On 6th January the North Korean media, largely controlled by the state, announced that the regime had successfully tested its first hydrogen bomb. Whilst North Koreans were shown to be lining the streets of Pyongyang to celebrate, international condemnation poured from all corners of the globe at this latest provocation. On Sunday 7th February they went even further, launching a long-range rocket carrying a satellite into space, despite international sanctions banning the state from using missile ballistic technology. What we must be mindful of however, is how all this military noise may have an ulterior motive – to distract us from the awful human rights atrocities committed by the regime.
The claims that the North Korean state have developed a hydrogen bomb should not, of course, be taken lightly. The development of a hydrogen device is a new step for North Korea, and could allow them to miniaturise the technology, and possibly put them on rockets. With this latest long-range rocket test, fears are that these missiles could reach US military bases in Hawaii and Guam.
There has been a degree of scepticism about the DPRK’s claims, with some scientists noting that the magnitude of the earthquake does not fall within that expected of a hydrogen blast. It is a possibility that the North Korean state media has overplayed the advances made in order to a) appear powerful to the rest of the world and b) to re-iterate sentiments of national pride amongst the population – particularly the army and party officials who implement Kim’s rule.
The detonation and launch were castigated by much of the international community – with the UN considering further sanctions against the oppressive regime. Most importantly, China, North Korea’s only ‘ally’, publicly denounced the action and said it would support appropriate UN action against North Korea. It was not warned about the test in advance and is getting increasingly frustrated with Kim’s erratic behaviour.
An open, global discourse is needed about the human rights situation in the DPRK
Whilst this is obviously an extremely grave threat, combined with the fact that the unpredictability of Kim Jong-Un multiplies the danger, we should not ignore or forget the awful human rights abuses occurring in the country. A 2014 UN investigation found that there are 80,000 political prisoners in North Korea, all facing human rights abuses. Part of North Korea’s reasoning for nuclear tests is that they viewed the investigation as ‘a conspiratorial human rights racket against the DPRK’.
It is clear that the DPRK is sensitive to any chatter about its human rights record – exemplified by the unofficial policy of North Korean diplomats to walk out of any negotiations when human rights issues are raised. Thus we can see the military tests by North Korea have consequences (intended or not) twofold on the discussions of their human rights record.
The first effect is an obvious one, the detonating of hydrogen bombs and launching of rockets is often seen as a more pressing issue, and distracts from human rights abuses – which are seen as less pressing comparatively.
It is clear to see why China is somewhat hesitant when it comes to resisting North Korea
The second is a multiplier effect, and one to be wary of. By detonating nuclear weapons, Kim Jong-Un manages to retain his image of unpredictability. This unpredictability means that many in the international community are wary of taking action against North Korean human rights abuses. It is widely believed that whilst retaliatory strikes by North Korea would not be a wise strategic decision on their part, no-one is really sure that Kim will make ‘wise’ decisions. It is a risk no-one is really willing to take. This mode of thinking is dangerous, and unfair to the oppressed people of North Korea.
Much emphasis has been placed therefore on the need for China, as North Korea’s only real ally, to push for reform. However, it is clear to see why this may be problematic to Beijing. Calls by the Chinese government to improve human rights in North Korea would be met with skepticism – given China’s own patchy record on human rights. Couple this with the fact that the end of the North Korean regime would cause huge migration and trade crises, and it is clear to see why China is somewhat hesitant when it comes to resisting North Korea.
It appears that the North Korean regime gives little regard to international condemnation
The UN has been in discussions to impose new sanctions, but sanctions against the regime are already in place – and are apparently having little effect. It appears that the North Korean regime gives little regard to international condemnation of its tests. Silence on the part of the international community with regards to human rights will not stop a fifth nuclear detonation. An open, global discourse is needed about the human rights situation in the DPRK – it will help to weaken the regime and help foster ideas about how to help those so desperately in need.