If North Koreans were pandas, would we have let them suffer so?
In October 1993, Edward N. Luttwak wrote a brilliant essay for Commentary magazine asking a similar question: "If the Bosnian Muslims had been bottlenose dolphins, would the world have allowed Croats and Serbs to slaughter them by the tens of thousands? If Sarajevo had been an Amazonian rain forest or merely an American wood containing spotted owls, would the Serbs have been allowed to blast it and burn it with their artillery fire?
"The answers are too obvious, the questions merely rhetorical. And therein lies a very great irony. At long last a genuine spirit of transnational benevolence has arisen, fulfilling the highest hopes of the rare pioneering globalists of the 19th century and before. No longer does this disinterested benevolence abruptly stop at the boundaries of state, nation or culture. Instead it now encompasses all of life both animal and vegetal across the entire globe, with only one exception: Homo sapiens."
Luttwak overstated how good animals have it, alas. But his point was well taken. And to America's credit, it wasn't long after Luttwak's essay that the United States and NATO (but not the United Nations) finally did something to curb the slaughter in the former Yugoslavia.
But that's probably little solace to the people of North Korea.
The West ultimately intervened in the Balkans for several reasons. The slaughter was in "Europe's backyard," and images of the sunken eyes peering from emaciated souls kept in concentration camps on European soil couldn't be ignored. The memory of World War II and the Holocaust crept into every debate. Moreover, the violence and cruelty emerged fairly suddenly, making it "news" instead of the status quo. No one could deceitfully claim — as President Clinton would in the case of the Rwandan genocide — that we didn't know what was going on. And, perhaps most important, ending the aggression was relatively cheap and easy. The U.S. sent no ground troops and suffered "only" one American life lost in combat.
None of that applies to North Korea. The Hermit Kingdom's regime has kept images of concentration camps and mass starvation limited. The gulag archipelago of political prisons doesn't get much airtime, nor do the women forced into having abortions or, in some instances, compelled to deliver their babies only to watch them suffocated because they contain "impure" Chinese blood. You see, the North Koreans contend they are the "master race" and have strict eugenic laws against what they see as race-mixing.
And yet, North Korea's plight is not news. It's been the status quo for two generations. Everyone knows that it is an anachronistic, totalitarian police state, and yet the spirit of "never again" finds little purchase in the Western conscience. Indeed, with the exception of some heroic human rights organizations, such as the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, the debate is defined almost entirely by what some call "realism." If North Korea could be trusted to abandon its nuclear ambitions and mischief — an absolute impossibility — one gets the sense that vast swaths of the foreign policy establishment would be happy to call it a day.
After all, America, we are told again and again, is overextended. And we all know that the concept of regime change — the only conceivable remedy for North Korea's plight — is out of favor.
The simple truth: Deterrence works. The madmen running North Korea have made it clear that they will at least try to drown the peninsula in blood if their rule is threatened.
Stopping Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program is rightly a priority because of the threat it poses to the U.S. and our allies. But it should also be a priority because, if we don't, the regime may stagger on for another half-century of barbarous cruelty.
Eventually this dynasty of misery will end and North Koreans, starved, stunted and beaten, will crawl back into the light of civilization. My hunch is that it will not be easy to meet their gaze, nor history's. No one will be able to claim they didn't know what was happening, and very few of us will be able to say we did anything at all to help.