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North Korea: Has the Time for Action Come?

Image via NBC

The death of one man, Otto Warmbier, reminds us that millions of North Koreans are also treated despicably by Kim Jong Un’s regime.

Otto Warmbier died on Monday after being returned from North Korea where he was held as a political prisoner for 17 months in a vegetative state.

Warmbier, a student at the University of Virginia and member of Theta Chi fraternity, was visiting the Hermit Kingdom with a specialized travel group early in 2016. By all accounts, he enjoyed the trip, until he was detained by security in the Pyongyang airport for pilfering a propaganda poster from his hotel and bringing it in his luggage. For that heinous crime, he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.

After just eighteen months, however, Warmbier was returned to the U.S. in a state of “unresponsive wakefulness,” having sustained significant brain damage. He was in a coma for much of his time as a prisoner. Kim Jong Un’s government blamed botulism for Warmbier’s condition, but doctors found no evidence of botulism in his body.

Warmbier’s death is obviously tragic beyond words. He had a bright future ahead of him and leaves behind a grieving family. The thing is, he’s just one person. There are over 25 million people in North Korea living under a totalitarian communist regime that represses them in a way no other modern country does. Warmbier is just one of many victims.

According to Human Rights Watch, North Korea’s violations include, “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence.”

Why is it, then, that the contemporary world seems to be doing nothing for the good of the North Korean people? Generally, we only treat North Korea as a threat to our own safety due to its military ambitions, despite the fact we routinely act to fight human rights abuses – many of which are much smaller than those of North Korea.

The world has set out to destroy ISIS and other radical Islamist groups because of their cruelty. Heck, even the U.S. and Russia are both engaged in the fight against the Islamic State despite the tensions between the two nations in the region. UN Nations regularly condemn Israel for what they view as human rights violations from the country, culminating in UNSC resolution 2334 last year.

In fact, if I didn’t know any better, I would think that Israel was the worst country in the history of the planet just by looking at UN resolutions. During the UN’s 2016 legislative session, the UNGA adopted 20 resolutions condemning the Jewish state and only six such resolutions for the rest of the world combined—including just one against North Korea.

Even the most radical anti-Israel activist must surely admit that any human rights violations Israel may have committed against the Palestinians are nowhere near the level of the Kim’s abuses in North Korea. Also, North Korean citizens don’t shoot back with rockets.

So why the double standard?

There are two main reasons for this lack of action against Kim Jong Un and his regime. The first is that we simply don’t see his government’s abuses on a regular basis.

There was no mistaking the enemy after 9/11 as the twin towers fell in lower Manhattan. It’s hard to ignore videos of ISIS beheading innocent people and tough to look the other way in the face of bodies defaced in chemical attacks by the Syrian government. But you never see any images of the oppression in North Korea.

Outside of the documentary here or investigative journalism piece there, we rarely get a glimpse inside the Hermit Kingdom. Even when crews get lucky enough to bring cameras into the country, what they’re allowed to see is mostly propaganda strictly controlled by the North Korean government.

We never go in the prison camps or witness the forced abortions or see the mass starvation. So, we never get riled up enough to do anything more about it than protect our own hides.

Which brings us to our second reason; that North Korea is such a paranoid and isolated state that it has no issue threatening to escalate military tensions to a level no other country is comfortable with. Nobody wants a full-scale war with one of the largest standing armies, manpower wise, in the world whose leader who has no qualms about massive casualties of his own people. So, most of the world left North Korea and the Kims essentially alone, save some sanctions that did nothing to weaken their psychotic ambitions.

Now, the chickens from our past inaction are coming home to roost.

North Korea already has several nuclear weapons and is coming closer and closer to being able to launch them to America’s west coast on an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile). The country has greatly sped up the clip of its missile tests in recent months and years and is on pace to have an ICBM capable of striking America’s west coast by the end of President Trump’s first term, according to experts.

The fact is that we have not dealt with a sovereign nation so hostile to the civilized world and our way of life for a long time. Logic follows, then, that we in the civilized world need to treat the North as if we are at war with a nation hell bent on killing us and perfectly capable of doing so – not just as a rogue nation state with a crackpot dictator as we have in the past.

Sadly, that’s not exactly how things are going. South Korea’s new liberal president, Moon Jae-in, ran on a platform of appeasement for his neighbors across the DMZ. China, while moving in the right direction, isn’t doing as much as it could with sanctions on Kim’s regime which may be the last best hope for peacefully pressuring him to reduce his aggression. Russia has warned the Trump administration against taking any preventative action on the Korean peninsula. “I hope that there won’t be any unilateral actions like we recently saw in Syria,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in response to Vice President Pence’s April statement that “the era of strategic patience is over,” regarding American policy on the DPRK.

The era of strategic patience is in fact over, and it’s time for bold action. This action needs to start with crippling economic sanctions from all sides, but it can’t stop there. The world needs to take seriously the option of major preventative strikes against North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs or at the very least strategic strikes to set them back.

For a long time the rest of the world has procrastinated on when it would be time to do something about this vestige of soviet-era communism and oppression. As a consequence, North Korea has continued to brutally oppress its own people and build up its military to a point where it’s becoming more than just a small problem. There is still a window before nuclear strikes against targets in the region, or on our own shores become a reality at the whim of Kim Jong Un’s chubby finger. But there isn’t much.

The time for the world to unite and finally act against North Korea has come and passed, but it’s not yet too late to right our wrongs.

Tyler Olson is a student at the Pennsylvania State University studying broadcast journalism and political science. He has written for The Daily Collegian.