The global marketplace is the most powerfully-addictive new designer drug in the universe. Everybody wants some.
An artist’s rendering of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. (artist: Ronald Menti)
A Beginners Guide to Getting Hooked on Capitalism
Intense economic pressure to maintain open trading relationships is the key to peacefully protecting human rights around the world.
Isolationism is not. Military intervention is not. Orchestrated coups are not.
Is it really all that noble to insist the world wait for countries like North Korea to see the error of their ways? Establishing trade relationships does not mean rewarding a brutal regime for abhorrent behavior; on the contrary.
Establishing trade relationships is the beginning of the end for brutally repressive regimes like Kim Jong Un’s.
One taste of capitalism is all it takes. Once hooked, even the most brutal dictator will be forced to comply with the world standards for human rights.
No Comply, No Supply
Setting the trap.
A million, million news cycles ago, U.S. President Donald Trump met with North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un for a second time.
Topics under discussion included a nuclear weapons drawdown; bruising sanctions; an American named Otto Warmbeir who died as a result of injuries sustained while interred in a North Korean prison camp; and other topics related to maintaining peace on the Korean Peninsula, and in the world.
Avoiding Mutually Assured Destruction is Important
But nuclear weapons aren’t the real jumping off point; denuclearization doesn’t create trade relationships.
Trade relationships create denuclearization.
The long game is getting North Korea to join to world proper. Most particularly, the global marketplace. The deeper they get, the more hold international trade partners have on them. The more North Korea becomes dependent on these new trade relationships, the greater the leverage.
The Moral Price of Peace
The price of a denuclearized North Korea is not a continued acceptance of its egregious human rights violations. This presents a false binary choice; the world can have a denuclearized North Korea and stop the worst of the human violations in that country.
But it won’t happen overnight.
Peaceful solutions sometimes require more time than a full-scale military invasion or a stealthily-executed coup. Expectations must be managed, and the small steps North Korea takes towards globalization must be recognized and encouraged.
“I’m sure all of them will be watching the moment we are sitting together, side-by-side, as if they are watching a fantasy movie.” — Kim Jong Un, about viewers in America.
This is not a fantasy movie, unfortunately; brutal dictators aren’t brought to heel in a single conversation. Or two. Totalitarian regimes aren’t toppled because a U.S. President had the audacity to call its leader a bald-faced liar when Kim denied responsibility for Otto Warmbeir.
Nothing happens when countries refuse to allow any progress until the government of North Korea is ready to admit to and atone for its many crimes against humanity.
Not the least of which, is Otto Warmbier.
Spreading Peace to the Peaceful
Presenting an idea to those who already agree with it is easy, and intellectually lazy. See, preaching to the choir.
Under no circumstances should you suggest that Trump is wrong to negotiate with a brutal dictator like Kim. With whom would you negotiate peace? Justin Trudeau? Trudeau is far more likable, I agree, but you can’t negotiate peace if you are only willing to engage with those who are already at peace.
There is no question that North Korea is ruled by a brutally repressive regime. There is also no question that the strategy of isolating North Korea has done the people of the that country absolutely no good whatsoever in the past six decades the world has been doing it.
Tempting the Totalitarian
The global marketplace is the glittering gold ring, the siren song of a rapidly expanded middle class and a GDP that could double in 10 years.
Imagine how popular that would make the leader of any country. Now imagine how unpopular that leader would become if they lost it all because of an act of brutality against fellow countrymen. In a situation like that, even your closest political allies would turn against you.
No one can rule a country of millions where everyone wants to kill you.
In Kim Jong Un’s government, there are already those who would remove him from power, as evidenced by the over 350 people he has executed or “purged” since assuming office in 2011. 140 of them were high-ranking government officials. Kim has “purged”, that is, removed from office by way of execution, his defense minister five times. That we know of.
Intensifying internal pressure through dependence on foreign trade is the key to peacefully unlocking the humanitarian crisis in North Korea and will, ultimately, deliver its people from the worst offenses.
Once North Korea is dependent upon its trading partners around the world, it will be beholden to them, inextricably linked in trade. Human rights offenses will frighten off rich new friends who have to face democratic elections in their own countries.
North Korea’s rich new trading partner friends who won’t share a stage with them at international events, can’t be photographed together. To say nothing of gross human rights violations that will result in expensive and unpopular sanctions and trade embargoes.
Just ask Saudi Arabia, still being pressured to answer questions about the Khashoggi murder on the world stage, which it never would have felt necessary to do a decade ago. In the aftermath, a heretofore untouchable like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin-Salman is facing challenges to his position, and future as ruler, from within the Royal Family.
Even megapower China, a notorious human rights violator, has had to face intense international scrutiny and answer questions about the interment of scores of Muslims in re-education camps. Afterwards, the Chinese government opened the doors of these camps to an international free press, a remarkable sign of the times.
The Power of the Free Press
Please keep in mind, these are not countries with a free press; these are countries in which the government body politic controls every aspect of how and what information is communicated to the public.
The Saudi government monitors and restricts all media under state law. Reporters Without Borders described the Saudi government in 2014 as “relentless in its censorship of the Saudi media and the Internet,” and Saudi Arabia was ranked 169th out of 180 countries for freedom of the press in 2018.
The Chinese government closely maintains censorship over all mass media; television, the internet, print, radio, literature, film, theater, messaging, even video games. The recently released biopic Bohemian Rhapsody is, even now, getting a Chinese makeover, censoring out gay content.
Do these sound like governments accustomed to being held to account by journalists asking difficult questions they would rather not answer? Just ask female activists on trial for advocating for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Or Chinese bloggers using blockchain to fight censorship in China.
Chinese authorities and the Saudi Arabian ruling royal family feel exactly the same way about human rights as they always have; they feel exactly the same way about their right to control every aspect of public and private life in their countries. They still believe wholeheartedly in their sovereign right to rule.
They are only now agreeing to answer questions they can’t control, asked by a free international press not under their direct authority, because of intense economic pressure to maintain open trading relationships.
Granted, it is not a warm and fuzzy motivation. But whether it is born out of a commitment to moral justice or pure mercenary greed, the resulting improvements to the human rights of everyday, ordinary citizens will be the same.
The Art of the Real
We must not underestimate the power of the global marketplace to bring human rights violators to heel. Protecting valuable trading partnerships is a powerful incentive.
Unlike military strategies, which only unite inside opposition against an outside aggressor, or installing governments deemed friendlier via other means, which almost always backfires, using internal pressure actually works.
Yes, heartbreakingly slowly. But peacefully. It is past time we accept the morality of what works; and the immorality of what doesn’t.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)