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From Our Practical Politics Blog

Does the Guardian care more about fashion than North Korea?

Jonathan Freedland’s eloquent Comment on North Korea (DPRK) in the Guardian (20 Feb) implies there is nothing we can do about it because we “live in the post-interventionist era.” It’s a bit grand to call this moment in time an era. If any, this is an era of consumerism and fashion. The Guardian seems five times more concerned with fashion than North Korea (a search for fashion on the Guardian website lists 648,000 items, North Korea just 117,000).

It is also dangerous to imply that armed force is the only form of intervention. The UN report into human rights in DPRK  itself is action to spotlights the situation and give the UN Security Council evidence to  back targeted sanctions and refer the DPRK to the International Criminal Court. Of course this is not enough, but it may be than many smaller steps are needed before action by the Security Council will be effective, steps that citizens world wide can take.

As someone with privileged access to a global media platform, Jonathan Freedland is not powerless. The very least he could do is lobby his own editors to give more effective coverage and not just follow events unfold like ambulance chasers. Responsible reporting has an active role in democracy, to report accurately what’s happening; to analyse, interpret and illuminate the power structures and struggles behind the scenes; and, in my view, to offer citizens information and tools to take part so that they are not mere spectators and consumers of news, but can be participants in creating our shared future. That’s what democracy is about.

The Guardian and other news media can do three things to empower citizens and accelerate the inevitable end of the North Korean dictatorship:

  1. Run a weekly or even daily update on North Korea to maintain public awareness and remind the regime that the world is watching;
  2. Conduct in-depth investigations into Chinese internal politics and economics in relation to North Korea, as well as the political economy of North Korea itself, to find potential cracks in both regimes or opportunities for influence;
  3. Produce a short guide to action on the DPRK for people who want to do more than just watch the agony.

This may shorten the regime’s rule by just be a few months and save several hundred lives, or bring the end forward by decades, sparing misery and death for millions, but if you don’t try you will never know. The news outlet which takes these steps will lead international coverage of North Korea and scoop the news when the regime collapses, so there is self-interest in being a midwife of democracy, not just observers. Neither China nor North Korea are complete monoliths. Political manoeuvres happen behind closed doors and occasionally become visible through a show trial, execution or fall from grace. Casting light into the shadow politics of dictatorship can be the first chink of change. Add to this a guide to action and people can create ripples that become waves which topple the regime, as we’ve seen in the Ukraine and across Eastern Europe over decades of the cold war. It may be slow, but it is sure.

Draft action guide on North Korea

I am not an expert North Korea and do not know which campaigns are most likely to benefit the people of North Korea, but three avenues appear most promising:

  1. provide information and support to for people within North Korea through trusted intermediaries, including a BBC Korean language service;
  2. urge the UN Security Council to take action in close consultation with North Korean exiles and South Korea;
  3. encourage Chinese authorities to reduce support for the regime and stop sending refugees back to North Korea.

The regime in North Korea is dangerous and possibly fragile. It needs to be handled with care and skill or many more will suffer. Anyone who wants to be more closely involved should read From Dictatorship to Democracy, A Conceptual Framework for Liberation and guide to the non-violent overthrow of dictatorship. It was written in 1993 for democracy campaigners in Burma (now Myanmar) by Gene Sharp, professor of politics at Massachusetts University, published by the Einstein Institution. He warns that in the absence of a strong internal resistance movement international pressure is unlikely to succeed. He says that to bring down a dictatorship most effectively and with the least cost one has four immediate tasks:

  • strengthen the oppressed population themselves in their determination, self-confidence, and resistance skills;
  • strengthen the independent social groups and institutions of the oppressed people;
  • create a powerful internal resistance force; and
  • develop a wise grand strategic plan for liberation and implement it skilfully.

All of this is difficult in North Korea, but we can sow seeds which in time will crack the dictatorship and strengthen its oppressed people.

News outlets are welcome to adapt or publish this guide, with acknowledgements to Titus Alexander, Democracy Matters, writing in personal capacity. 

The three areas of action are:

1.  Information and support for people within North Korea

  • Urge the BBC to set up a Korean language service: Sign the petition here
  • Like BBC for Korea Facebook group
  • Twitter @BBCforKorea  ( 한국어 서비스에 대한 여러분의 지지를 보여주세요!
  •  Support a petition by Oxford University students and residents to Lord Patton, Chairman of the BBC Trust;
  • And respond to Foreign Secretary William Hague’s rejection of the  proposal by writing to your MP

2.  Urge the UN Security Council to take action

Ask your MP to press the Government to adopt a strong resolution on North Korea in the UN Security Council and task the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon with transmitting the report directly to the UN Security Council and General Assembly for action.

3. Encourage Chinese authorities to act

Sign the Petition calling on China to stop the forced repatriation of North Korean refugees

Please let me know if there are other actions which can be added to this list:

Organisations concerned with North Korea

Joining or supporting an organisation campaigning on North Korea is a good way to learn and have more impact. Check out several organisations to find one that you can support and trust. Campaign groups such as Liberty in North Korea and the North Korea Freedom Coalition are primarily based in the United States. The International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity brings together more than 40 organisations from around the world, but is focused primarily on high-level advocacy. In the UK, until recently the only groups consistently raising North Korea were Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Amnesty International. A new group, North Korea Campaign UK, was launched last summer and the European Alliance for North Korean Human Rights provide opportunities for students and grassroots activists to get involved. The following alphabetical list does not imply support or views about them, so check them out before you support or join them:

Amnesty International is fundraising for action and research

Amnesty Cambridge group

Citizens’ Alliance to Help Political Prisoners in North Korea 

Commission to Help North Korea Refugees (CNKR) – US based

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea  publishes research and Focusing Attention on Human Rights in North Korea

Database Center for N.Korean Human Rights (NKDB) – US based

European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea  @EAHRNK  

Helping Hands Korea Human Rights Without Frontiers (North Korea Project)

Human Rights Watch Life Funds for North Korean Refugees is a US group which works with defectors from North Korea

LINK Non-profit No Fence North Korea Campaign UK website is not yet live: see their Facebook site TWITTER: @NKCUK

North Korea All-Party Parliamentary Group Contact Mr Jim Dobbin MP, House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA. Tel: 020 7219 4530 Mr Keith Bennett provides secretariat services in a personal capacity to the group, free of charge. Tel: 07973 824742 E-mail:

Lord David Alton is a particularly active member. He recently published a book which argues that patient but firm engagement can encourage tiny shoots of hope.  Read more here

North Korea Freedom Coalition  includes over 40 nonpartisan NGOs, including all the major NGOs in the USA, Japan, and South Korea, and especially the North Korean defectors’ organizations, as members or partners. The aims of the Coalition are to:

1) Make Human Rights the key policy of all governments in dealing with North Korea

2) Save Lives by helping rescue refugees and pressuring China to end its brutal repatriation policy

3) Close down political prison camps in North Korea

4) Pressure the DPRK to Release all abductees including Korean War POWs

5) Promote information into North Korea through all means

6) Get food aid directly to the North Korean people and end all food aid distribution controlled by the regime

7) Bring freedom, human rights, and dignity to the North Korean people

North Korea Tech is a quirky site that lists all kinds of media and websites in and about North Korea.

Oxford Students for Liberty North Korea Campaign

Stand Today

U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK)

Further reading

Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephen (2011) is a more recent study of factors which enable non-violent campaigns to succeed or fail is, but not as practical as From Dictatorship to Democracy

The BBC has a profile and timeline of North Korea

Building Bridges: Is There Hope For North Korea? by David Alton and Rob Chidley, 2013

The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future by Victor Cha, 2013

The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia by Andrei Lankov,  2013

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demnick, 2010

Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, by Bradley K. Martin, 2006

Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag by Kang Chol-Hwan, Pierre Rigoulot and Yair Reiner, 2006

News outlets are welcome to adapt or publish this guide, with acknowledgements to Titus Alexander, Democracy Matters (writing in personal capacity). 

  1. Michael

    Realistically, only providing information and support for people within North Korea will make a difference.

    One quick point of clarification: NKDB is a South Korea-based organisation.

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