With North Korea dominating the headlines, it is high time that the Jewish world recognizes what a menace that country is to the Jewish state – and what an affront its regime is to our Jewish values.
North Korea is a repressive, self-isolating police state, making it hard to understand what’s really happening inside it. From a Jewish perspective, it’s also one of the few places on earth with a complete lack of Jewish history, making it harder still to get on our communal radar. But we ignore North Korea at our peril.
Though it may not come immediately to mind, North Korea is a longstanding, bitter, dangerous enemy of Israel. It threatens the State of Israel not by fighting actual battles with the Jewish state, but rather by arming Israel’s fiercest enemies with terrifying weaponry.
In Syria, for instance, the North Koreans saw a mirror image of themselves – a sort-of Arab North Korea, complete with a hereditary ruling family, a brutal totalitarian regime and a fanatical rejection of the State of Israel. These perverse common values formed the basis for a decades-long relationship that has seen North Korea arming Syria with missiles, military know-how and even a nuclear reactor.
The nuclear project ended poorly for them: 10 years ago, Israeli pilots crossed into Syrian airspace and destroyed it. Little is known about the cloak-and-dagger operation, but some reports state that several North Koreans were killed at the site.
There is also ample evidence suggesting a similar relationship between North Korea and Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. We may never know with complete certainty if, or how, North Korea is arming the world’s most fanatical anti-Israel actors, but at the very least, prudence requires giving the benefit of the doubt to the worst-case scenario.
If North Korea poses a mortal threat to the Jewish state, it also poses a moral challenge to the Jewish People. While its leaders distract the world with goofy antics like palling around with Dennis Rodman, the reality is that life for ordinary North Koreans is horrific.
Subsistence and repression are a way of life for most of the population. About five per cent of the country is believed to have died of hunger in the 1990s, while next door, South Korea was creating one of the world’s wealthiest economies.
Ordinary North Koreans have almost no control over their lives and are indoctrinated into a shocking cult of personality to support their leader, Kim Jong-un. Dissent of any kind is met with astounding ruthlessness, even for the occasional foreigner. In 2015, Jewish-American student Otto Warmbier apparently tried to steal a propaganda banner as a prank in Pyongyang. Seventeen months later, he was returned to his family comatose, brain damaged and physically scarred. He died a few days later.
For ordinary North Koreans, punishment for crimes like trying escape the country includes “three generations of punishment,” where an entire family is deported to barbaric camps to pay for the “crime” of just one member. There, they remain imprisoned without proper food, clothing or shelter for three more generations – except for those who die from the cruel brutality and the forced labour.
The Jewish People – who know all too well about deportations, camps and fleeing repression – cannot look away. North Korea is the world’s most barbaric affront to Jewish values and history, and our community must take up this pressing human rights cause.
In the meantime, the war of words between the United States and North Korea continues to dominate the news cycle. And with two seemingly unstable leaders with their fingers on the button, there is an increased possibility of nuclear war.
While that prospect should terrify us all, it should not dissuade us from the other critical challenges we face. As Jews, we must both prevent North Korea from arming Israel’s enemies and work tirelessly to aid the beleaguered North Korean People.