Friday, February 21, 2014

Moral Duty to Help North Koreans?

In an announcement that came as a shock to no one, after a year-long investigation, a United Nations panel that was headed by retired Australian judge Michael Donald Kirby found that the North Korean regime was responsible for crimes against humanity.

Now that the report is out, Kim Jong-un may be “personally held liable in court for crimes against humanity committed by state institutions and officials under his direct control.”

How wonderful. Now we can all sleep better at night.

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And what does the report accomplish? Absolutely nothing. As everyone knows, both China and Russia will use their veto power in the Security Council to prevent anything that could potentially destabilize the North Korean regime any more than it already is. This would be in accordance with what they had done in 2012 to prevent the passing of a harmless resolution that condemned the Syrian regime and called for President Bashar Assad to step down.

The United Nations, and the Security Council in particular, is indeed a toothless tiger; and each time one of those permanent member nations wields its veto power, it causes anyone in the world with any sense of moral values the urge to vomit blood.

However, as much as the Security Council may be an insipid cesspool, in this case, seeing how it is actively preventing nation states from being forced to accept moral responsibility for the rights of others, it’s a blessing that such a disease-ridden entity exists.

That is because at the heart of the UN report about the hellhole that is North Korea’s crimes against humanity is the underlying assumption that we, as in anyone who is not North Korean, have the moral responsibility to liberate the suffering North Korean people from the yoke of tyranny.

For example, Roboseyo wrote recently in his blog post about this same subject:

With North Korea, we knew. We knew and we knew, and we ignored it. And this is what haunts me about North Korea’s condition: that one day, the surviving North Koreans will confront the world, and ask, “Why didn’t you do anything?” The media used their country’s condition to sell newspapers and ad space, but ignored mass starvation and concentration camps. South Korean politicians cynically used North Koreans' lives as a political wedge issue. No apology will be enough. With Auschwitz not even gone from living memory, we have let this happen again, to our shame as a species.

With all due respect to Roboseyo, this sense of shame and feeling of responsibility is one that I have never accepted nor will ever accept.

Frankly, though Christians may say otherwise, I am not my brother’s keeper. The North Koreans aren’t even my brothers for that matter. And that’s saying something seeing how I’m Korean.

Why is it immediately assumed that people have the duty to perform certain actions for no reason other than obedience to some higher moral authority, without regard to any personal goal, motive, desire or interest? Why does the fact that some random strangers are suffering mean that they have the right to claim moral authority over me?

However, Roboseyo's statement that the question is not “What can the world do to help North Korea” but rather “How can the world empower North Koreans to demand a different kind of country for themselves” is at least somewhat reasonable.  On the other hand, there was the special brand of idiots from the Chosun Ilbo.

The opinion piece from The Chosun Ilbo which I am talking about stated:

There is no point denying that whatever support Seoul provides will eventually end up helping the regime and military. But if that is what it takes to feed the truly hungry, that is a price worth paying to make them feel that South Korea cares.

Firstly, have those idiots at the Chosun Ilbo forgotten that the de facto junta that Seoul’s support would eventually end up helping is run by the same people who were responsible for all this:

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Are South Korean taxpayers supposed to hand over their hard earned money to help pay to keep those thugs in power? Those very same thugs who have committed so many crimes against their own people as well as against South Koreans? Just so that North Koreans, strangers whom we have never met, may feel that “South Korea cares?”

Though the Chosun Ilbo has never been known for being particularly intelligent, this is a new low even for them.

There is without a doubt that North Korea is one of the worst dictatorships that the world has seen in modern times, and as such, it is an outlaw state. Any free(ish) nation in the world has the political, as well as moral, right to invade North Korea to liberate its people as well as dismantle the state apparatus.

However, no free nation in the world has the political or moral duty to invade outlaw nations. Whether a free nation chooses to invade an outlaw nation in order to dispense justice or not is a matter of its own self-interest, not of respect for the non-existent “rights” of gang rulers or their suffering subjects. It is not a free nation’s duty to liberate other nations at the price of self-sacrifice, but a free nation has the right to do it, when and if it so chooses, depending on its goals, motives, desires and interests.

And to be blunt, regardless of the fact that some people may think that the reunification of the Korean peninsula would be a jackpot, invading North Korea to liberate its long suffering people is simply not in anyone’s interests – economically, socially, or politically.

What I do agree with Roboseyo about this is that when we think of North Korea (or Syria or Darfur or Rwanda or East Timor or Kurdistan or Kosovo) the phrase “Never Again” does ring hollow.

Personally, however, “Never Again” has always sounded much more meaningful when it came from Israelis themselves because I always took it to mean that they would never allow something like the Holocaust to happen to themselves ever again.

But as soon those words come from the mouths of anyone else, when it typically means “we cannot stand by and let such crimes occur in any god-forsaken corner of the world,” especially considering how many mass killings there have been since the Holocaust, “Never Again” has always been a meaningless phrase. And that is precisely because no country in the world, not even the United States with all of its supposed exceptionalism, acts against its own selfish interests.

But instead of being proud of being rational and refusing to give in to emotionalism, countries prefer to espouse a morality that none can truly practice for seemingly no other purpose than to wring one’s hands.

If the North Koreans ever overthrow their leaders, they will have my support. If the North Koreans then want to consider reunification with the South on South Korea’s terms (itself a fantasy), they will have my support. But their fate is theirs to make and I will not feel guilty for their suffering or envy for whatever glories they may or may not achieve.


  1. Hi, John. Interesting article.

    I'd like to point out, briefly a few things:
    Invasion is not the only kind of intervention possible: there's a full spectrum of ways to try and change the situation in North Korea, and military invasion is only the farthest extreme end of the spectrum.

    I don't know exactly where the line is drawn, but I do know that every thug and despot has used the same national sovereignty argument -- "Stay out of our domestic affairs" that you have used here, because it gives them free rein. And an organisation like the UN isn't perfect (lord no) but it was created because when nations were left to look out only for their own, we kept having world wars. So maybe there's something, however small, to be said for organisations that try to emphasise the way we are all connected.

    Nations are a very recent idea, and the fact you're living in Korea and blogging for audiences around the world shows how porous those boundaries are: it's weird to me that you seem to have made national boundaries (and perhaps others) so utterly impassable and rigid in your conception of the world... perhaps just so you can give yourself permission not to care what is happening right now to North Koreans?

    I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on how your view of nations, sovereignty, and boundaries could ever make the world (not just your country: the world) into a better place, if an imaginary line on a map means we just have to leave the next Stalin or Pol Pot or Kim Il Sung to do what they like, as long as they're only raping and murdering their own.

    tl/dr: Humans ARE connected. What we do about that fact reveals something about us as a species, or as members of that species.

    1. Hi, Rob.

      You’re right. Invasion is not the only kind of intervention possible. There are certainly less bellicose and other diplomatic options that are available to nations. However, my point is not simply about wars or any other option. The point that I was making was that I don’t think that countries are morally obligated to do anything about it unless they think that doing so, whatever that may be, is in their interests.

      And I wasn’t saying that rogue states have a right to sovereignty and that they can hide behind that Westphalian idea as a legitimate cover. In fact, I don’t think that rogue states like North Korea that violate their subjects’ rights so systematically have the right to demand for any national rights.

      Now I am a strong advocate of national sovereignty. As much as I am anti-Big Government, I do think that nation states ought to be the final arbiters of laws of any given national areas in order to protects their citizens rights. So as long as nation states protect their citizens rights, by extension, they, too, have national sovereign rights.

      However, as soon as the nation violates its citizens’ rights, and thereby turn citizens into subjects, then whatever legal rights they had before are gone.

      But even if those rogue states do not have any sovereign rights, a rogue state can only be disbanded or weakened when another country takes actions against it. And as I said, my position is that it is not a free nation’s duty to liberate other nations at the price of self-sacrifice, but a free nation has the right to do it, when and if it so chooses, depending on its goals, motives, desires and interests.

      Now I don’t agree with you that it was the United Nations that prevented the Third World War. I think you and I can both agree that the post-WW2 world and its technological progression and East-West divide was what prevented World War Three, whereas it utterly failed to stop the “small” wars.

      Now, I said that I am an advocate of national sovereignty but I don’t go so far as to think that it makes the world a better place. I am an advocate of national sovereignty only to the extent that I think it is a necessary evil that is needed to guard against greater evils.

      Now perhaps I am wrong but it sounds to me like you want to see an abolition of all borders. But then what would we have? A n actual world government? A United Nations with teeth? Since you know what I think of nation states that surpass their legal bounds, I think you can guess what I would think of supranational states.

      But I suppose your counter is “at the expense of allowing despots to do whatever they want as long as they are only murdering and raping their own and no one else?”

      As I said, I am not my brother’s keeper. There are people that I love, those that I care for, those that I am mildly concerned about, and those that I don’t lose sleep over. If I feel that those that I love are in danger, I will do anything to keep them safe. But if it is a random stranger whom I have never met and lives far away from me in a world that is foreign to me, I just don’t think of them.

      I don’t know what you mean when people say that “everyone is connected.” I am certainly connected to those who are closest to me, and I am somewhat connected to many others (by more than seven degrees, I imagine) through trade but at some point, the connections end. And I don’t believe in the human species as being one and the same. I am me, and there are those that I care for. I cannot and will not go further than that.

  2. Hi John. Nice post. This time I actually agree with you. Only because you aren't talking about the "c" word in this post. I don't know what Roboseyo is saying when he suggests that "nations are a very recent idea". I also don't find a compelling argument that information sharing makes "borders porous". I just think he's a nice guy and would like to see less suffering in the world. Wouldn't we all. I agree with you wholeheartedly that nations have no moral imperative to intervene in the business of other nations unless it serves the interest of their own people. After all "free" government has a primary responsibility to the people within it's own borders first.

    1. Tsk tsk, TT. We can't ever be seen to agree. What would the neighbors think? Here, let me help.

      Capitalism is neat.

      There. All is right with the world again. :)

    2. See...that's how James Carville and Mary Matalin do it. They don't talk about the stuff that makes them fight. Plus I bet she's not as "conservative" as she looks where it counts and he's just big freak anyway. lol Yeah but regulated capitalism is nice.

  3. Question: do you believe that there are any circumstances in which one has a moral duty to help a stranger?

    Hypothetical: You are walking down the street with a baseball bat (or a gun) and see a man beating a child to death. Assume you have overwhelming force and are not yourself in physical or legal danger, but interfering will cause you some minor inconvenience - make you late for an appointment, you will have to stop and talk to police and the like. Do you have a moral obligation to stop the man?

    For me, the answer to that would be yes. You seem to limit your sense of self-obligation to "kin", which makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, but to me all higher morality is founded in the very common idea of "do to others as you would have them do to you", and an expansion of the primitive sort of altruism you advocate to one that includes people of other races whom I do not personally know. If I was hopelessly stuck in an incredibly brutal dictatorship I would want others to help me, and I can't accept a philosophy that advocates that it is acceptable to leave people to suffer simply because they're strangers.

    1. No, I do not believe that anyone owes any duties to anything or anyone whatsoever. And that is because the word "duty" implies an automatic, unthinking sense of obligation that people owe to others just because. Humans are capable of complex and rational thought; it is the one attribute that differentiates us from other animals. But duty negates that one attribute that makes us human.

      I don't particularly enjoy entertaining hypothetical scenarios because they are precisely hypothetical. So let me put it this way:

      Assuming that an individual is a rational and logical being, if he/she knows that a thing is right, he/she would want to do it. On the other hand, if he/she doesn't think it is right, then he/she wouldn't want to do it. However, if it is the right thing to do and he/she doesn't want to do it; or conversely, if it is not the right thing to do but he/she wants to do it - then he/she doesn't have the mental faculties to be considered a rational being and should not be treated as one.

      Because we are all thinking beings, thus, I reject the unthinking morality of duty. Any help that I offer to others (and I expect no less from others) will depend on my goals, motives, desires, and interests. Though I will help others, even strangers, when it comes at little or no cost to me and I think it is the right thing to do, I will not do so if it will cause me to sacrifice myself.

      It is a morality that all individuals practice. You as well, I suspect. Because it is rational. And I will not apologize for being rational.