Updated: April 04, 2023 06:47 AM GMT
A man walks past a television showing a news broadcast with file footage of a North Korean missile test, at a railway station in Seoul on Feb. 20, 2023. (Photo: AFP)
The world’s focus is, understandably and predominantly, on Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, which has just passed the one-year mark. When we are not concentrating on this appalling and illegal war, China’s intensifying repression at home and aggression beyond its borders increasingly worry us, and rightly so. Beijing’s relationship with Moscow at the head of a new axis of authoritarianism presents a growing challenge to democracies.
China’s increasing threats to Taiwan are being taken more seriously. And Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power is also being watched closely. Last week, Xi and his circle agreed to plans for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to take more direct control of areas they regard as critical, including security, finance, technology, and culture. Yesterday the National People’s Congress — China’s rubber-stamp legislature — began its annual session in Beijing and it is expected to affirm Xi’s tightening hold on power.
But there are two crises in Asia that must not be forgotten. Both are human rights and humanitarian disasters, both have implications for regional security and stability, and both are very directly within Beijing’s orbit of influence. They are North Korea and Myanmar.
Last month, North Korea launched more missile tests, including intercontinental ballistic missiles, and Kim Jong-un’s powerful sister, Kim Yo-jong, warned that her country could turn the Pacific into a “firing range.”
Last week, it was reported that North Koreans are experiencing one of the worst food crises in decades, with North Koreans facing widespread hunger due to Covid-19-related border restrictions and floods and droughts that have damaged crops. Experts say the food insecurity crisis is the worst since the famine of the 1990s and has led to deaths from starvation.
Yet rather than spend money on feeding its people, the North Korean regime spent between US$340 million and $530 million on ballistic missile launches last year, enough to cover several months of food supplies, according to the Seoul-based Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. Its total military expenditure comes to nearly a quarter of its gross domestic product.
"North Korean parents were warned they would be sent to prison camps if found to be permitting their children to watch Hollywood movies"
Meanwhile, the human rights crisis continues. Ten years ago this month, the United Nations Human Rights Council established a Commission of Inquiry into North Korea’s human rights situation, chaired by the distinguished Australian judge Michael Kirby. Over the course of a year, that inquiry heard many hours’ of evidence from escapees and survivors of the North Korean regime, and came to the conclusion that “the gravity, scale and nature” of the human rights violations in North Korea “reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”
A catalog of crimes against humanity, including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions,” as well as severe religious persecution, enforced disappearances, and starvation, should lead, the inquiry recommended, to a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
A decade after that inquiry was first established, in a resolution by the UN Human Rights Council on March 21, 2013, there is no reason to think that Kim Jong-un’s regime has stopped committing these crimes. Only last month it was reported that North Korean parents were warned they would be sent to prison camps if found to be permitting their children to watch Hollywood movies.
Christians continue to be hounded and persecuted, facing execution or many years of incarceration in prison camps. In its latest “World Watch List,” Open Doors — which monitors Christian persecution around the world — documented “a rise in reported incidents of violence” against Christians in North Korea last year, including executions.
It is vital that the world does not forget the plight of the people of North Korea.
Recently 34 Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have written to UN member states, to urge them to renew the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea at the Human Rights Council session this month. They also call on the UN to mark the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the Commission of Inquiry by requesting the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), in consultation with the Special Rapporteur and other UN mechanisms, to conduct a study of the human rights situation in North Korea over the past decade since the Commission of Inquiry’s mandate ended.
The tenth anniversary of the Commission of Inquiry provides an appropriate opportunity to dust off its report, reconsider its findings and recommendations, and revisit the human rights crisis in North Korea. Last week’s decision to keep the human rights situation in North Korea on the agenda of the UN Security Council is a welcome move. But it needs to be more than an agenda item – it needs to be an action item.
The other crisis in Asia that requires urgent attention is Myanmar.
Last week, the UN accused Myanmar’s military of creating “a perpetual human rights crisis.” The head of the UN OHCHR’s Myanmar team, James Rodehaver, said that armed clashes are occurring in approximately 77 percent of the country.
“There has never been a time and a situation in which a crisis in Myanmar has reached this far, this wide throughout the country,” he said.
The UN has documented the military's "indiscriminate air strikes and artillery shelling, mass burnings of villages to displace civilian populations, and denial of humanitarian access,” amounting to what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk called “a scorched earth policy” and war crimes and crimes against humanity. Myanmar’s military “has consistently shown disregard for international obligations and principles,” Turk added, and called for urgent, concrete action “to end this festering catastrophe.”
"We should also draw attention to the plight of women from both countries trafficked into slavery"
Meanwhile, other reports have documented regular massacres throughout Myanmar, including the news last week that two teenage child soldiers had been beheaded — an atrocity which the UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, said was “consistent with patterns of brutality” for which Myanmar’s military is known. He emphasized the importance of documentation of atrocities, because “those who commit war crimes and crimes against humanity must know that they will be held accountable.”
While the international community focuses on Ukraine, and the increasing dangers for Taiwan, we should realize that the crises in Myanmar and North Korea are not disconnected from Putin’s war or Beijing’s ambitions. There are two countries that prop up the regimes in Naypyidaw and Pyongyang — economically, militarily, diplomatically, and politically — and they are China and Russia. Both are the major providers of arms to the Myanmar military, and both — though China particularly — provide an economic lifeline that keeps General Min Aung Hlaing and Kim Jong-un in power. I document this in detail in my new book, The China Nexus: Thirty Years In and Around the Chinese Communist Party’s Tyranny, which, while analyzing the CCP’s brutal repression within China and Hong Kong, and its threats to Taiwan, also includes chapters on Myanmar and North Korea.
This coming week provides some key opportunities to ensure that a spotlight is placed on Myanmar and North Korea.
On March 8, International Women’s Day, we should remember Aung San Suu Kyi and all women political prisoners in Myanmar, as well as the women survivors of sexual violence in conflict in the country, and we should think of the North Korean women who are raped and tortured in Kim Jong-Un’s prison camps. We should also draw attention to the plight of women from both countries trafficked into slavery — often sexual slavery — in China.
March 12 is the Global Day of Prayer for Myanmar, an initiative started by Christian missionary and aid worker David Eubank, founder of the Free Burma Rangers after he met Aung San Suu Kyi in 1996. She told him that although she is a devout Buddhist, she reads the Bible, and her favorite verse is John 8: 32 — “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” She asked him to pray for Myanmar, and to ask Christians around the world to do the same. So this Sunday, as every year, please join with others in praying for this beautiful but benighted country. And of course, pray too for North Korea.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The atrocity crimes and humanitarian crises in Myanmar and North Korea can and should be forgotten no longer. The people of both countries need and deserve our urgent attention and our help.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.