It is clear that North Korea is in a dire state in humanitarian and political terms. On the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War and 10th anniversary of opening diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom, from the outside it seems things have only gotten worse and this trend can only continue.
This is a country which has the fourth largest standing army in the world, but this is only possible with a minimum height requirement of only 4’3” due to years of malnourishment resulting in widespread stunted growth. It is also a country which has technically been at war with its southern neighbour, now fifteen times wealthier than the North, for 60 years. Despite the armistice, they continue to antagonise their former countrymen by developing nuclear weapons, destroying their battleships and firing across the border.
During last week’s visit Lord Alton, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Committee on North Korea, questioned officials over internal human rights abuses. They confirmed that the idea of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is not used and ‘suspects’ are not allowed any defence until the trial stage has begun, when they are already considered guilty. The death penalty, as of 2007, has been extended from 5 to 21 offences including distribution of foreign audio-visual materials and economic crimes.
Despite official denials, it is clear that these offences are given a broad definition. While public executions in the first half of this year are thought to stand at a relatively low (compared to the United States or China at least) 22, there is no figure of death in prison camps as a result of poor conditions, torture or execution. Earlier this year Shin Dong-Hyok, who was born in prison camp No. 14, testified before the European Parliament. He described being roasted on an open fire and seeing his family members executed. When questioned by David Alton about his testimony, officials denied these prison camps even existed.
Lord Alton, did, however, report on some positive changes being seen. The first independent university, The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, has finally been built (see above). Churches are also being opened; The Korean Christian Federation has claimed there are now 500 churches in North Korea, though this is difficult to prove. Lord Alton and Baroness Cox visited a Russian Orthodox, a Catholic and a Protestant church as well as a seminary. While these indicate an increase in religious freedom, it should be noted that the Russian Orthodox Church, despite having Korean priests, had mainly Russian diplomats worshipping. The Catholic Church is not even allowed to have a priest.
These physical changes have been dwarfed by the Workers’ Party of Korea’s first conference since 1966, where Kim Jong-Un, the third son of Kim Jong-il, was promoted to the rank of four-star General and Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission. He is expected to succeed his father as the supreme leader, continuing the family’s rule for a third generation. Senior officials said that the country is entering a period of “momentous change”. Given how little is known about him, it is still difficult to gauge how important this really is.
North Korea has, since 1977, been advocating “Grand National Unity” under the principle of “Two Systems, One Country”. South Korea and the International Community supported this and formed a plan of action at conferences in 2000 and 2007. This has now been abandoned by South Korea’s new government. North Korea was further isolated when its proposed denuclearisation talks in January were thrown out by the United States.
The physical changes, the conferences and the possibility of reunification are not why we should be hopeful about North Korea; it is the changing attitude of the government. Previously, the country took the ideal of ‘Songun’, or the ‘military first’ revolutionary attitude. This prioritised the military above all other government departments, which has resulted in the current state of a huge army but little investment in any other area. Now, however, officials talk of a “great, prosperous and powerful nation” by 2012.
It is because of these signals of change that the new report calls for a new era of dialogue with the isolated country. A first step would be a peace conference between the former combatant states; the US, UK, South and North Korea and China, facilitated by a neutral country such as Sweden or Switzerland. The 6 Party Talks, initiated to address the issue of a nuclear armed North, should be continued; especially in light of recent overtures to denuclearisation by the North Korean Foreign Minister. The issue of energy insecurity should also be discussed, with help given to the country to build dams and other non-nuclear alternatives. Cooperation on humanitarian issues is also sought, after Kim Jong Il banned all foreign aid organisations in a country in which the state spends an estimated $2-4 per capita on development.
None of this will be possible for as long as North Korea’s international outlook is that of fear and suspicion. The country needs to acknowledge that the Western world does not seek to destroy it. It can also learn a lot from China’s economic boom since developing greater co-operation with the West and liberalising its policies.
Some small steps have been made in this vein by the British government, which introduced a scholarship for North Koreans to study in the UK. Canada has also provided English language software to the country’s universities. The fact that North Korea invited Lord Alton and Baroness Cox to the country, despite their open criticism of the government’s human rights record, is also a welcome move.
Inspired by the Helsinki Accords which dealt with the USSR, this approach may be the wisest option for securing peace in the region in light of a more open North Korea. Given the nuclear capabilities of all involved, the penalties for failing to act may make this the only option.