On July 4, 2017, America's Independence Day, the North Korean regime sent a message which was designed to strike fear into the hearts of revelling Westerners. The launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, actively taunting America, is a sign that Pyongyang's cruel despot is one step closer to being a genuine nuclear threat.
Two weeks earlier, in Cincinnati, the student Otto Warmbier died in hospital. He had visited North Korea in January 2016 on a legal visa arranged by a Beijing-based travel agency. On departure he was detained, tried, and sentenced to fifteen years in prison for 'stealing' a political poster. Otto Warmbier was not seen again until his release last week in a comatose condition. He died on June 16.
These headlines provide glimpses into one of the world's most evil regimes, but they only scratch the surface of a far deeper problem. Moments when the brutality of the North Korean regime enter the Western public imagination remind us of the torrid conditions suffered daily by North Korean citizens.
Kim Jong-Un, the leader of the country, is a despot who stands accused of crimes against humanity and should be called before the International Criminal Court.
Gulags and concentration camps should have no place in the 21st century. Yet the North Korean regime has imprisoned between 100,000 and 200,000 political prisoners and consigned them to prison camps where they are subjected to slave labour and torture. Hundreds of testimonies of escapees tell of prisoners forced to scavenge for rats and snakes because prison rations are so poor.
Four years ago the United Nations established a commission of inquiry to investigate North Korea's human rights record. They found that 'the gravity, scale and nature' of the human rights violations in North Korea 'reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world': a state where 'crimes against humanity' including extermination, murder, enslavement and torture are committed with impunity.
For Christians and other religious minorities, the situation is particularly bleak. Christian Solidarity Worldwide's 2016 report, Total Denial: Violations of Freedom of Religion or Belief in North Korea, highlights the fact that freedom of religion or belief is non-existent and it is a political crime to practise Christianity: 'Christians usually practise their faith in secret. If discovered they are subject to detention and then likely taken to prison camps; crimes against them in these camps include extra-judicial killing, extermination, enslavement/forced labour ... torture, ... and other inhumane acts.' The official ideology of the Kim regime, known as 'juche', is comparable to a religious belief and is the foundation of North Korea's repression of religious freedom, since any growth of religious teachings would conflict with loyalty to the god-like Supreme Leader.
What can we do in the face of such a bleak situation? Our response must be innovative and make the most of every opportunity to defend human rights, promote democracy and hold the regime to account.
On July 6 2017 the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said that the US would table a new resolution against Pyongyang at the United Nations and was even considering military action. The United States and their allies must ensure that human rights concerns remain at the heart of their negotiations with North Korea. The United Nations Security Council should refer Kim Jong-Un to the International Criminal Court so that he can be held accountable for his actions.
However, our actions must go beyond big-picture diplomacy. A great famine in the 1990s, which killed hundreds of thousands of people, has led to a total restructuring of the North Korean economy in recent years. The old communist economy collapsed and has been replaced by hundreds of informal capitalist markets which are technically illegal but form the backbone of North Korea's restructured economic system.
These major changes have not stopped atrocities against the North Korean people. Prison camps, arbitrary executions and torture persist, as Otto Warmbier's case so brutally exposes. However, it presents new opportunities. The economy is now less easily controlled than it was in its old communist form: this means that information which previously was blocked by the regime is increasingly entering the country by the back door. Beyond Parallel recently surveyed 36 North Koreans based inside the country. The survey was not randomly sampled and therefore percentages should be considered with caution, but people from all parts of the country participated and 33/36 of the respondents used foreign media at least once a month.
In recent years there has been unprecedented access to foreign information in one of the world's most closed countries. Many defectors claim that watching South Korean dramas or listening to the radio while living in North Korea influenced their decision to leave. Recognising this, the BBC has set up a Korean language radio broadcast into North Korea, hoping to shatter the lies propagated by the regime. If nations around the world unite to fund more innovative projects like this, who knows what may happen? A generation may rise up in North Korea, reject the regime's propaganda and call for change.
And if you're not involved in full-time advocacy? You can do two things: speak up and pray. Your voice matters to your Member of Parliament, so make sure that they know that their constituents care about the suffering of North Koreans and want them to take action. And your prayers matter to God, so pray that he protects those suffering under the violent hand of the Kim regime, pray for innovative advocacy strategies, and pray ultimately that Kim's regime would fall and be held accountable.
Johnny Patterson is a researcher with Christian Solidarity Worldwide's East Asia Team.
Benedict Rogers is East Asia Team Leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide and co-founder of the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea.