Keynote Address by David Alton (Professor Lord Alton of Liverpool): “North Korea – Looking to the Far Horizon”
This is a timely moment to consider the situation on the Korean Peninsula. From the Ebola crisis in West Africa to the horrific events in the Middle East, there are significant global events which have crowded out consideration of North Korea. But we should always beware of what has been described as benign neglect.
That simply opens the door to further provocation and destabilisation.
Given the 3 million deaths the last time there was a war on the Korean Peninsula it’s in humanity’s interests to use every opportunity to exert pressure and to promote dialogue – what President Park’s administration have described as “Trustpolitik”.
In Parliament, over the past decade, I have promoted what I have described as “constructive, critical engagement – Helsinki with a Korean face.” As recently as last night I chaired a two hour seminar in Parliament at which we heard from Dr.John Swenson-Wright, Andrea Berger and Martin Uden about North Korea’s weapons programmes, sanctions evasions and the response of the international community ( see http://appgnk.org/ ).
They addressed, as your conference will address, what is the threat posed to the world and its own people by North Korea’s nuclear and conventional arms?
Seemingly not bound by international law and treaties, North Korea is not a party to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty or the Chemical Weapons Convention, is a suspected violator of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and is not a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime. In terms of its nuclear weapons programme, North Korea has conducted three nuclear weapons tests – 2006, 2009, 2013 – and continues to test short and medium range ballistic missiles, plus a series of short range rockets. What does this all mean for security in East Asia, how does North Korea so successfully evade sanctions and what can the international community do in response?
Those will be key issues for you to discuss, but you will not be surprised that I want to concentrate my remarks on the question of human rights.
Although I have been, and remain, a firm advocate of engagement with North Korea, I want to state firmly, at the outset, that this should never be confused with appeasement or lead to quietism about the appalling neglect by the regime of its people, abuse of its own citizens, or as indifference to the security threat which the regime represents to the region and beyond. Indeed, all of these challenges are the very reasons why we must engage at a political, diplomatic, military, humanitarian, and academic level.
As a parliamentarian, who has visited the country on four occasions, and having chaired the parliamentary All Party Group on North Korea for the past decade, I know that the way in which parliamentarians engage is bound to be different from that of other players – not least those in the Academy.
Our roles may be different but our objectives should be the same.
When there is intelligent moral leadership from both academia and politicians, it can be the catalyst for change.
Certainly, no parliamentarian worth their salt, or nation which cherishes the values proclaimed in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, should ever bury their convictions for the sake of a quiet life.
When universities engage in complex questions – which revolve around citizenship, human rights, security, sustainability, the common good and what constitutes a just peace – they can foster a deeper understanding and the Academy can provide invaluable empirical evidence, learned opinion and valued advice – especially in the context of “business diplomacy”, cultural exchanges, and academic discussions, which should all aim to spread knowledge, ideas, aspiration and hope.
In this context, I strongly welcome the decision of the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) to appoint Professor Hazel Smith as Director of the university’s new International Institute of Korean Studies. Over many years, Hazel’s in-country experience and unrivalled knowledge of the nutritional and food needs of North Korea have been invaluable to policy makers and to non-governmental organisation. We have been privileged to have her speak to our Parliamentary Committee.
Inevitably, though, in dealing with the world’s most closed society, many of us who claim knowledge of North Korea can merely speculate.
This is why the diaspora of 25,000 North Koreans now living in the Republic of Korea, and several hundred among us here in the UK, have become such an important resource.
With information now flowing in and out of the country the diaspora have become a game-changer.
Theirs are unmediated, authentic voices, giving rare insights into a totalitarian State which offers the world a Master Course in indoctrination, obfuscation and dissimulation and which, until recently, was able to shelter behind its wall of silence.
What we have learned from the many testimonies is that within the regime there is a paranoid schizophrenia – a system which feeds off mutualised fear and shared guilt; systematic dysfunction between the leader and the led; and deep seated generational abuse. This is a grisly fantasy world characterised by an emotional weakness, made manifest in a pugnacious militarism. The truly powerful do not need to constantly boast about military power or flaunt their brutality: only the weak.
Yet, we also need to understand that this manifestation emerged in a country which was colonised, shamed and itself brutalised – and that a fervent nationalism and fear of outsiders has led to loyalty and even a willingness to die for a corrupt of oppressive regime It is this belief which falsely convinces its rulers that they can cheat history.
The mistake which is sometimes made is to believe that to understand North Korea, and to engage with North Korea, you have to deal with the regime alone.
What those who have escaped from North Korea have done is to provide a treasure house of first- hand information – bravely telling their stories and challenging a sixty year old status quo.
Those now in exile include members of the country’s elite.
I recently provided a platform for Jang Jin Sung – author of “Dear Leader” – and a former high ranking member of the regime – to speak in Parliament about the internal workings and power structures.
Rarely have we heard from such high ranking exiles, giving unprecedented insights into a regime which, following the execution of Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Chang Song-thaek, may well be in the throes of a blood-letting purge and power struggle .
Many escapees believe that Chang Song-thaek had to be killed because he knew that North Korea had to come to terms with the rest of the world and finally come in from the cold.
Chang had questioned an ideology which has paralysed economic development, incarcerated hundreds of thousands of its citizens, and which has conferred pariah status on the country. His execution became the most high profile of a succession of killings, symptomatic of an unsustainable system which routinely murders and imprisons its own people. From Stalin to Ceaușescu we know that such regimes finally exceed their shelf life.
Chang was killed because he had begun to be seen as a potential alternative.
Perceived as the power behind the throne, he was close to China and admiring of its reform programme. China’s anger at his killing sits alongside their barely concealed increasing contempt for an “ally” which routinely aborts North Korean babies, fathered by Chinese men, and thus regarded as a contamination of the Korean blood line. If this is how you regard you friends how do you perceive your enemies?
The recent deepening of relations between Seoul and Beijing and the attempts by North Korea to improve its relationship with Tokyo and Washington are part of this same narrative.
Chang’s execution – some unsubstantiated reports but, significantly, published in China, allege that he was thrown to the dogs; the purges; the reign of terror; the falsifying of history; the show trials; the network of gulags; the estimated 400,000 people who have died in the prison camps in the last 30 years; and the attempt to obliterate religious belief and all political dissent; all bear all the hallmarks of a regime which has carefully studied, admires and imitates the visceral brutality of Joseph Stalin.
The authoritarian dynastic regime in North Korea ruthlessly crushes dissent and through “guilt by association” , collective punishment and the execution of men like Chang, is trying to ensure that there is no Liu Xiabo, Kim Dae Jung, Lech Walesa, or Aung San Suu Kyi able to become a focal point for opposition.
Instead, North Korea is the first country in history to be ruled by ghosts: Kim IL Sung is Eternal President. Kim Jong IL is Eternal General Secretary of the Workers Party. But no country can survive indefinitely as a necropolis – bathing in the blood of its own people.
The harbinger of the changes which will inevitably come are the witness statements and first- hand accounts of those who have escaped. We must listen to them with great care and prepare them for tomorrow’s world.
A defining moment occurred earlier this year with the launch of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry Report into human rights violations in North Korea – which were described by the Commission as “without parallel”.
Mr. Justice Kirby, the highly respected Australian Judge, who chaired the Commission, and his fellow Commissioners, say in their 400-page report that North Korea’s crimes against humanity are sui generis: “the gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”
The COI specifically compared the country’s egregious violations of human rights with those of the totalitarian regimes of the 1930s and has called for their referral to the International Criminal Court.
Despite its angry protestations, the country’s leadership should fearfully reflect that, if it fails to change, as for instance Burma is doing, a day of reckoning will one day come – as at Nuremberg and at The Hague.
If you were to bench-mark the findings of the recent United Nations Commission of Inquiry into the abuse of human rights in North Korea, against the thirty articles set out in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it would be difficult to find a single article which Kim Jong-un’s regime does not breach
In an editorial, The Times says that “The condition of the people of North Korea ranks among the great tragedies of the past century. The despotism that consigns them to that state is one of its greatest crimes”.
The COI builds on the eight reports of Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, written for the UN while he was Special Rapporteur on Human rights in North Korea, in which he says the abuses are “both systematic and pervasive” and “egregious and endemic”, and he concluded that “it is incumbent upon the national authorities and the international community to address the impunity factor which has enabled such violations to exist and/or persist for a long time”
His successor as United Nations special rapporteur, Mr Darusman, said, following the publication of the COI Report: “There is no turning back; it cannot be ‘business as usual’. It now remains to be seen whether the UK and other nations implement the recommendations and that it serves as a plan of action and not simply an academic text gathering dust on a shelf.
The reason why we cannot ignore these egregious violations of human rights is illustrated graphically by the story of one young man.
In September of this year, Shin Dong Hyok was again in the UK, where he has previously given evidence before my Committee.
Shin was born in Camp 14 – where many political prisoners are held – and as a child he was forced to watch as his mother and brother were publicly executed.
Shin spent the first 23 years of his life in Camp 14, one of five sprawling prison camps in the mountains of North Korea, about fifty five miles north of Pyongyang. No one born in Camp 14 or any other political prison camp – “the absolute control zone” – had previously escaped from North Korea. These are places where the hard labour, the malnutrition, or freezing conditions, minus 20 Celsius in winter, will often end your life before the firing squad does.
His story is powerfully and movingly documented in the book, “Escape from Camp14.” But Shin’s story is not unique. He is one of thousands who have escaped from North Korea, breaking the regime’s wall of silence.
The regime has responded to these escapes and testimonies by threatening severe punishment for prison guards, former inmates and nearby communities if they disclose information about the camps. We, in turn, should respond by using high-precision satellite imagery to monitor the camps and by ensuring that the testimony of escapees can be used in future trials; not least because this might concentrate the minds of prison guards who have been told to massacre inmates in the event of the regime collapsing. They need to know that they will be held accountable. We owe this to those who have been opponents of the regime and whose fate has too often been ignored.
I think here of women like Hea Woo.
In March, following the publication of the COI Report, my All-Party Group held a hearing addressed by Hea Woo. She gave a graphic and powerful account of her time inside a the camp -where torture and beatings are routine, and where prisoners were so hungry they were reduced to eating rats, snakes, or even searching for grains in cow dung. She said that in such places “the dignity of human life counted for nothing. The guards told us that we are not human beings, we are just prisoners, so we don’t have any right to love. We were just animals. Even if people died there, they didn’t let the family members outside know”
Voices like Hae Woo’s are a radical counter point to a regime which, when it speaks, does so with a mixture of braggadocio and blackmail – alternating between threats to blow us to kingdom come and demands that we stay quiet about gulags which incarcerate around 200,000 of its own people.
Their insights provide us with first-hand accounts on which the Academy must devote time to analyse and understand.
Among the stories we have heard from escapees are a description of the emergence of the Jangmadang, – the Market Generation -begun in desperation as the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s and famine ensued.
Their stories of personal resilience, and of how reliance on a black market has challenged the State, has led to considerable contact with the world beyond their borders. Although there are a new wave of border controls this will be a difficult process to reverse.
Instead of seeing their country as “paradise”, with “nothing to envy” North Koreans increasingly know the truth – that the economies of North and South Korea contrast more sharply than any other two neighbouring countries. This is the clinching argument in defining the “legitimacy” question of whether the North or South is the true Korea.
The South, with only twice the population of the North, has an economy that is forty times that of the North. South Korea has the fourth largest economy in Asia, it is the 12th or 13th largest economy in the world. The South is a member of the G-20. The North ranks in the midst of countries of sub-Saharan Africa in terms of its economy.
School children in North Korea are 3 to 8 cm shorter than their counterparts in South Korea with stunted growth and malnutrition affecting around 45% of North Korean children under the age of five.
By comparison, whether it is South Korean pop music, media, construction companies, host to the Olympics, or provider of the UN Secretary General, the dynamism of the Republic of Korea can hardly be concealed.
And, by contrast, the North’s ham-fisted attempts to create a spectacle around a retired American basketball player, who once played for the Detroit Pistons, while simultaneously excoriating the international community, on whom it depends for medicines and food because it can’t grow sufficient food to feed its people or attend to their sickness, is risible.
The result is that the only way the North can assert its legitimacy is through crude militarism – recently demonstrated during the visit of Pope Francis to South Korea when the North fired three missiles into the sea just before his arrival in South Korea and another two soon after.
But North Korea’s mask is slipping.
Every North Korean who travels to China, a country which, only three decades ago, was poorer than theirs, also gives the lie to the propaganda which they have been force fed. Between 2009 and 2013 the economic situation continued to worsen and will inevitably drive change and reform. North Korea is reported to have experienced its worst spring drought in 30 years and, in some provinces, food shortages are expected. State administered rations are reported to have dipped to low levels. Kim Jong Eun has blamed the country’s weather forecasters
It’s not just the weather forecasts that people are beginning to doubt.
There is an increasing desire to know what is happening in the world outside. Escapees say that significant numbers risk imprisonment and even execution to watch South Korean television programmes smuggled in with cell phones and radios from China.
Try as they may the information genie cannot be put back in the bottle. Up to 50% of escapees make contact with their families
All of which, should convince the BBC to begin long overdue BBC World Service transmissions to the Korean Peninsula and for the UK to honour its obligations under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and which insists that citizens have a right to access news and information.
The Russian Service of the BBC began broadcasting to the Soviet Union in 1946 and quickly established a reputation with Soviet listeners, millions of whom listened despite jamming: Gorbachev later said he had been a long term listener.
Breaking the information blockade should be a central pillar of our approach with North Korea but there is something equally important.
I strongly believe that, as well as analysing what they have to tell us, the Academy should be taking a deep interest in those who have risked their lives in making dangerous journeys across China and through countries such as Laos, to obtain their freedom. They are tomorrow’s leaders.
Some of those who have escaped and are now studying at our universities and learning about the rule of law, democratic governance, the nature of free market economies, and the role of the State in promoting the Common Good, will be among tomorrow’s leaders in North Korea.
One such escapee, Timothy, made his way to my university in Liverpool – Liverpool John Moores University – where I am Director of their Roscoe Foundation for Citizenship. During the 1990s famine, when over a million people are thought to have died from starvation, Timothy had been left on the streets as a street child.
Many North Koreans were orphaned during the famine (the Arduous March), between 1994 and 1997 . It claimed millions of lives. Children were the most adversely affected. The World Health Organisation reported death rates for children at 93 of every 1000, while those of infants were cited at 23 of every thousand.
The famine led to hundreds of thousands living on the streets as “street swallows”. Timothy saw all of his friends die of hunger and he described how these abandoned children, known as Kotjebi, subsisted by begging and by eating wild vegetables, bark and grass roots.
Having escaped he was repatriated from China and tortured. He escaped again and eventually made it to Seoul where the UK arranged asylum.
Having arrived in the north of England, Timothy enlisted to help on a soup kitchen because he told me, he knew what it was like to be hungry.
He taught himself English and, while working to support himself, he took the necessary foundation courses and is now a student at one of our northern universities, studying politics and international affairs.
Timothy’s courage and determination reminds us of the Korean qualities which we should greatly admire and support in any way we can. I wonder what he will do for his country one day.
Last month I was with the Prime Minister of a Central European country. I first met him and his friend, now one of that country’s Ministers, when they were both students at the University of Oxford.
They came from dissident families who had opposed totalitarianism and, with the help of the British authorities, they were given the opportunity to study to a high level in the UK.
The British officials who gave them that opportunity did not confuse engagement with an obnoxious regime with the importance of supporting forces for change and especially promoting and supporting human rights discourse.
We should recall Solzhenitsyn’s observation that “someone that you have deprived of everything is no longer in your power. He is once again entirely free” and that is undoubtedly the case with those who bravely risk so much. The Academy should be investing far more in developing leadership skills among those who have escaped.
The failure to be ready for change is graphically illustrated by anarchy unleashed by the Arab Spring. Things can change more rapidly than we might imagine and we must be ready. That was the story of 1989. But it was also the story of South Korea and the bravery of men like Kim Dae Jung, the opposition leader who spent six years imprisoned in the South by the military regime.
I am always struck, when I read these words of Kim Dae Jung, that they might be the words of a captive held today in one of the North’s prison camps:
“The intention was to make me go insane. I could hear someone moaning in a room next to me. I was stripped naked and forced to wear worn-out military fatigues. I was threatened with torture.”
Kim Dae Jung would subsequently be awarded the Nobel Prize and become President of what is now one of the world’s most vibrant democracies. But recall the description given by his widow, lee Hee Ho, of what South Korea was like three decades ago.
She said it was a “truly an Orwellian world of illegal brutality –acting as if they would never have to answer to history of God for their barbarity.”
She described how supporters of democracy were “Deprived of any clothing they were mercilessly pummelled with wooden bats, deprived of sleep, and had water poured into their nostrils while hanging upside down like so much beef hanging from hooks in the slaughter house. Listening to these stories of horror, my body shuddered with indescribable indignation and sorrow.”
Now consider how fundamentally that world has changed – and changed for the better. In Europe, think of Germany; think of the Soviet satellite countries.
We should never forget the lessons of the Cold War and the Helsinki Process, how divergent ideologies were pitted against one another and how, in defeating communist ideology, we combined wisdom with strength, self-restraint with a dogged patience and how worldwide alliances were formed between dissidents, religious leaders, democrats, academicians, and human rights activists.
Recall that it was Academician Andrei Sakharov, a celebrated nuclear physicist, who fearlessly challenged the Soviet system, declaring “Our country, like every modern state, needs profound democratic reforms. It needs political and ideological pluralism, a mixed economy and protection of human rights and the opening up of society.”
Can we doubt that a similar yearning exists among people in North Korea? For 60 years, the Korean peninsula has longed for a lasting settlement based on justice, peace, reconciliation, coexistence and mutual respect. Instead its people have experienced suffering, division and threats.
Whatever outside observers may think of the ideology or the system in North Korea, they should not confuse this with an unthinking hatred of North Korean people.
They are a fine people who deserve much better. They deserve a liberalised economy, the implementation of the UN Conventions to which the DPRK has already committed itself, the development of an independent judiciary, a just penal system, an open society and freedom from fear. Above all, they deserve peace –and this I believe will only happen when we tenaciously pursue a robust and different strategy from that pursued hitherto.
Our objective should be to engage and to foster change; not to isolate and not to appease. We must encourage China to share a global attitude; to broker a Beijing Peace Conference so that the technical state of War with the United States and South Korea can be formally concluded. The Obama Administration still has time to open an embassy in Pyongyang – just as the U.S. did throughout the former Soviet empire and to recognise that in a United Korea, the presence of an American military presence in the north of the country would not be acceptable, either to the indigenous population or to China.
Facing the challenge of North Korea is an urgent diplomatic and political problem but it is also a moral obligation – and the history of the twentieth century is littered with too many examples of the consequences when the world played safe rather than facing up to moral problems posed by States that perceived themselves as unchangeable.
If we truly believe in the pursuit of peace and progress, that every life is unique, and that the human rights and human dignity of every human being are of infinite value, we must fix our eyes on the far horizon and patiently follow the maps which will take us there.
David Alton – Lord Alton of Liverpool – is Professor of Citizenship at Liverpool John Moores University and is Co-Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea. His book, “Building Bridges – is there hope for North Korea?” was published last year by Lion and is available on Kindle. www.davidalton.net