North Korea’s unprovoked attack this Tuesday on a South Korean island, just 120km from Seoul, threatened to break the fragile peace with its southern neighbour. Resulting in the death of two soldiers and two civilians, the artillery assault was denounced by the UN as ‘one of the worst violations’ of the armistice which ended the Korean War in 1953. But far from showing strength, many analysts are suggesting that the attacks signal the final thrashes of a dying beast. Rumours abound that North Korea’s aging ruler, Kim Jong Il, is in poor health and many have questioned his choice of his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, who is perceived as a weak choice to head the world’s fourth largest standing army.
Writing for Felix before Tuesday’s attacks, Lord David Alton (chair of the All Party Committee on North Korea) sheds some revealing light on the state of the isolated country, following his recent visit there, and suggests a path to peace.
The North Korean State has been constructed on the ideology of Juche - total self reliance: “man is the master of everything and decides everything.” Some people describe this as a religion without God.
In the heart of Pyongyang, on the banks of the city’s Taedong River, opposite Kim Il Sung Square, stands the Juche Tower. Completed in 1982, to celebrate Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday, at 170 metres the Tower stands marginally taller than the Washington Monument, on which it appears to be modelled. To my eye, it appears more like the Tower of Babel – the construction of which is described in the Book of Genesis and revolves around man’s determination to compete with God. Whilst making my third visit to North Korea, I was taken to see the Juche Tower.
Perhaps symbolising both the current condition of North Korea’s economy, and its desperate need for more than self reliance, my embarrassed guide explained that we could not ascend, as debris was falling from within, onto the elevator. The situation, he explained, was very dangerous – it seemed an appropriately graphic metaphor.
No nation wants to be in thrall to others, especially one that experienced half a century of Japanese occupation, but isolation has not served North Korea well.
Beyond North Korea’s sloganeering rhetoric and the proud braggadocio is a nation which senses change in the air.
The Soviet model is discredited; its powerful neighbour, China, is in the throes of a liberalising revolution; and North Korea knows that self reliance will not be enough.
Senior officials, including the Speaker of their Assembly, Choe Tae Bok, insisted to me that over the next two years the new priorities are “prosperity and dignity” with a “unified, denuclearised Korea” as their first objective. The West should listen carefully and respond appropriately. The alternative does not bear thinking about.
2010 is the sixtieth anniversary of the Korean War – which claimed the lives of an estimated 3 million Korean people. Almost 38,000 American and British soldiers died, along with 183,000 Chinese.
The DMZ, at the 38th parallel which divides the country, bristles with weapons and, in a country where malnutrition is wide-spread, North Korea diverts its meagre resources into sustaining the world’s fourth largest standing army of one million men. The situation is made even more dangerous by the addition of a nuclear capability.
Since the 1953 Armistice there have been intermittent spats and skirmishes – some, like the sinking of the South Korean vessel, Cheonan, in March this year, with loss of life; others, like the recent shots fired across the border represent bellicose sabre rattling.
For nearly sixty years there has been neither war nor peace – merely a shaky stop-gap armistice. The US has no diplomatic presence - although Britain opened an embassy a decade ago.
I was in the country in my capacity as Chairman of the British All-Party Parliamentary Committee on North Korea – founded following my first visit in 2003. Three years earlier Britain had created diplomatic relations and we have had an embassy in the country ever since. Our Ambassadors and parliamentarians have been pursuing a painstaking and patient strategy of constructive critical engagement.
This needs to be taken to its logical conclusion: a new Peace Conference, jointly convened by a neutral nation and by a combatant – Switzerland and the UK, perhaps – and held in Beijing, could enable the North and South to formally end the War, and to conclude a Peace Treaty. This would transform the situation; and breathe new life into the six party talks on denuclearisation.
Throughout the Cold War, the West countered Soviet aggression with formidable defences.
Simultaneously, through the Helsinki Process, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, elevated discourse on human rights and fundamental freedoms. Through engagement, they encouraged economic and political reform. Today on the Korean peninsula we need “Helsinki, with a Korean face.”
Writing in “Peace While Advancing Rights: The Untried Approach to North Korea” the American analyst, David Hawk, also advocates this approach.
Without over exaggerating the outcomes, or slipping into a self congratulatory naivety, over the past seven years I have doggedly raised questions of political and religious freedom and human rights with the North Koreans.
And I have witnessed some modest developments – the building of a Russian Orthodox church, the opening of a Protestant seminary, and significant English language teaching programmes in the universities and schools. But, in a year when there have been further reports of the execution of Christians in North Korea, we should not become complacent - and continue to work for the sort of change that brought the peaceful collapse of the the Berlin Wall.
Given that the United Nations say that 300,000 people still languish in North Korean camps, many because of religious convictions, I am particularly struck by the positive impact of faith-based initiatives and the determination of Christians to remain engaged.
The brand new Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) established by the charismatic Dr.James Chin Kyung Kim, is a fine example.
And he is not alone: an American Catholic priest, Fr. Gerry Hammond, has now legally entered North Korea on 43 occasions, taking life saving medicines and equipment to combat tuberculosis; other projects aim to increase rice yields and harvests.
Men like Fr. Gerry and James Kim represent the way in which Korea can move on. As the debris falling from within the Juche Tower underlines, to ignore a crumbling structure is to create an even more dangerous situation.