Three Columns on North Korea

Dec 23, 2010 | Uncategorized

Sunday 22nd February 2009

On returning from two weeks on the Korean Peninsular – in both North and South Korea – I remain convinced that there is a historic opportunity to end one of the world’s longest running conflicts. This is the unfinished business of the 1950 to 1953 Korean War, which claimed between 2.5 million and 3.5 million lives, including those of 1,000 British servicemen.With the 1953 ceasefire, the country was severed along the 38th parallel and, technically, the principal combatants are still at war. The stand-off with North Korea is the longest-lived conflict that America has with any other nation.
As all Koreans are acutely aware their border bristles with mines, artillery and troops.
Anyone who travels in North Korea sees a State whose massive arsenal and resources are overwhelmingly geared to the protection and the survival of the regime.
In the aftermath of the Korean War, North Korea’s leaders implemented a policy of
“Juche”-or self-reliance-which has led to decades of isolation. Juche has been combined with dynastic rule.
Isolation has, in turn, led to the State linking itself to criminal activities, including the narcotics trade, to abductions, to the testing, according to BBC allegations, of chemical weapons on civilians, to torture and execution, to alleged links with terrorism, and to the development of a rogue nuclear programme.
North Korea’s tortured history – occupation by the Japanese, followed by the imposition of hard-line ideology, combining a mixture of Marxism, Stalinism, admirable patriotism and the tenets of Confucianism, make North Korea one of the most unusual countries in the world. In 1989 when its principal ally, the Soviet Union, collapsed at the end of the Cold War, predictions that North Korea might also come in from the cold proved to be premature.
I first became interested in North Korea and travelled there five years ago after Yoo Sang-joon, a North Korean Christian, who had escaped from the DPRK, came to see me at Westminster. His story was harrowing and disturbing.He described how he had seen his wife, and all bar one of his children shot dead by Kim Jong-Il’s militia. He subsequently escaped across the border to China with his one remaining son. The boy died en route.
He encouraged me to read Eyes of the Tailless Animals, the prison memoirs of Soon Ok Lee. They are her account of the sham judicial system, the show trials, the starvation, the forced labour, the degradation, humiliation and rape of prisoners. Through her eyes we get a glimpse of corruption, paranoia and tyranny.
Yoo Sang-joon himself became an Asian Raoul Wallenberg – the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust. Yoo Sang-joon bravely re-entered North Korea and helped many people flee across the border. This led to his arrest in China in 2007. As a result of international pressure, the Chinese agreed to repatriate him to Seoul rather than to the North where he would have been executed.
When, in 2003, I returned from North Korea with (Baroness) Caroline Cox we decided to form an official parliamentary group and I have served as its chairman for the intervening five years. We embarked on what we described as “constructive critical engagement.”
Numerous first hand witness sessions have been held at Westminster. In addition to hearing the accounts of escapees, we have listened to security experts, to others who have detailed the humanitarian crisis (two million people died in the 1990s famine) and to human rights activists. We have held open meetings, followed by questions, with the Speaker of the North Korean Assembly, Choe Thae Bok, and the North Korean Ambassador to London, Ja Song Nam.
My most recent visit was at the invitation of Choe Thae Bok. Once again, Lady Cox engaged in frank and detailed debate. It was a timely visit as there has been a recent deterioration in relations between South and North Korea and the North has been threatening to launch a new Taepodong-2 missile, which is said to have the ability to reach the coast of the United States. Some analysts believe the North might do this to assess the resolve of President Barack Obama – echoes here of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis which tested another new American President, John.F.Kennedy.
This week, America’s Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, has been visiting the region to assess the situation for herself, although she will not be going to North Korea.
In advance of her regional sweep, North Korea’s ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong Nam, said that North Korea is ready “to develop relations with countries that are friendly toward us.” Hilary Clinton would do well to recognise the significance of these remarks. It would be a tragedy if the US did not grasp this olive branch and seize a historic opportunity to end the technical state of war on the Korean peninsular and to establish a US Embassy in Pyongyang.
A decade ago Britain established a diplomatic mission in Pyongyang and it is time for the Americans to do the same. Embassies don’t imply support for an ideology or regime – if they did, we would have to close down embassies from Burma to Zimbabwe. The US urgently needs to normalise bilateral relations with North Korea. It has done so, for instance, with Vietnam and throughout the Cold War it had a diplomatic presence in the Soviet Union and in other Eastern European countries.
Throughout the Cold War, U.S. embassies were a symbol of freedom, democracy and hope for benighted people. They were a crucial part of the Helsinki Process – which never appeased but linked security and human rights concerns in forthright dialogue.A former US Secretary of Defence, William Perry, put it well when he said, in 2003:
“We should never negotiate from fear, but we should never fear to negotiate.”
The US should also reflect on the role that impartial mediators – like Senator George Mitchell – have played in brokering peace agreements, and the role of respected figures, like General de Chastelain, in ensuring verification and compliance by all sides.
This represents a rare moment for significant change and the U.S, North, and South Korea, should seize it: carpe diem. A step by step strategy will result in the long overdue dismantling of Asia’s Berlin Wall. Failure now will result in many more years of threats and counter threats, with the people of North Korea blighted by lives of enduring hardship and poverty. These wonderful people deserve much better than this.

March 1st, 2009.

During my recent visit to North Korea I repeatedly urged the authorities to allow access to Professor Vitit
Muntarbhorn, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights. To date, he has been refused admission.
He estimates that over the past decade some 400,000 people have been killed by the regime, that about 200,000 people are currently detained in the country’s prison camps and that 2 million people died during the famine of the 1990s.
One case I raised with North Korean Ministers was that of 26-year-old,
Shin Dong-Hyok, who spent the first 23 years of his life in North Korea’s Political prison Camp 14, where he was born. He saw his mother and brother executed, and was himself tortured. During this visit I subsequently spoke at South Korea’s National Assembly and shared a platform with Shin.
Yet cases like his are never raised in the stop-start six party talks aimed at curtailing North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme.
The failure of the talks has largely been because negotiations have been too narrowly focused, enabling North Korea to exploit the narrow band of nuclear issues while denying the other participants at the talks access to crucial issues, to valuable diplomatic tools, and to a range of incentives and disincentives.
If North Korea wants access to World Bank loans, trading opportunities, and to normal cultural and educational exchanges and so on, this should relate not only to progress on security issues but also to the freeing of its political prisoners and the closure of its prison camps.
We should never under-estimate man’s capacity for evil.
Eric Hobsbawm, the Marxist historian, estimates that 185 million people have died as victims of secular ideologies. In the 1950s alone, some 2.5 million people were incarcerated in Soviet gulags, including 400,000 political prisoners. Many died in the prison camps.
Throughout the Cold War, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan understood the importance of preserving a strong and united front, and a declared willingness to defend our values, with a commitment to raising human rights cases through the Helsinki Process – challenging ideologies and tyrannical systems.
The Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, known as the Helsinki Final ActHelsinki Accords or Helsinki Declaration, was the final act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, held in Helsinki, Finland, during July and August of 1975. Thirty-five states signed the declaration, which was an attempt to improve the relations between the Communist bloc and the West.
The civil rights elements of the agreement provided the basis for the work of the
Moscow Helsinki Group, an independent non-governmental organisations specifically created to monitor compliance to the Helsinki Accords (which evolved into several regional committees, eventually forming theInternational Helsinki Federation and Human Rights Watch).
According to the Cold War scholar John Lewis Gaddis, writing in “The Cold War: A New History” (2005): “ the Helsinki Accords gradually became a manifesto of the dissident and liberal movement’… What this meant was that the people who lived under these systems – at least the more courageous – could claim official permission to say what they thought.”
This was a time of terrible suffering but also a time of extraordinary bravery as men and women gradually brought an ideology to its knees.
The movement of dissidents and refuseniks, combined with the courage of the churches and groups like Solidarity, led to fundamental change.
Pope John Paul II said of that period:
“Warsaw, Moscow, Budapest, Berlin, Prague, Sofia and Bucharest have become stages in a long pilgrimage toward liberty. It is admirable that in these events, entire peoples spoke out – women, young people, men, overcoming fears, their irrepressible thirst for liberty speeded up developments, made walls tumble down and opened gates. “
And he said of the fall of Communism…
It fell as a consequence of its own mistakes and abuses. It proved to be a medicine more dangerous than the disease itself. It did not bring about true social reform, yet it did become a powerful threat and challenge to the entire world. But it fell by itself, because of its own inherent weakness.”
North Korea is not the Soviet Union or Poland but the Helsinki principles still apply – we need a
Helsinki Process – with a Korean Face .
There are some circumstances that are unique to North Korea but the underlying principle of critical engagement, dialogue, and the insistence of respect for the human rights of North Korea’s citizens should be paramount.
The six party talks need to have a dual track: with equal consideration of humanitarian and human rights concerns.
Leaving things to drift is not an option.
If we do not make progress we could very soon see a repeat of the catastrophic famine of the 1990s when some 2 million Korean people died – and if the regime simply collapses, North Korea could face an invasion from its Chinese neighbour.
For a variety of reasons the world cannot afford to ignore North Korea.
Cases of Avian Flu on the Korean Peninsular, and SARS infection, make North Korea a hot spot for diseases which could sweep around the world.
Meanwhile, their degraded, unsafe and often non-existent infrastructure makes the danger of a nuclear or chemical accident very likely. Their nuclear sites (identical to Chernobyl) are close to the Russian and Chinese borders and their chemical sites are close to the border with South Korea.
There are six members of Kim Jong Il’s Politburo – four are over 80 and one is 93. Their ideology of
“the military first”, is conditioned by the patriotic struggles from the period of Japanese occupation and the immense cruelty of the Japanese occupation of Korea. But now it is time to move on.
Throughout the Cold War divergent ideologies were pitted against one another.
In defeating communist ideology we combined wisdom with strength, self restraint with a dogged patience and world wide alliances were formed between dissidents, religious leaders, democrats and human rights activists.
Helsinki defeated tyranny – but not everywhere – and today the Helsinki spirit,
Helsinki with a Korean face, offers the most constructive way forward.
The experience of 1989 in the Soviet Union is one that should give us encouragement. Mikhail Gorbachev -himself the grandson of a gulag survivor – ultimately consigned the gulags to history and one day the gulags of North Korea will be consigned to history as well.

Sunday March 8th 2009

Korean Catholics have been mourning the death of their first Cardinal, Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, who died last month. Aged 86, Cardinal Kim was head of the Catholic Church for 30 years until his retirement in 1998. During the 1970s and 1980s, when South Korea was a military dictatorship, Cardinal Kim became known as an outspoken defender of human rights.
He was also Apostolic Administrator of the Pyongyang Diocese of North Korea – where the church had been violently suppressed by the Communists in the aftermath of the Korean War. Neither Cardinal Kim, nor any other Catholic priest has been allowed to serve the Catholics of the north since 1953.
Cardinal Kim became head of a church which Pope John Paul II described as
“a community unique in the history of the Church.” Unique: because the Korean church was not founded by missionaries.
In 1777 a young man, 30-year-old, Yi Pyok, gathered some friends at a small Buddhist monastery near Seoul. Here, at the
“Hermitage of Heavenly Truth” they discussed reports they had received about Christianity and the Catholic faith.
In 1784 one of the friends, Yi Shunghun, had the chance to travel to Beijing with his father on the winter Embassy. By the time he returned to Korea, in 1785, he had been baptised by a Jesuit priest and had taken the baptismal name, Peter.
By 1786 they had set up a secret house church in Seoul – which today forms part of Seoul’s Myeong-dong Cathedral – where Cardinal Kim recently lay in state – and where the relics of many of the church’s martyrs are preserved.
The Confucian ideals of personal goodness, mutual forbearance, reverence for ancestors and respect for the aged – the Confucian
“way” – which permeates Korean culture- and, to this day, make Koreans such wonderful people – sat very comfortably with the Catholic faith.
But this did not stop persecution, and following the planting of the first house church, it is estimated that at least 8,000 Koreans died for their faith. One of them, St.Augustine Yu, who was martyred along with his wife, son and brother, said: ”
Once having known God, I cannot possibly betray him.”
One of the best loved of the Korean martyrs is St.Andrew Kim.
In 1846, aged 25, and only one year into his priesthood, Andrew Kim was brought before the authorities, stripped, and beheaded – becoming the first Korean born priest to be martyred.
The legacy of this suffering and persecution – which still continues in the north of the country – is a dynamic church which continues to grow. Last year Korean Catholics saw a 5% increase in their numbers. At least 10% of South Korea is Catholic, around 5 million people. In the capital, Seoul, the number is perhaps as high as one in five of the population.
The Korean peninsular is divided into sixteen dioceses – three ecclesiastical provinces in the South and three silent dioceses in the north. South Korea has 1,476 parishes and 1,089 mission stations. It has around 4,000 priests and 1,400 seminarians; and 600 religious and priests on foreign missions – in some sixty countries. It runs five TV and radio stations, three newspapers, fourteen periodicals, owns five publishing houses and four printing presses.
The Church has shown great zeal in developing a network of social institutions.
It has nearly one hundred welfare organisations; another two hundred for children and adolescents; fifty for women, two hundred facilities for disabled people; nearly seventy centres for the homeless; and forty counselling centres. They have 224 kindergartens; six primary schools; twenty eight middles schools; thirty eight high schools; nine catechetical institutes; twelve Catholic universities; and twelve centres for children with special educational needs.
During my recent visit to Korea I went to see the brand new St.Mary’s Hospital, which will provide beds for 1,400 people. When it opens later this year, it will be the biggest hospital in Korea. It is at the cutting edge in developing ethical treatments that do not destroy human embryos or take the lives of the unborn. The Church runs twenty two hospitals; twelve clinics; twenty four medical research institutes; and dedicated facilities for patients with Tuberculosis and Hansen’s Disease.
Korea’s present Cardinal, Nicholas Cheong Jik-suk, has been at the forefront in proclaiming the Catholic pro-life message, based on upholding the sanctity of human life and making practical provision for vulnerable people. There is a huge amount that we can learn from the Korean Church.
Having been at the forefront in promoting human rights, social justice and democracy, the Korean church has been outspoken on issues such as conservation of the environment and the treatment of migrants. It also takes a lead in promoting dialogue between different faiths.
The greatest sadness for the Korean church is Asia’s Berlin wall that divides
The Land of Morning Calm at the thirty eighth parallel.
Although the authorities in the North built a Catholic Church (Changchung Cathedral) in Pyongyang in 1988 – they have resolutely refused requests to allow a Catholic priest to be resident and to minister to the needs of the Catholic faithful. Nor have they normalised their relations with the Holy See – which would send an immediate signal to the world’s one billion Catholics that North Korea wants friendly relations with Catholic people.
At Changchung I met Jang Jae On, the Communist Party official who regulates religious belief, and he expressed no willingness to remedy this situation.
Of course, the real tragedy for the North is that in denying pastoral access to the Church it is preventing the Korean Church from providing help, development investment, and support for the poor and needy.
Following my previous visit to North Korea, five years ago, there are two glimmers of hope.
First, the authorities have allowed the rebuilding of the Protestant church at Bong Su (now doubled in size) and the construction of a small seminary, where ten pastors are in training. They have also permitted the building and consecration of a beautiful Russian Orthodox Church – where there are two resident priests. One, Fr.Theodore, is a North Korean who trained in Moscow. Of course, there are few North Koreans who are Orthodox Christians but this is never-the-less, a sign of hope.
Cardinal Nicholas Cheong told me that he remains ready and willing to devote resources and priests to help the North and I hope that as a harbinger of the reunification of the Korean peninsular, which must surely come, we will see the silent dioceses of the north given voices once more. What better signal could the North give to the world that it wants peace, security and a prosperous future? And what better way of honouring the memory of Cardinal Kim?

Share This