Universe Column North Korea 2010




The Universe Column

November 28th 2010

David Alton

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 is 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. In the first century a Jewish interpretation of the Tower of Babel, described in Flavius Josephus, explains its construction as a hubristic act of defiance against God ordered by the arrogant tyrant, Nimrod.

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 doesn’t 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 side-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 shots fired across the border last week, 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. 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 construction of a Russian Orthodox church, the opening of a Protestant seminary, significant English language teaching programmes in the universities and schools.

The Catholic Church is still denied a resident priest and only one church is permitted throughout the country.  Yet, during my recent visit I was permitted to speak to the assembled congregation and to present an icon and a copy of Pope Benedict’s encyclical, Deus Caritas Est.

In a hopeful move it is reported that five North Koreans have been selected by Cardinal Nicholas Chung Jin-Suk to study at Seoul’s Incheon University and it would be a significant step forward if they are permitted to return to the North once ordained.  We know that such pastoral provision was “an unfulfilled dream” of the widely admired and revered late Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-Hwan.

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.

It is a remarkable paradox that despite having suffered phenomenal persecution over the preceding decades Korean Christians are in the vanguard of engagement.

The brand new Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) established by the charismatic Dr.James Chin Kyung Kim, is an example.

As a fifteen-year-old Dr.Kim fought against the North.

From a unit of 800 he was only one of 17 to survive – and on the battlefield he made a vow to God to work for peace and reconciliation.  In 1998, during a visit to the North, Kim Jong Il’s secret police arrested Dr.Kim and he spent 40 days in gaol. Undeterred, PUST is the result.

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.

David Alton’s full report can be viewed at:

http://www.scribd.com/doc/40523738/Building-Bridges-Not-Walls-Final-Report