Although the concept that a state’s borders are inviolable may have originated at Westphalia, it has been nowhere more steadfastly appealed to than in countries like the DPRK. If Matthew Perry’s “black ships” shook up perceptions of what constituted the world order in 19th century East Asia, more recent events like the Western intervention in Libya have resulted in a reappraisal of an old concept. In a twist of historical roles, countries like North Korea are calling out Western countries for violating the very precedent they established, lambasting the West’s decision to intervene in Libya as ”a wanton violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of an independent state.”
As the world witnesses the withering flames of the Arab Spring in the ongoing violence in Syria, it can be safely assumed that North Korea is closely watching how Western countries respond to another crisis in a state under hereditary authoritarian leadership. To be sure, North Korea’s Chinese allies have explicitly encouraged such comparison. And a simple reference of the Syrian statement on October 4 reads similarly to North Korea’s common critique of Western foreign policy, with all the familiar themes: Western conspiracies, collusion between the US and anti-government forces, and a clearly discernible ”us” versus “them” dichotomy. In the following substantive essay, SinoNK Analyst Erin Hoshibata goes well beyond the propaganda, tackling questions of international import which are already exerting palpable force on the Korean peninsula. - Steven Denney, Assistant Editor
‘Responsibility to Protect’ vs. Norms of Non-Interference: Surveying the Arguments for and Against Humanitarian Intervention in North Korea
by Erin Hoshibata
“R2P” | Following the “full horror of inaction” of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the peacekeeping failures of Somalia and Bosnia in 1993 and 1995, and the challenged legitimacy of the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo, the Canada-based International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) drafted in 2001 what would come to be known as the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. Intended to clarify the limits of non-interventionism, it cited the overwhelming need for international protection of citizens repressed by their government. Adopted by the United Nations as an international norm at the 2005 UN World Summit, the Responsibility to Protect, or “R2P,” discounted state sovereignty where regimes failed to secure their own population from massacre or “crimes against humanity.” While virtually every other nation on earth appeared to send a representative to the 2005 World Summit where the relevant document was drafted, it does not appear that the DPRK elected to participate. As the General Assembly described in its 2005 World Summit Outcome:
Responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity
138.Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity… The international community should, as appropriate, encourage and help States to exercise this responsibility and support the United Nations in establishing an early warning capability.
139.The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity… We also intend to commit ourselves, as necessary and appropriate, to helping States build capacity to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and to assisting those which are under stress before crises and conflicts break out. 
R2P demanded that all states, regardless of population size, geographical mass, political ideology or history, aid citizens whose regimes showed indifference to their own responsibility to provide security and, at minimum, the most basic of human rights as guaranteed by the UN Declaration of Human Rights. As a last resort means, R2P legitimized the use of force against the unruly regime concerned only after diplomacy, economic sanctions, and other civil channels of mediation had been exhausted. Since then, R2P has been invoked in at least 13 separate crises by “civil society, the UN and other actors.”
The Case of Libya | On March 17, 2011, after 42 years of rule by Muammar Qaddafi, one month of civil war, and at least a few thousand casualties, the UN passed Security Council Resolution 1973, specifically invoking R2P and authorizing the use of “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan citizens against their own government’s forces. The Arab Spring, which had begun with Mohammed Bouazizi, an infuriated vegetable vendor in Tunisia, was rocking Libya, where the long-suppressed forces of civil society were demanding the regime’s overthrow. By October 2011, rebel forces of the NATO-backed National Transition Council (NTC) had secured Qaddafi’s remaining strongholds. “Operation Freedom Falcon,” as the first ever R2P-directed military intervention came to be known, ultimately brought hostilities and the existing regime to an end.
The Arab Spring inevitably came with varying degrees of violence, with death tolls reported in 15 states in the region. Under R2P, many of these countries debatably merited international protection. Why was the case of Libya so unique, such that it became the only recipient of overt Western military intervention in the entire region?
Though more or less devoid of critical American interests, Libya, argues Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), was 1) both highly publicized and subject to the rule of a “demonized autocrat” and 2) the result of unique “international political will,” fulfilling two of three criteria that make military intervention attractive. (The third is not being from underpublicized Africa which made Libya an exception to the rule).
Furthermore, Qaddafi’s commitment to hunt down every last member of the rebel NTC promised blood. Under the precedent that Resolution 1973 would halt violence against Libyan citizens, the Security Council agreed to an R2P-inspired intervention. Qaddafi, determined to be the perpetrator of the mass killing of civilians, was killed in a grisly scene and the operation was claimed a success.
Intervention in Pyongyang? | In theory, when Zenko’s criteria are applied to North Korea, the Hermit Kingdom’s candidacy for military intervention skyrockets. Kim Jong-Il was long the subject of international ridicule and intense criticism and his son, Kim Jong-Un, seems only to have inherited this disdain. The human rights plight in North Korea where the detention of an estimated 200,000 labor camp prisoners without due process, suppression of basic rights such as access to food and the right to express opinions about the ruling regime, and preventable malnutrition and starvation that plague anywhere from 25-33% of the population is thoroughly documented and publicized. Finally, North Korea is not in Africa; the country is anything but underpublicized despite its secretive nature. Is an intervention based on R2P – essentially the Libya model – possible in North Korea?
Under the general criteria for R2P international response (these were later adopted into paragraphs 138 and 139 of the UN’s 2005 World Summit Outcome as stated above), North Korea qualifies as requiring protection:
1. Large scale loss of life, actual or apprehended, with genocidal intent or not, which is the product either of deliberate state action, or state neglect or inability to act, or a failed state situation; or
2. Large scale ‘ethnic cleansing’, actual or apprehended, whether carried out by killing, forced expulsion, acts of terror or rape.
While North Korea’s existence as a “failed state” is debatable, and its allegedly genocidal acts on the Korean peninsula now more than 60 years in the past, witness testaments in David Hawk’s The Hidden Gulag and dozens of refugee memoirs confirm the ongoing “large scale loss of life” North of the 38th Parallel. According to the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), the very stream of annual refugees escaping to China and South Korea are testament to the North’s failure to protect its citizens from “severe human rights violations.” In 2008, HRNK urged the UN to adopt R2P into its North Korean rhetoric and elevate the discussion on human rights to the same level of nuclear dismantlement. Although subsequent moves in 2009, 2010 and 2011 were made to further implement R2P as an international norm, no UN mention of R2P has been made explicitly with regards to North Korea.
The trouble lies in converting words to deeds.
Activists like Robert Park explicitly invoke R2P in their demands that the international community mobilize against the Kim regime. The grievances expressed by Park include the mass torture and loss of life resulting from suppression of North Korean civil society and individual self-determination (the right to critique the government). Park is not alone; the UN’s latest condemnation acknowledged North Korea’s continuing ideological campaigns, economic malpractice, and the implementation of a discriminatory class system from which the majority of the country’s human rights violations originate.
While consensus around North Korean human rights violations seems intact, the aftermath of the Libyan intervention appears to have scuttled prospects for an “Operation Freedom Falcon” repeat in Northeast Asia.
Backlash After Libya | Gareth Evans, co-author of R2P praised the actions of the Security Council in the aftermath of “Operation Freedom Falcon” for fulfilling its moral obligation to the Libyan people. Others, however, condemned the operation as the mere pursuit of the Global North’s national interests. Following the Joint Allied and NATO strikes in late March that aided the eventual ousting of Qaddafi, David Rieff of The New York Times was less than enthusiastic in his Nov. 2011 criticism, “R2P, R.I.P.,” mourning R2P’s evolution throughout the campaign:
…unlike earlier versions of humanitarian intervention, R2P was about protecting civilians, and emphatically not about regime change. The Security Council resolutions that authorized an R2P-based intervention to protect Benghazi did not authorize outside powers to provide air support for the subsequent rebellion against Qaddafi. And it is almost certain that without that support he would not have been overthrown.
… proponents [of R2P] must recognize that in the midst of rebellions such as the one in Libya, people cannot be protected without regime change. They have not recognized this, however, and partly as a result the campaign in Libya has done grave, possibly even irreparable, damage to R2P’s prospects of becoming a global norm.
A doctrine of intervention that both claims the moral high ground and clamors its universality but under which the interveners are always from the Global North and the intervened upon always from the Global South is not moral progress; it is geopolitical business as usual.
Rieff criticized NATO’s interpretation of Security Council Resolution 1973 as overstepping the core principle of R2P – the protection of citizens – in favor of deposing the Qaddafi regime. Rieff, was hardly alone in his critique. Former UN ambassador John Bolton, whom KCNA once referred to as “human scum and [a] bloodsucker,” insists that by pursuing ideological rather than geopolitical business, President Obama was invoking a “limitless” doctrine toward Libya with objectives lacking in clarification. Bolton argued that the Security Council’s decision to intervene was anything but unanimous, reflecting further confusion as to whose “duty” R2P was in the first place.
The Return of Non-Interference | Security Resolution 1973 had been passed with the support of 10 out of 15 members of the Security Council (nine such votes are required), permanent members China and Russia abstaining to the shock of many who expected the non-interventionist countries to veto the resolution.
On October 4, 2011 however, China and Russia did block a resolution intended to curb violence in Syria through military intervention. China’s Xinhua cited the inviolability of non-interventionism with regards to its decision:
Non-interference is one of the fundamental principles enshrined in the UN Charter and also included in the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence. Intervention in a sovereign country’s internal affairs is detrimental to the peaceful settlement of its problems.
And it is universally accepted that any action by the Security Council, which shoulders the primary responsibility of maintaining peace and security in the world at large, should be conducive to the peaceful settlement of disputes, rather than further complicate the situation on the ground.
Outraged by the implications of regime-ousting R2P as demonstrated in Libya, all five of the BRICS nations abstained, as did Libya, with China and Russia utilizing their veto. Indian UN Ambassador Hardeep Puri criticized the outcome of Libya for giving R2P “a bad name,” and Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin refused to honor Libya as a future model for intervention.
The future of R2P had become bleak, its support muddled.
Intervention, Unlikely | Based on the Libyan model, the odds against a R2P being used as the basis for a North Korean intervention can be summarized in four points.
First, the Libyan revolution originated in civil society, fueled by the Arab Spring in which demands for regime change and an end to corruption were part of a popular, widespread movement. Former Director of Asian Affairs at the National Security Council Victor Cha recalls North Korea’s response to the Arab Spring:
The generation of leadership [Kim Jong-Un] will inherit sees nothing comforting about the outside world. They are afraid of their own shadow. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the way the regime responded to the demonstrations in Egypt in 2011. North Korean authorities banned all news of the public revolt that toppled the Mubarak government. To the extent that it was reported, the North described the protests as being generated by anti-American demonstrators. The regime also banned all forms of public and private gatherings, including in restaurants and open-air markets. This paranoia clearly stemmed from the uncomfortable parallels to their own situation that they might have seen.
Partially as a result of government censorship and revisionist efforts but mostly due to the absence of anything which might be considered independent “civil society” in North Korea, the Dear Leader encountered little difficulty in stifling a northeast Asian extension of the Arab Spring. Until a North Korean equivalent of Mohammed Bouazizi invigorates equally infuriated citizens to action, Kim Il-Sung Square will remain silent.
Second, in addition to deeply-rooted support for non-intervention, China’s national interest vehemently opposes a North Korean intervention. The PRC will not allow a Global North-organized strike anywhere near its border, let alone attempt to “fix” the buffer state separating them from South Korean and American military forces. Any such a proposal can expect an automatic Chinese veto.
Third, the conditions of civil unrest in Benghazi in particular that motivated President Obama and French President Nicholas Sarkozy to appeal to the UN are nonexistent in Pyongyang. As Senior Vice President of the Council on Foreign Relations, James M. Lindsay asserted, the near fall of Benghazi was “pivotal” to the UN hailing military intervention. Historically, no single incident of protest or revolutionary gathering had motivated Kim Jong-Il to promise death to all who rebel. While reports will occasionally emerge describing extremely harsh punishments meted out to dissenters or those deemed to be hostile to the regime, there has been no catalyst for mass resistance of the sort – say, in North Hamgyong – that would place the North Korean regime in the place of mounting massive attacks against a rebel province.
Fourth, whereas the intervention of Libya required primarily military aid, the rebuilding of North Korea would require a new interim regime, the abolishment of preexisting institutions such as its caste system, an ideological facelift and billions of dollars worth of economic reform. Some place the estimate of peninsula reunification for South Korea alone at more than two trillion USD dollars – 10 percent of the nation’s GDP – over 30 years. Although the United States was willing to spend upwards of four trillion USD dollars in its post-9/11 nation-building efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, such extravagant spending is unlikely for an economically isolated country, let alone one that neighbors China.
Conclusion | The conditions of the Libya model that merited UN military intervention have yet to show any signs of emergin in North Korea. Moreover, the Syrian example makes clear that, irrespective of North Korea’s crucial geographical and political position to China, the PRC pledge to the norm of non-interference as well as Russia’s opposition to seeing the Libyan case repeated make it a virtual certainty that the Security Council will never pass a military intervention-minded resolution intended for North Korea. As North Korea’s closest allies and likely recipients of refugee influxes in the event of civil war, both China and Russia have every reason to avoid potentially destabilizing resolutions.
More to the point, the catalyst that existed in Libya and Syria, respectively – revolution originating from civil society and a fragmenting state response – is nowhere to be seen in North Korea. At least for now, intervention in the North will be limited to diplomacy, humanitarian aid and trade sanctions.
Victor Cha, The Impossible State (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012).
Blaine Harden, Escape from Camp 14 (New York: Viking Penguin, 2012).
Rania Abouzeid, “Bouazizi: The Man Who Set Himself and Tunisia on Fire,” Time Magazine (21 January 2011), http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2044723,00.html
John R. Bolton, “Irresponsible: Against a ‘Responsibility to Protect’ in Foreign Affairs,” National Review (1 April 2011),” http://www.aei.org/article/politics-and-public-opinion/irresponsible-against-a-responsibility-to-protect-in-foreign-affairs/
Liam O’Dea, “Insidious Songbun: Roundup of Recent HRNK Panel,” SINO-NK (6 July 2012), http://sinonk.com/2012/07/06/insidious-songbun-roundup-of-recent-hrnk-panel/
Rob Crilly, “Libya: Benghazi About to Fall… Then Came the Planes,” The Telegraph (20 March 2011), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/libya/8393843/Libya-Benghazi-about-to-fall…-then-came-the-planes.html
David Hawk, “The Hidden Gulag, Second Edition: The Lives and Voices of ‘Those Who Are Sent to the Mountains (April 2012),” http://hrnk.org/wp-content/uploads/HRNK_HiddenGulag2_Web_5-18.pdf
Robert Park, “ Responsibility to Protect in North Korea (7 December 2011),” http://www.stopnkgenocide.com/korea/responsibility.php
David Rieff, “R.I.P., R2P,” The New York Times (7 November 2011), http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/08/opinion/r2p-rip.html?pagewanted=all
Yoshita Singh, “Selective Use of R2P to Secure Regime Change: India,” Outlook Magazine (22 February 2012), http://news.outlookindia.com/items.aspx?artid=752417
Micah Zenko, “Intervention, Please: The ‘No-Fly Zone’ Requests You Don’t Hear About,” The Atlantic (10 January 2012), http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/01/intervention-please-the-no-fly-zone-requests-you-dont-hear-about/251170/
Gu Zhenqiu, “China, Russia Uphold Peaceful Approach by Vetoing Syria Draft Resolution,” Xinhua News (5 October 2011), http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/indepth/2011-10/05/c_131175590.htm
Collectively Authored Articles
British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), “Viewpoint: ‘Overwhelming’ Moral Case for Military Path (8 March 2010),” http://www.responsibilitytoprotect.org/index.php/crises/190-crisis-in-libya/3246-bbc-viewpoint-overwhelming-moral-case-for-military-path
Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), “UN Security Council Resolution 1973, Libya,” http://www.cfr.org/libya/un-security-council-resolution-1973-libya/p24426
Costs of War, “Economic Costs Summary: $3.2 – 4 Trillion and Counting (2012),” http://costsofwar.org/article/economic-cost-summary
Human Rights Watch (HRW), “UN Human Rights Council: North Korea Condemnation Goes Unapposed (23 March 2012),” http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/03/23/un-human-rights-council-north-korea-condemnation-goes-unopposed
International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect (ICRtoP), “Crises,” http://www.responsibilitytoprotect.org/index.php/crises
International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect (ICRtoP), “ICRtoP Releases Report on the 2011 General Assembly Dialogue on the Role of Regional Organizations in Implementing the Responsibility to Protect (10 August 2011),” http://www.responsibilitytoprotect.org/index.php/component/content/article/35-r2pcs-topics/3612-icrtop-releases-report-on-the-2011-general-assembly-dialogue-on-the-role-of-regional-organizations-in-implementing-rtop
International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect (ICRtoP), “UN Security Council Fails to Uphold its Responsibility to Protect in Syria (7 October 2011),” http://icrtopblog.org/2011/10/07/un-security-council-fails-to-uphold-its-responsibility-to-protect-in-syria/
International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), “The Responsibility to Protect,” (Canada: International Development Research Centre, 2001) http://responsibilitytoprotect.org/ICISS%20Report.pdf
Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, “Failure to Protect: The Ongoing Challenge of North Korea (2008),” http://hrnk.org/wp-content/uploads/Failure-to-protect-The-ongoing-challange-of-north-korea.pdf
United Nations General Assembly, “General Assembly Debate on the Responsibility to Protect and Informal Interactive Dialogue (21 July 2009),” http://www.responsibilitytoprotect.org/index.php/component/content/article/35-r2pcs-topics/2493-general-assembly-debate-on-the-responsibility-to-protect-and-informal-interactive-dialogue-
United Nations General Assembly, “General Assembly Interactive Dialogue on Early Warning, Assessment and the Responsibility to Protect (9 August 2010,” http://www.responsibilitytoprotect.org/index.php/component/content/article/35-r2pcs-topics/2914-general-assembly-debate-on-early-warning-assessment-and-the-responsibility-to-protect-
United Nations General Assembly, “United Nations Charter, Chapter 1: Purposes and Principles,” http://www.un.org/en/documents/charter/chapter1.shtml
United Nations General Assembly, “United Nations Charter, Chapter 7: Action With Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches to the Peace, and Acts of Aggression,” http://www.un.org/en/documents/charter/chapter7.shtml
United Nations General Assembly, “2005 World Summit Outcome,” http://www.who.int/hiv/universalaccess2010/worldsummit.pdf
United Nations General Assembly, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/
Wikipedia, “Arab Spring,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_spring
Wikipedia, “National Transitional Council,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Transitional_Council
Wikipedia, “North-South Divide,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North%E2%80%93South_divide
Wikipedia, “Westphalian Sovereignty,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Westphalian_sovereignty
James M. Lindsay, “Obama’s ‘Poorly Conceived’ Libya Intervention (25 March 2011),” http://www.cfr.org/libya/obamas-poorly-conceived-libya-intervention/p24494
 The prevailing international norm since the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, non-interventionism recognizes the jurisdiction state actors have over domestic affairs. Article 2 of the UN Charter, signed in 1945, reaffirmed Westphalian sovereignty except where “the application of enforcement measures under Chapter Vll” prevail. Chapter VII, pertaining to appropriate responses to breaches of peace, was invoked in the 2011 UN Security Council Resolution 1973 which authorized a Libyan “no-fly zone” and UN protection of Libyan citizens.
 United Nations General Assembly. “2005 World Summit Outcome.” Available at http://www.who.int/hiv/universalaccess2010/worldsummit.pdf
 David Rieff, “R.I.P., R2P,” The New York Times (7 November 2011), http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/08/opinion/r2p-rip.html?pagewanted=all
 Victor Cha, “All in the Family,” The Impossible State (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012), 85.
 Gu Zhenqiu, “China, Russia Uphold Peaceful Approach by Vetoing Syria Draft Resolution,” Xinhua News (5 October 2011), http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/indepth/2011-10/05/c_131175590.htm
 Victor Cha, “All in the Family,” The Impossible State (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012), 106.
 Blaine Harden, “South Koreans Are Not So Interested,” Escape from Camp 14 (New York: Viking Penguin, 2012), 171.