North Korea – A Land That Time Forgot


Article for the Catholic Times, December 2004

The collapse of the Soviet Union signalled the end of the Marxist experiment but it has been a long drawn out death. Totalitarianism doesn’t just die, even when walls come tumbling down.

Although many of the personnel in the nomenclature who dominated the old Communist regimes have re-invented themselves as market loving social democrats, it is often with varying degrees of real commitment to democracy. Too often they continue to taint the progress of their countries by retaining oppressive control. It will probably only be in the next generation that we will see true meritocracy, totally fair and free elections, and genuine freedom of speech, thought and worship.

Some satellite states like Belarus , and the central Asian Republics , continue to cling on tenaciously to the old Marxist formulae of servile mind control and command-style economies. They persist in operating the old tyrannical apparatus – mostly denying political and religious liberties to their citizens – while Russia itself – the author of so much of the misery of the twentieth century – still teeters between autocracy and democracy. To its south, large swathes of the Ukraine have yet to be convinced of the merits of the democratic model, while brave little countries like Georgia are trying to move on from the anarchy that bedevils most of the Caucuses.

Happily, to the west of Russia the story is different. In just over a decade extraordinary changes have occurred.   Poland and the Baltic States, East Germany the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, have joined Hungary as model democracies. Who can doubt that Romania , Bulgaria and even the troubled Balkans are that far behind?

In the east there is change of a different kind. China, the greatest prize of all, is rapidly opening itself to dramatic and fundamental economic reform. It won’t be long before we know whether it is possible to create economic freedom without granting concomitant personal liberties. And further east, still, is Marx’s last redoubt, the Democratic Republic of North Korea . Here, too, change is underway. It is cautiously beginning to dip its toes into the world outside the boundaries of what was always known as “the hermit kingdom” – and we in the west should be encouraging its transformation from isolated, maverick, dangerous, pariah state to the dynamic Asian country it could so easily become.

North Korea is still traumatised by three major events of the twentieth century; the Japanese occupation, with all its cruelties and depredations; the Korean War, which led to partition and a permanent US military presence in the south; and the fatal imposition of Marxism.

The first and second of these experiences fuelled both Korean nationalism and patriotism. They bred an iron determination to be able to defend the country against future aggression. The third experience created a sclerotic economic system and a totalitarian form of governance – and, if they were permitted to do so, their citizens only have to look a few kilometres to the south, to Seoul, to see what the alternative could be to starvation, poverty and rigid restrictions of human rights. As in partitioned Germany we should not underestimate the deep desire of North Koreans to be re-united with their kin in the south – a process of reconciliation that we should encourage at every opportunity.

The West has a huge security interest in fostering North Korea ’s transformation. But there are other reasons why North Korea shouldn’t be condemned to be a forgotten backwater, a land where time stands still, a country left to stew in its arsenal of military hardware.  These reasons have to do with the people of North Korea themselves.

Throughout 2004 the North Koreans have stalled against making any progress in dismantling their nuclear weapons programme.  In the American Presidential election the regime was banking on a win by Senator Kerry and they regularly broadcast denunciations of President George W.Bush.  Given the outcome, their support for Kerry was a miscalculation, but, in any event, a second-term Bush is far more likely to deliver a deal withPyongyang than a nervous and uncertain Kerry, always worried lest he appear to be a dove.  However, it’s in everyone’s interests for such a deal to be made – not least because we need to be focused on militant Islam. Until such a deal is signed we would be living dangerously if we simply ignored or forgot about the D.P.R.K.

For security reasons we cannot afford to leave this issue unresolved.

According to a report in a recent edition of Jane’s defence Weekly, a leading military publication, North Korea is developing at least two new ballistic missile systems that could enable it to threaten the continental United States:

“Both these new land and sea-based systems appreciably expand the ballistic missile threat presented by the D.P.R.K”, with the sea-based version being “potentially the most threatening.”

A missile launched from ships or submarines “would fundamentally alter the missile threat posed by the D.P.R.K. and could finally provide its leadership with something that it has long sought to obtain, the ability to directly threaten the continental U.S. ”

The land-based system has an estimated range of 2,500 to 4,000 kilometres, which means it could reach Hawaii and U.S. military bases on Okinawa and Guam , while the sea-launched model could be fired at least 2,500 kilometres.  So the threat to the US – along with the threat to North Korea ’s unhappy neighbours ( Japan , South Korea and China ) is a real one.

According to Jane’s the systems are based on the Russian R-27 submarine-launched ballistic missile, also known as the SS-N-6. The report cites a 1992 incident, in which 20 missile specialists from the Makeyev Design Bureau in Chelyabinsk , Russia , which developed the R-27, were detained as they attempted to leave for North Korea . But other reports indicate that other groups of missile specialists successfully travelled to the D.P.R.K.

In 1993, North Korea bought 12 decommissioned Russian submarines, supposedly for scrap metal, and although all missiles and firing systems had been removed, the submarines still had “significant elements” of launch systems.

In addition to the threat that these weapons can pose their development is a catastrophic drain on North Korea ’s resources.

Despite the condition of its poor economy, North Korea is spending up to 40 percent of its gross domestic product on what it describes as its “military first” policy. Most of that money goes toward nonconventional capabilities.
North Korea’s conventional forces include an army of 1.2 million, the largest special operations commando force in the world and 12,000 artillery pieces near its southern border. These forces are not in a position to compete with those of the US and South Korea . This has prompted Pyongyang to invest heavily in nonconventional capabilities. The allegation that North Korea is pursuing a highly enriched uranium programme is the biggest obstacle in resolving the nuclear standoff.

A settlement of this issue is crucial to resolving the security impasse but resolution will also unlock North Korea ’s borders and allow Helsinki-style engagement and dialogue about religious and political liberties. Human rights issues and security concerns are the twin pillars on which we must build a coherent international response – just as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher did when they brought the Cold War with the Soviet Union to an end.

Such an outcome is not simply in the interests of those who feel threatened by North Korea ’s nuclear weapons. It is an outcome also desperately desired by the courageous people of North Korea . Of that I have no doubt.

I recently chaired a hearing in the Moses Room of the House of Lords.

We were addressed by two diminutive North Korean women who, speaking through an interpreter, recounted their experiences in North Korean concentration camps. From time to time their stories were interrupted as the women wept.

Jeon Young-Ok is 40. When she was a little girl her mother took the family across the Tumen River to try and flee to China . They were caught and her father and brother imprisoned. Her mother died of a heart disease and left her three children alone. Years later, now married with three children of her own, Jeon managed to make furtive forays from North Korea into China to secure money and food for her children.  Twice she was apprehended and jailed.

Movingly she told the parliamentary hearing: “I couldn’t bear to die with my children in my arms. As long as I was alive I couldn’t just watch them die.” Many of her compatriots were starving and dying.  Staggeringly during the 1990s an estimated 2 million North Koreans starved to death.

In China Mrs.Jeon remained at risk “nowhere was safe.” If she was caught the Chinese would send her back. And this is exactly what happened to her.  Caught in 1997 and again in 2001 – she was sent to Northern Pyeong -an Detention Camp.

“I was put in a camp where I saw and experienced unimaginable things. We were made to pull the beards from the faces of elderly people. Prison guards treated them like animals. The women were forced to strip. A group of us were thrown just one blanket and we were forced to pull it from one another as we tried to hide our shame. I felt like an animal, no better than a pig. I didn’t want to live.”

Jeon Young-Ok added: “They tortured the Christians the most. They were denied food and sleep. They were forced to stick out their tongues and iron was pushed into it.”

Despite all this, she harbours no hatred for her country and shows extraordinary fortitude and equanimity: “The past is not important but these terrible things are still happening in North Korea . These camps should be abolished forever.”

Mrs. Jeon’s experiences were echoed by Jeong-ai Shin who was held in North Korea ’s Camp 15. Conditions were so perilous that 1 in 10 of the 200 inmates was dead within the year.  She described a regime comprising of hard labour, starvation and infectious diseases.  Like Mrs.Jeon she finally escaped and by a circuitous route made it to South Korea .

These women’s painful and harrowing accounts were an echo of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and one day these brave women, who risked so much to tell their stories, will be remembered with gratitude for their quiet courage.  And, as is so many other countries where Marxism has been eclipsed by humane, open, democratic societies, it will have been Christians who were in the vanguard of change.

In a remarkable pamphlet by Canon Richard Rutt, a Catholic priest of the Plymouth Diocese, who was once the Anglican Bishop of Korea , The Catholic Truth Society record the origins of Christianity in Korea . It is a story of great suffering and endurance. Pope John Paul II describes the Korean church as unique – because it was not planted by missionaries. But it took the lives of 8,000 martyrs, headed by a young priest, St.Andrew Kim, to establish the church in Korea .  Who can doubt that today’s Korean martyrs are equally courageous.

As they look towards their west these modern heroes and heroines can be comforted that it will only be a matter of time before the east’s last great Marxist redoubt embraces change – but for women like Mrs.Jeon and Jeong-ai Shin, that day cannot come a day too soon.

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