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Why Aren't People on the Streets for North Korea?

06/08/2014 12:41 BST | Updated 05/10/2014 10:59 BST

Ten days ago, I spoke at an event in New Malden on North Korea, alongside a former captain in the North Korean army who has become one of the regime's most vocal exiled critics. About 40 people attended. I left satisfied - it seemed a good turnout for a Saturday night meeting on an obscure topic in suburbia. The audience seemed moved, and some were keen to help.

But then I reflected on it again, and I thought: hang on a minute. North Korea is the world's most closed nation, and its most repressive. At least 100,000 people are incarcerated in prison camps described as even worse than Nazi concentration camps or Stalin's gulag. The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on North Korea has concluded that the regime is guilty of "a wide array" of "crimes against humanity", crimes that are "unspeakable", and suggesting that "the gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world". It has called for a case to be brought to the International Criminal Court. Justice Michael Kirby, the Australian judge who chaired the UN investigation, has said he is not exaggerating when he compares North Korea's human rights crisis with the Holocaust.

In North Korea today, there is no freedom whatsoever. No one with a dissenting thought or belief dares express it; anyone who questions the authority of the Kim dynasty is consigned to the prison camps or executed; and everyone is compelled to worship the Kim family, and display total devotion to them. It is the only country in the world ruled by a dictatorship that is a dynasty that portrays itself as a deity. If Christmas carols were sung in North Korea, there would only be one: "We three Kims of orient are".

And so why are we satisfied with 40 people turning up to a suburban meeting to hear about these atrocities? Why aren't people on the streets in protest at North Korea's crimes in large numbers, the way they are over Gaza or were over the war in Iraq? Why isn't there a mass public movement, of the kind that helped bring down apartheid in South Africa? Why aren't Bono, Richard Gere, George Clooney and Angelina Jolie doing anything to bring the North Korea cause into our hearts and homes? Why is a country, in which every single article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not simply denied but trampled all over, crushed and ripped to shreds, regarded as a peculiar special interest of a few people interested in that part of the world, rather than a major concern for the world's conscience and humanity?

Ignorance is no longer any excuse. A wealth of literature is available now, ranging from the UN Commission of Inquiry report to various books easily accessible for a general readership. Channel 4, BBC, CNN and others have produced excellent documentaries. Just type North Korea into youtube and you will find hours of film about the world's most closed nation. Yet still much of the world remains silent.

And yet it is even worse. Not only is there apathy, there are appeasers, hostile to any criticism of North Korea. Earlier this month, former British diplomat James Hoare, who opened our embassy in Pyongyang fourteen years ago, penned a piece praising an exhibition of photographs hosted by the British Council and supported by the North Korean embassy in London. Such "cultural exchanges" in themselves may have their uses, and I have long advocated various forms of "engagement" with North Korea as a way of trying to open up the world's most closed nation. I am certainly no proponent of isolation. However, I don't believe in cultural exchange at the expense of human rights - indeed, I advocated strongly for the establishment of a UN inquiry into crimes against humanity, including on these pages, and believe that now that the inquiry has reported, its recommendations should be implemented.

I simply believe that there is no magic wand, that we need to use every tool available to us, and that a mix of pressure and critical engagement should be developed. What I object to profoundly in Mr Hoare's article is his dismissal of the scale of the tragedy in North Korea. "Missiles, nuclear tests and human rights issues have proved a complication," he writes, to deeper engagement. He goes on to argue that the handful of Parliamentarians who have shown an interest in North Korea have hampered engagement by their "preoccupation with human rights".

Mr Hoare's dismissal of those who speak out about North Korea is reminiscent of the way Winston Churchill's warnings about Adolf Hitler in the 1930s were disregarded with an irritable flick of the wrist by Stanley Baldwin and colleagues.

The fact of the matter is that in Parliament today, only a handful of Parliamentarians have shown interest in the world's most repressive nation. I could name them on the fingers of two hands. Last month, Lord Alton tabled a debate on North Korea's human rights, at which only five Peers spoke, besides the Minister and the Opposition spokesman. They are among the few inconveniently "preoccupied" with a modern-day Holocaust. Furthermore most of them, in their "preoccupation", have advocated some of the engagement Mr Hoare champions. What they oppose is silence, appeasement or complicity.

Lord Alton, who has pioneered the cause of North Korea for more than a decade, authored an excellent book on the subject titled (Mr Hoare should note) "Building Bridges", and visited the country four times, concluded last week's debate with these words: "Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis, once said: 'We have been silent witnesses to evil deeds'. Let that never be said of us." Unless a mass movement in protest at North Korea's crimes against humanity breaks out on the streets soon, Bonhoeffer's words might easily be our epitaph.