The Treasury Department’s nine-page “2021 Sanctions Review” released on Monday makes vague recommendations for “calibrating sanctions to mitigate unintended economic, political, and humanitarian impact.” Unfortunately, it offers few tangible policy suggestions on how to end the high humanitarian cost of sanctions on vulnerable populations in places like North Korea, where 40 percent of the population is undernourished and one-in-three households lack clean water.
That lack of concern about the well-being of populations in countries sanctioned by the United States should come as no real surprise. North Koreans are consistently dehumanized, caricatured, and parodied in U.S. popular media, a phenomenon that enables inflation of the national security risk posed by North Korea and serves to justify a brutal sanctions strategy against Pyongyang.
At a time of rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the Biden administration and Hollywood would do well to take a close look at how South Korea portrays its neighbor to the north of the 38th parallel, particularly in the South Korean produced-Netflix runaway hit, Squid Game. That’s right, the show that casually murders nearly (no spoilers here!) every major character in depraved children’s games as part of a bloody allegory about late-stage capitalism, economic inequality in Seoul, and the boredom experienced by global elites.
If that sounds disturbing, that’s sort of the whole point. But the show is also noteworthy for itshumanizing treatment of most of the major characters, including a North Korean, in a manner that Americans almost never witness.
Most American news coverage of North Korea revolves around its nuclear weapons program. Recent reports that Pyongyang tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile will likely consume American media’s attention, with scant attention placed on the people who live there and what the current situation means for them. Images of missiles and soldiers marching will dominate news about this latest development, while human-centered stories about the North Korean people will neither be seen nor heard. The result is an American public that does not see North Korea as a country made up of people and interests but as a threat.
Squid Game chooses to focus on a more human side of North Korea with its character Kang Sae-byeok, played by Jung Ho-yeon. A North Korean defector to the South, she enters the game to earn money to support her younger brother (currently in a South Korean orphanage) and to pay exploitative brokers to smuggle her surviving family members out of North Korea. Her elder brother and grandparents died from a plague in North Korea when she was a child.
Korean-speaking Squid Game fans note that Sae-byeok conceals her North Korean accent when speaking to her South Korean competitors, only allowing her North Korean accent to come across when speaking to her little brother, presumably a defense mechanism to avoid discrimination that is common among North Koreans living in the South. Indeed, North Korean defectors in South Korea often face discrimination and live in poverty.
Kang’s character is sympathetically portrayed as a struggling person trying to improve her life and that of her family, much like most of the Squid Game participants. And that’s an enormous departure from how North Koreans are typically portrayed in the United States.
The examples are numerous but also, sadly, consistent. James Franco and Seth Rogen’s 2014 film, “The Interview,” focused on a parody caricature of Kim Jong Un who suffers a mental and physical breakdown after hearing “Firework” by Katy Perry. In “Team America,” Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s black-comedy-action critique of U.S. foreign policy, Kim Jong Il is secretly an alien cockroach.
And who could forget then-President Donald Trump’s taunt at the 2017 U.N. General Assembly, where he said of Kim Jong Un: “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission”?
Of course, criticizing the Kim government does not necessarily reflect a disregard for the conditions of the North Korean people. The problem with these caricatures is that North Koreans, outside Kim Jong Un and other top political and military leaders, are often rendered invisible both by their own government as well as by the international community, including the United States. And the more North Korea is essentialized as Kim Jong Un, the less likely the outside world will view the country beyond Kim.
In recent years, humanitarian groups working with North Koreans on the ground have had modest success in shining light on the plight of vulnerable North Koreans, such as patients of highly infectious diseases such as multidrug-resistant tuberculosis. As Dr. KJ Seung of Partners In Health noted regarding the 2018 documentary, “Out of Breath,” “North Koreans are not robots like they are normally portrayed on TV or in print.” Legislation, such as the Enhancing North Korea Humanitarian Assistance Act (H.R.1504/S.690), led by Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Congressman Andy Levin (D-Mich), that would help expedite the delivery of lifesaving aid to North Koreans, have stalled in both the House and the Senate, and are unlikely to become law absent more support from relevant committee chairs.
On Wednesday, Foreign Policy reported on a State Department cable making surface-level observations that Squid Game was a commentary on tensions in South Korean society and economic conditions. Perhaps if the State Department and Treasury Department looked a little deeper they might take another message. South Korean popular media — which, thanks to K-pop, K-dramas, films like “Parasite” and “Snowpiercer,” and other streaming megahits like “Crash Landing On You” — is producing humanizing and relatable portrayals of North Koreans.
Much of the U.S. sanctions strategy against North Korea is predicated on the theory that total capitulation to U.S. demands is the only acceptable outcome — even if ordinary citizens are harmed along the way. Perhaps if Washington and popular media treated North Korea as a country of people, rather than solely a security challenge, it would lead to a more humane policy and greater self-reflection on the impact of its policy on ordinary people.
Jessica J. Lee was formerly senior research fellow on East Asia at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. She is an expert in U.S. foreign policy toward East Asia, legislative affairs, and transpartisan coalition-building.Jessica’s analysis has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, USA Today, the Washington Times, The Nation, Arms Control Today, and Quincy Institute’s news platform Responsible Statecraft. She has testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and co-authored several Quincy Briefs and Reports, including Toward an Inclusive & Balanced Regional Order: A New U.S. Strategy in East Asia, Beyond Deterrence: A Peace Game Exercise for the Korean Peninsula,, The Folly of Pushing South Korea Toward a China Containment Strategy, and Active Denial: A Roadmap to a More Effective, Stabilizing, and Sustainable U.S. Defense Strategy in Asia.Jessica is a non-resident senior associate fellow at the Asia Pacific Leadership Network, a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a member of National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, a member of the National Committee on North Korea, and a 2021-2022 Arms Control Negotiation Academy Fellow with the Negotiation Task Force at Harvard University. She serves on the board of the U.S. nonprofit exchange program between U.S. and East Asian college students called International Student Conferences.Previously, Jessica led the Council of Korean Americans, a national leadership organization for Americans of Korean descent. Prior to CKA, Jessica was a Resident Fellow at the Pacific Forum and a senior manager at The Asia Group, LLC. She began her career on Capitol Hill, where she served as a professional staff member handling the Asia region for the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and as a senior legislative assistant on international security and trade for a member of Congress on the Ways and Means Committee. Jessica holds a B.A. in Political Science from Wellesley College and an A.M. in Regional Studies-East Asia from Harvard University. She has advanced proficiency in Korean.
MUNICH, GERMANY – The Munich Security Conference came to an end today but not before EU leaders warned that international “winds” might be blowing against the West on the issue of Israel’s war in Gaza
While the international meeting this weekend entertained manifold topics — from the role of the Global South to the importance of AI and food security — the Ukraine war dominated the conference, with Gaza coming in second at a considerable distance.
But the focus on Israel’s military operations grew more intense as the confab drew to a close, between yesterday afternoon and Sunday morning. In the press center, for example, the current situation in Gaza vied for attention with the death of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech on Saturday.
Indeed, Rafah was an often-repeated word Sunday in the Bavarian capital. The day before in a televised news conference, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that “total victory” against Hamas would require an offensive against Rafah once people living there evacuate to safe areas. It is difficult to see how the concept of a “safe area” can apply to any place in the Gaza Strip today. At least 28,985 people have been killed and 68,883 injured (mostly civilians) in the Gaza Strip since October 7, when 1,200 Israelis were killed and over 250 hostages taken during a Hamas attack against Israel. In a side event Sunday organized by the Consulate General of Israel in Munich, the press was shown a video, about 10 minutes long, documenting Hamas atrocities on October 7.
According to the United Nations, over 75% of the Gazan population has been displaced, many multiple times. There is also a severe lack of food, medicine, and other essential items because of Israel’s decision to let only a trickle of the aid trucks into Gaza needed to maintain basic conditions of life.
Addressing the audience in Munich, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell stated that peace in the Middle East requires “a prospect for the Palestinian people” and that “the security of Israel will not be ensured just by military means.”
In a reference to the war in Gaza, he noted that “Russia is taking good advantage of our mistakes. The blame about double standards is something that we need to address and not only with nice words. It is clear that the wind is blowing against the West.”
Borrell appears to share a worry openly expressed by some of the European leaders — such as Spanish president Pedro Sánchez and Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar — who have been even more critical of Israel. The concern is that Europe’s failure to rein in Israel will undermine global support for Ukraine and discredit the European discourse on the importance of international law.
Borrell, in sharp contrast with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, has represented the most vocal position within the EU on the growing death toll and humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza after October 7. Earlier this week, the EU top diplomat replied to Biden’s recent description of Israel’s military conduct in Gaza as being “over the top.” Borrell noted that "if you believe that too many people are being killed, maybe you should provide less arms in order to prevent so many people being killed."
Borrell has long supported a ceasefire but any EU decision on the matter requires unanimity, and countries like Germany, Austria, and Hungary are not on board.
American ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said yesterday that the U.S. will veto an Algerian proposal for a ceasefire in Gaza to be taken up at the UN Security Council on Tuesday. According to Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. is working hard for “a sustainable resolution of the Gaza conflict,” and the Algerian resolution would endanger this.
In an oft-repeated dynamic over the last months, the U.S. is basically asking the international community to trust that Washington’s diplomatic pressure will force Netanyahu to change course. Such an approach has failed once and again, and there is no clear reason to believe this time will be different.
Yesterday afternoon, Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani noted that the efforts to reach an agreement between Israel and Hamas have been dominated by a pattern that “is not really very promising.”
Part of the U.S. approach to the current conflict has also been to demand that the Palestinian Authority (PA) reforms itself. Washington hopes the PA can govern the Gaza Strip after the war ends, but Netanyahu has been adamant it does not envisage any role for the PA in the Gaza Strip in the future.
The Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh was in Munich on Sunday, remarking in an interview that the PA — which has grown even more unpopular in the West Bank after October 7 — is already working on introducing reforms. Shtayyeh said that the recent insistence on the topic only seeks to divert attention from the Israeli military operation in Gaza, however.
In his view, Netanyahu’s interest today is “to keep the war going” and argued that “Netanyahu’s war is going to continue until the end of the year.” The Palestinian leader was supposed to be present at a press briefing around midday, but the event was canceled on short notice due to “scheduling reasons.”
In a panel with his Spanish and Canadian counterparts, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi was one of the last Arab leaders to speak in Munich. He used the opportunity to note that “Israel cannot have security unless Palestinians have security.”
This afternoon, the Munich city center was returning to its normal state after an intense weekend of both open and closed-door meetings featuring top leaders from Europe and beyond. As security barriers were being removed and the 5,000 police officers deployed for the event, many of them from other parts of Germany, returned home, it wasn’t hard to note that beyond all the talk, the world’s thorniest problems, including two major conflicts, are left unresolved.
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Volodymyr Zelensky speaks at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 17, 2024. (David Hecker/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY — If U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris dominated the first day of the Munich Security Conference with her remarks, today it was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s turn.
It was not only Zelensky who understandably devoted his whole speech to the Ukraine War but also Scholz, too. The German Chancellor, while boasting that his country will devote 2% of its GDP to defense expenditures this year, remarked that “we Europeans need to do much more for our security now and in the future.”
In a brief but clear reference to Trump’s recent statements on NATO, Scholz said, "any relativization of NATO’s mutual defense guarantee will only benefit those who, just like Putin, want to weaken us.” On the guns and butter debate, which is particularly relevant in Germany due to negligible economic growth, Scholz acknowledged that critical voices are saying, “should not we be using the money for other things?” But he chose not to engage in this debate, noting instead that “Moscow is fanning the flames of such doubts with targeted disinformation campaigns and with propaganda on social media.”
The Russian capture of the city represents the most significant defeat for Ukraine since the failure of its counter-offensive last year. On the loss of Avdiivka, Zelensky said that Ukraine had lost one soldier for every seven soldiers who have died on the Russian side. This, however, is difficult to reconcile with the reports about the rushed Ukrainian retreat, with a Ukrainian soldier explaining that “the road to Avdiivka is littered with our corpses.”
Throughout his speech, Zelensky repeatedly referred to the importance of defending what he called the “rules-based world order” by defeating Russia. If there was one take-away that Zelensky wanted impressed on this audience: “Please do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself why is Putin still able to continue it.”
He also seemed to suggest that it was not a lack of available weapons and artillery but a willingness to give them over to Ukraine. “Dear friends, unfortunately keeping Ukraine in the artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in deficit of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war,” Zelenskyy said. “The self-weakening of democracy over time undermines our joint results.”
The future of NATO was one of the main topics of the day. European leaders were in agreement that Europe needs to spend more on defense, and occasionally appeared to compete with each other on who has spent the most on weapons delivered to Ukraine or in their national defense budgets.
With NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in attendance, one of the panels featured two of the most talked-about names to replace the Norwegian politician in the 75th-anniversary summit in Washington in July: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. According to a report by the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, President Joseph Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken favor the German leader, but in Paris, London, and Berlin, the Dutch politician is preferred.
The participation of the Netherlands in the initial U.S.-UK joint strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen on Jan. 11 was read in some quarters as a sign of Rutte’s ambitions. The Netherlands was the only EU country to join these initial attacks.
A G7 meeting of foreign ministers also took place Saturday on the sidelines of the conference. In a press briefing that followed, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani — who currently presides the G7 — reiterated the group’s support for Ukraine. The current situation in the Red Sea, as is often the case in the West, was presented by Tajani as a topic divorced from the Gaza Strip. The Houthis started their campaign against ships in the Red Sea after the beginning of the war in Gaza, claiming they want to force an end to the conflict.
There is no certainty that the end of the war in Gaza would put an end to Houthi attacks, but presenting the situation in the Red Sea as being nothing but a threat to freedom of trade is considered by experts to be a a myopic approach.
Nevertheless, Italy will be in command of the new EU naval mission ASPIDES, to be deployed soon in the Red Sea. The mission is expected to be approved by the next meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers on Monday. When asked whether he could ensure that ASPIDES would remain a defensive mission, the Italian Foreign Minister said ASPIDES aims at defending merchant ships and that if drones or missiles are launched, they will be shot down, but no attacks will be conducted.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing and is being updated.
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Vice President Kamala Harris at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 16, 2024. (Lukas Barth-Tuttas/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.