect civilians” in Rwanda. The passivity was summed up by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair when he admitted that “We knew. We failed to act. We were responsible.”
Action Towards North Korea
While human rights abuses have been clearly documented and equated as crimes against humanity in the 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry (UNCOI) Report on the DPRK, sanctions against North Korea remain predicated on nuclear weapons proliferation and ballistic missile development. Contrarily, sanctions based on human rights abuses remain scarce. The European Union just imposed its first human rights sanctions on North Korea in 2021, but the effects have yet to be seen. Furthermore, while the Obama administration, pursuant to the passing of H.R. 757, the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016, also enforced such sanctions and the Trump administration followed suit in 2017 and 2018, further action has wavered.,  Moreover, although the issue of crimes against humanity in North Korea initially became a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) agenda item following the UNCOI report, the matter has not been made a UNSC agenda item since 2017, displaying the lack of resolve to hold the North Korean regime responsible for its crimes. As more time passes, the prospect of stopping these atrocities appears increasingly unlikely as the international community remains fixated on nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles at the expense of human rights.
Passivity Towards North Korea
The purpose of this article is not to diminish the reality that difficulties exist when taking a stand on a nation’s internal affairs, as state sovereignty remains the excuse used by authoritarian governments in response to criticism of human rights. The goal, however, is to show that not enough is being done. Current sanctions have not done enough to make concrete change for the citizens of North Korea, as crimes against humanity continue to unfold. Influential actors in the international community, such as the UN, United States, and EU must take more meaningful action to push the Kim regime to respect human rights and halt their crimes against humanity.
There could be unintentional consequences to further action from the international community, however, with reports from former North Korean prison camp guards stating that contingency plans have been put in place to destroy all evidence if there is unwanted external intervention in the state’s affairs, which would result in a systematic massacre of the prisoners.,  Additionally, the regime’s weapons cache, possibly including up to sixty nuclear weapons, alongside Kim Jong Un’s apparent readiness to use them is increasingly cause for concern with studies showing that in less than an hour, even North Korea’s conventional weapons could “turn Seoul…into a smoldering ruin.” These are all contributing factors preventing the international community from using more powerful means than sanctions in order to halt the crimes being committed in North Korea. However, it is possible that the lack of regard for distant peoples’ suffering that the world witnessed in Rwanda is also an important factor.
We can see this lack of regard for other peoples’ suffering in everyday life, as quick probes into ordinary conversations reveal a startling truth. In private conversations about the crimes being committed, responses such as “please stop, it is too upsetting” and “there is nothing anyone can do” are common. Not only are people unaware of the horrors proliferated by the Kim regime, but it also seems that many do not want to know what is occurring and wish to pretend that action is impossible. Does this sentiment permeate throughout international governing bodies? Perhaps the continuous process of imposing sanctions to push for denuclearization is truly the best that the international community can do to help the innocent people in North Korea. This has been the status quo for years. Nevertheless, people are still suffering.
The logistical hurdles of actualizing any type of change in North Korea are clear. None of these issues should be minimized, but the question is if there is more behind the international community’s idleness. The documentation is sufficient, the evidence of crimes against humanity is clear, but passivity remains. Is the cause for passivity simply because action is too difficult, or is there another layer of obstacles because we do not care enough about the suffering of distant peoples? The question must be asked.
We must find compassion powerful enough to overcome willing ignorance, passion that will compel us to act and stand up for distant peoples who remain subdued by oppression and violence. Today, up to 120,000 people endure crimes against humanity on a daily basis in North Korea’s political prison camps. Each person, an individual with a story, family, and dreams. Compassion should, at the very least, nudge us to speak up, raise awareness, and call for more significant action in order to rescue these individuals in North Korea. However, history shows that passivity often nullifies brief feelings of empathy and calls for action. While we sit and enjoy the comforts afforded to us by the protection of our basic human rights, we cannot assume that this luxury is forever assured. We must stand up to be the voice for others, fight for their human rights, and hope others will return the favor should the tables ever turn.
 UN Human Rights Council, “Report of the Detailed Findings of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” (February 7, 2014), ¶ 1027.
 Boris Kondoch, “North Korea,” in Oxford Handbook of the Responsibility to Protect (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 826.
 Bibb Latané and John Darley, The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn’t He Help? (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1970).
 Stanley Cohen, States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering (London: Polity, 2001), 160.
 Ervin Staub, “Witnesses/Bystanders: The Tragic Fruits of Passivity, the Power of Bystanders, and Promoting Active Bystandership in Children, Adults, and Groups,” Journal of Social Issues 75, no. 4 (November 7, 2019): 1269.
 Irene Bruna Seu, Passivity Generation: Human Rights and Everyday Morality (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 126
 Noam Chomsky, Year 501: The Conquest Continues (Montréal: Black Rose Books, 1992), 120.
 Seu, Passivity Generation, 60.
 This Time We Knew: Western Responses to Genocide in Bosnia and Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica by David Rhode; The ignorant bystander: Britain and the Rwandan genocide of 1994 by Dean White; Eyewitness to a Genocide: The United Nations and Rwanda by Michael Barnett
 Staub, “Witnesses/Bystanders: The Tragic Fruits of Passivity," 1273.
 Michael N Barnett, Eyewitness to a Genocide: The United Nations and Rwanda (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), 167.
 Nicholas Wheeler, Saving Strangers Humanitarian Intervention in International Society (Oxford: Oxford University Place, 2000), 223.
 Michael Barnett, “The Politics of Indifference at the United Nations and Genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia,” in This Time We Knew: Western Responses to Genocide in Bosnia (New York: NYU Press, 1999), 129.
 Barnett, “The Politics of Indifference at the United Nations,” 129.
 Wheeler, Saving Strangers, 238.
 Tony Blair, A Journey. (Random House UK, 2011), 61.
 Ramon Pacheo Pardo, “Pressure and Principles: The EU’s Human Rights Sanctions on North Korea | 38 North: Informed Analysis of North Korea,” 38 North, March 26, 2021.
 “Q&A: North Korea, Sanctions, and Human Rights,” Human Rights Watch, May 30, 2018.
 Robert King, “U.S. Sanctions North Korean Officials for Human Rights Violations—How Significant?,” Csis.org, 2018.
 “Repertoire of the Practice of the Security Council Supplement 2016-2017” (United Nations Security Council, 2019).
 Amitai Etzioni, Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 196.
 Anh Myong Chul, “Afternoon Session of 21 August 2013,” Speech (2013), 0:35:00.
 Tara O, The Collapse of North Korea: Challenges, Planning and Geopolitics of Unification (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 100.
 Eleanor Albert, “What’s the Status of North Korea’s Nuclear Program?,” Council on Foreign Relations, 2017.
 Peter Howard, “Why Not Invade North Korea? Threats, Language Games, and U.S. Foreign Policy,” International Studies Quarterly 48, no. 4 (December 2004): 825.
Leave a Reply.
HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleagues Katty Chi and Miran Song.