Syria vs. North Korea: The Calculus of Mass Atrocities

The news of U.S. policy on Syria is, at this stage, moving in such loops and spirals that Russia — major arms supplier and supporter of the Assad regime — seems to be calling the shots. Suddenly the neutered United Nations is back in the ring, and for the average guy in Topeka, the whole thing by now probably makes about as much sense as the federal budget.


But if we might focus for a moment on the underlying issue: President Obama has been arguing that Syria’s use of chemical weapons is “a serious threat to our national security.”

There’s a good case for that, but the president and his top officials have yet to make it in a way that fits into any coherent global strategy — and yes, we live in a world of interconnected threats. Syria’s closest ally is Iran; both are clients of North Korea’s emporium of both conventional weapons and more exotic approaches to mass murder. Much entwined with their alarming ventures — doing business with them, and running diplomatic interference for them — are Russia and China. Add to that such matters as al-Qaeda and other jihadi groups, state-sponsored or otherwise, organizing the next plot to kill Americans.

Amid the president’s talk of red lines, credibility, international norms, and changing calculus, Americans have been left wondering what the commander-in-Chief actually means when he says those words.

What equations does his math include? What variables will he factor in? How does this calculus apply to other threats, red lines, rogue regimes, and violations of norms?

The White House has accused Syria’s Assad regime of a chemical weapons attack on August 21 that killed at least 1,429 people, including at least 426 children. Citing that, the president told the nation he wanted to take action against Syrian military targets: “We cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus.”


Okay — but how do we then explain turning a blind eye for years to atrocities on far larger scales, inflicted not in war but as a routine matter of state policy, because that’s how the ruler stays on top?

What about a regime that, according to multiple accounts from defectors, has tested chemical weapons on its own women and children? What about a regime responsible for the deaths by politically targeted famine of an estimated million or more? What about a regime operating a gulag to which three generations of a family can be exiled for the suspected political disloyalty of a single member? What about a regime that routinely tortures, starves, and works to death those in its prison camps?

And what if that regime, while starving, torturing, and killing its own people, happens to sustain itself by selling chemical weapons, missiles, and nuclear technology (including an entire clandestine nuclear reactor, a.k.a. a plutonium factory) to the Middle East, including Syria’s regime in Damascus?

What if that regime were testing long-range missiles, and had already conducted three nuclear tests — the most recent just this past February?

Would we target them with … Dennis Rodman?

Obviously, this is not hypothetical. I’m talking about North Korea, where the totalitarian Kim dynasty ought to qualify for a world prize in crossing red lines and violating all civilized norms. Just this spring, following its most successful long-range missile test and in tandem with its latest nuclear test, Kim Jong Un’s regime was threatening nuclear strikes on Washington, South Korea, and U.S. bases in the Far East.


As for monstrous abuse of human beings, including children: just this month — while all eyes were on Syria — the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, which tracks North Korea’s gulag by trying to tally witness accounts with satellite photos, released a report on changes in these prison camps. The report includes an account of the disappearance since 2010 of tens of thousands of prisoners held in a prison camp known as Camp No. 22.

These were people “severely deprived of their liberties and subjected to a lifetime of forced labor under extraordinarily inhuman conditions.” These were not people the Pyongyang regime was likely to release from the gulag. HRNK cites a report from Radio Free Asia that “following a food shortage,” the prisoner population “dwindled rapidly from 30,000 to 3,000.”

What happened to all those people?

The HRNK report concludes: “If even remotely accurate, this is an atrocity requiring much closer investigation.”

If a likely case of starving to death tens of thousands of forced laborers — effectively, the horribly abused slaves of the North Korean state — does not sound colorful enough to grab the world’s attention, what about the accounts over the years of North Korea conducting chemical and biological weapons experiments on its own people?

Here’s a 2004 BBC report on the gas chambers of North Korea, by this account tested on the families of political prisoners.


Here’s a report from 2009 on North Korea testing chemical and biological weapons on handicapped children.

Yes, confirming these accounts is a tall order. But in the grand corridors of the global powers, who has really been trying?

The point is not that atrocities in Syria don’t matter. They do. Syria is part of a highly dangerous network of tyrannies and terrorists, and it would be a terrible mistake to send the message that chemical weapons may with impunity be wielded in this mix, or anywhere.

But it appears that in the current calculus, some atrocities are more equal than others.

Far more dangerous than Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons are Iran’s global terror network and hegemonic ambitions, coupled with its advancing program for building nuclear bombs. Add to that both North Korea’s WMD projects and accompanying shopping catalogue, and the inference that other rogue states might reasonably draw from the North Korean example is: if you create a credible threat that you are willing to slaughter your democratic neighbors wholesale, and build nuclear weapons to back it up, the U.S. will avert its gaze and content itself with rounds of sanctions punctuated by bribes of appeasement.

As the furor of the U.S. political debate has just richly highlighted, Americans are puzzled over the national security priorities of this presidency.

Why was Qaddafi’s threat to slaughter rebels in Libya treated as so much more urgent that the visible carnage for more than two years in Syria?


In deciding which atrocities might warrant military intervention and which do not, what are the guiding principles of this administration? What is the calculus, not just for Syria, not solely for choosing which atrocities to call out and which to ignore, but for defending American interests in an increasingly dangerous world?

This is what the president needs to explain.



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