Death On The North Korean Border
Last week, as the South Korean singer Psy -Park Jai-sang – became the first Korean to top the British pop charts with the amusing, quirky, dance track “Gangnam Style”, North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister, Pak Kil-yon, was addressing the United Nations General Assembly.
There was nothing much to be amused by in a speech in which he said the deteriorating situation on the Korean Peninsula had made it “the world’s most dangerous hotspot”, which could “set off a thermonuclear war.”
Psy has become an Internet phenomenon, clocking up a staggering 300 million views on YouTube with a dance routine in which he pretends to ride an imaginary horse. Mr. Pak Kil-yon’s comments may not have excited the same degree of interest and the North Korean war horse may be dismissed as imaginary jerky sabre rattling, and calling “wolf”, but the world would be foolish to look away.
Instead of indifference we owe it to the people of the North to speak out more clearly on their behalf. Failure to do so could have catastrophic results.
Volatility, and the failure to hammer out a long term political settlement, could replicate the horrendous haemorrhaging loss of life that saw around 3 million people die in the last Korean war.
Of more immediate concern, and beyond the imaginings of Gangnam dancers, or North Korean spokesmen, every day there are real-time tragedies. These never secure 300 million internet hits, or a speech at the General Assembly, but they remain the most important reason why the international community needs to do more to secure the peace and to end a war which, after sixty weary years, has long outlived its sell-by date.
Three days before Mr. Pak Kil-yon issued his doomsday warning I stood on the banks of the River Tumen, which marks the border between North East China and North Korea; and , day by day, it is here that Korea’s tragedy continues to be enacted.
For the North Koreans escapees who attempt to cross the Tumen – or the more perilous River Yalu – illegal border crossings frequently end the lives of men, women and children shot dead by border guards as they try to surreptitiously leave their own country. If there are truly “terrifying and dangerous hotspots” on the Korean peninsula it is surely these crossing places and the gulags and prison camps in which the U.N. say 400,000 have died in the past 30 years and where 200,000 people remain incarcerated.
The rarely used bridge at Tumen, built in 1941, and which connects the two countries, reminds me of Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie, which was a symbol of the harsh divisions of the Cold War. It was where, in August 1962, a boy called Peter Fechter
Ultimately, it wasn’t the Cold War nuclear sabre rattling and doomsday rhetoric which precipitated the end of the Cold War, and to fundamental political change, it was the intolerable and systematic abuse of human rights, and the killing of boys like Peter, which led populations to rise up and pull down the check points and walls.
Mr.Pak Kil-yon is the first North Korean Minister to address the General Assembly since Kim Jong-un came to power after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, last December.
The speech was full of invective and rhetoric – with the time-honoured anti-American tirade and far-fetched claim that the US is planning a new war on the Peninsula. Special hatred was reserved for the South Korean government of Lee Myung-bak with the comment, “History will bring them to justice”. Notwithstanding Lee’s dismal record Pak’s is a comment which also has particular application to those who shoot their own citizens. How will history judge them?
Pak’s doomsday speech was a missed opportunity to move on from threats, blackmail and bluster – made all the more sad because Mr.Pak could have told the General Assembly about some of the opportunities which offer the North the chance for peaceful change.
Mr.Pak should have highlighted the new economic reforms which his country has announced – two welcome joint economic zones with China, brokered by Kim Jong-Un’s uncle, Jang Song-taek. Hwanggumphyong and Wihwado Economic Zone and the Rason Economic Trade Zone will provide long overdue opportunities for North Koreans to legally earn cash to support their families without having to become illegal escapees: a step in the right direction.
He could have highlighted Kim Jong-Un’s recent speeches promising to ease suffering among the populace and the new right of farmers to keep between a third and half of their produce (modelled on the early Chinese agricultural reforms of the 1970s). These developments will boost agricultural output food supplies, help cap rising food prices and ease malnutrition. North Korea requires about 5 million tons of grain and potatoes to feed its people but since the early 1990s the annual harvest has been around 3.5-4.7 million tons.
The General Assembly would also have been pleased to hear of the new emphasis being placed on scientific and technological education and the raising of the school leaving age. During 2012 students were ordered out of their universities to repair damage from natural disasters, to work in the fields, or make the country ready for a national holiday. The new leadership knows that this has caused unrest amongst students and disrupted their education – damaging the future development of the country.
Above all, the world wants to hear that North Korea will dismantle its prison camps and free its people. More than anything, this would pave the way for peaceful reunification.
2012 has seen change in North Korea but before the year ends there will be also be new leaders in South Korea and China, and an election will have been held in the US. All three South Korean Presidential candidates, Park Geun-hye (daughter of the military dictator, General Park Chung-hee, President of South Korea from 1962 until his assassination in 1979), Moon Jae-in (candidate of the centre Left) and Ahn Cheol-soo (the popular Independent candidate), have signalled their intention to initiate new dialogue with the North.
North Korea needs to understand that the world wants it to come in from the cold. Its leaders need to understand this and, like Burma’s leaders, welcome it.
While I was standing at the Tumen river last week, the first three students from North Korea’s first international university (PUST) were arriving in London, commencing their studies at Westminster College – joining two others who are studying as Chevening scholars at Cambridge University. We owe it to their generation, and to the Koreans who perish during their hazardous escapes, to do better than Cassandra-like predictions of thermonuclear war – predictions which, if they came to pass, would reduce the whole peninsula to an irradiated cemetery. Now is a moment for change.