What should we do about North Korea's human rights situation?

What should we do about North Korea's human rights situation?

Last spring two North Korean defectors visited Stanford University from Seoul to share their experiences in the North. Hosted by Stanford's Korean Student Association, the event was held to increase awareness of North Korean human rights issues in the Stanford intellectual community. In fact, the Association hosts "North Korean Human Rights Night" every year. Stanford is not alone in this; many other leading American universities across the country, often also led by Korean American students, convene similar gatherings.

In the summer of 2012, Silicon Valley IT giant Google, a Stanford progeny and neighbour, hosted a conference on how technology can be used to disrupt illicit global networks, such as trafficking in human beings, human organs, and weapons. Ten North Korean defectors, ranging from former elite party members to forgotten orphans, flew in from Seoul to participate. They shared their extraordinary stories of survival amid excruciatingly painful quests for freedom.

Growing pressure on Pyongyang

These two stories are not isolated episodes. They reflect a recent trend of the international community paying dramatically more attention to North Korean human rights issues. Most notably, last month the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution to put North Korean human rights violations on the UN Security Council's agenda, despite objections from China and Russia. International pressure has been intensifying on Pyongyang since the release last year of a UN report documenting a network of political prisons in the North and atrocities that include murder, enslavement, torture, rape and forced abortions.

While concerns about North Korean human rights are longstanding at the UN, this was the first time the UN Security Council ever debated the isolated country's human rights situation. In the past the international community focused primarily on curbing North Korea's nuclear programs. Now human rights in North Korea have become a matter rivaling the nuclear issue in seriousness and global attention. Its importance appears likely to continue to grow in the coming years.

That the human rights situation in North Korea is appalling was never a secret. Defectors have produced some searing accounts of life in the North Korean gulag. Why then did the international community largely ignore it until recently?

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