The sentencing of an American citizen to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea's infamous prison camps has escalated the cold war between the totalitarian regime and the United Status. Since assuming his role of head of state following his father's death, Kim Jong-un has repeatedly ratcheted up tensions between his nation and ours.
Since he became North Korea's "supreme leader," Kim has ordered nuclear and missile tests and made bellicose threats against the United States and South Korea. But his latest action shows that he is growing increasingly desperate to provoke a response from the U.S.
What Kim wants is not war with the U.S. or South Korea. Unless both he and his top military officers are totally deluded, they know they cannot win such a conflict. What Kim wants is aid from the West -- and for good reason. His people are starving again, and the country's economy is in shambles.
Kim's father, Kim Jong-il, used similar ploys to get food aid and assistance in building nuclear power plants. After the fall of the Soviet Union, North Korea lost its main supplier of oil, and the country's fragile infrastructure virtually collapsed. Only Pyongyang, the nation's capital, where the country's elite live and work, has regular supplies of electricity -- and even these are subject to intermittent interruptions. Unlike oil-rich Iran, whose claim to need nuclear power plants is ludicrous, North Korea needs a steady and reliable energy source, though it is also greedy to produce more nuclear weapons.
But the sentencing of American Kenneth Bae puts the Obama administration into a bind -- one the administration faced early in its tenure when two female American reporters were captured and imprisoned in North Korea in 2009. A sentence of 15 years of hard labor in North Korea's infamous prison camps is akin to a death sentence. If Bae ends up in one of the political prisoner camps, or kwan-li-so, he will be slowly starved to death while he is forced to work at back-breaking labor in dangerous mines or stone quarries, or at other jobs that will destroy his body and his spirit.
We know this from the reports of those tiny numbers of prisoners and guards who have managed to escape. Their stories have been published in books like Blaine Harden's bestselling "Escape from Camp 14." They have testified before Congress and international human rights organizations. The testimony includes stories of summary executions and prisoners reduced to eating rats and other vermin or even human flesh in an attempt to stay alive.
It is nearly impossible to fathom the conditions in North Korea and especially among the estimated quarter-million people in the kwan-li-so, which includes whole families: grandparents, parents and children sentenced under the dictum that enemies of the state must "be eliminated through three generations."
An estimated 250,000 to 350,000 people starved in previous manmade famines in the 1990s. And even when the West, including the U.S., provided food for the starving population, most of the rations went to Communist officials, not the starving. As a result, a whole generation of North Koreans is stunted; the average North Korean is 3 inches shorter than the average South Korean, though the two populations are genetically one.
The challenge to the Obama administration will be saving Bae's life while not making concessions that will help the North Korean regime become a greater menace to the world and its own people.
The only thing that will rescue North Korea from the grip of the murderous regime of the Kim dynasty is outside intervention. With the breakup of the Soviet empire, China has assumed the role of North Korea's protector. But China does so not out of ideological sympathy -- for despite its veneer of communist ideology, Karl Marx would have recognized in North Korea what he called "Oriental despotism."
China has always operated under the shortsighted principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend and thus supports the North Koreans chiefly because they are America's enemy. But China is also fearful of what the consequences would be if North Korea were to collapse, flooding China with millions of starving refugees.
Nonetheless, the Obama administration should be applying as much pressure as possible to China to help free not only Bae but also 25 million North Koreans by withdrawing its support for the Kim regime. Capitulating to Kim's demands will only prolong the misery.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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