ICAS Special Contribution


John Paul II, South Korea, and Regime Change in North Korea:
Be Not Afraid

Dennis P. Halpin

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John Paul II, South Korea, and Regime Change in North Korea:
Be Not Afraid

Dennis P. Halpin
Professional Staff
East Asian Affairs
International Relations Committee
U.S. House of Representatives

Presented at the North Korea Freedom Week Forum April 30, 2005

This statement reflects my own views and not necessarily those of the International Relations Committee nor its Chairman Henry J. Hyde.

The recent death of John Paul II is a poignant reminder of the danger of relying too heavily on Doomsday scenarios for the future of the Korean peninsula. I am referring to those such as ones outlined by Clinton Administration appointee and University of Michigan Professor Kenneth Lieberthal in his recent pessimistic essay on "The Folly of Forcing Regime Change" in North Korea. As we all know, John Paul II was a survivor of the totalitarian experience, first of Nazism and then Communism. He spent his formative adult years behind the Iron Curtain.

The Soviet Union had marched first into Hungary in 1956 and then into Czechoslovakia in 1968 to bring a sudden harsh end to reform movements in both those countries. The Polish people, along with most in Eastern Europe and in the West beyond, assumed that the USSR was here to stay and that a realistic accommodation to the inevitable was the only rational response.

Nightmare scenarios for the fate of a world on the brink of nuclear conflict were even bleaker than those raised by Professor Lieberthal in his recent essay on North Korea. The movie of the early nineteen eighties "The Morning After" terrified all who saw it with a vision of nuclear annihilation. But the new Pope, chosen in a stroke of genius by the College of Cardinals from captive Poland, responded with a smile and the words: "Be not afraid." Working with Lech Walesa, Solidarity and Ronald Reagan, the Pope put a crack in the iron curtain through the Polish corridor. Within a decade and without the firing of a single bullet, Poland was free and the Soviet Union simply melted away. Who would have believed that possible in 1978 when John Paul II was elected?

Professor Lieberthal in his essay, made the now pro forma and required statement that "North Korea is both morally repugnant and a maddening adversary" before adopting a tepid endorsement of the status quo in the DPRK, a nation recently described at the annual UN Human Rights Commission session in Geneva by British Member of Parliament Bill Rammell as being "widely considered to have one of the worst human rights record in the world." A few years ago, before the outflow of defectors lifted the bamboo curtain a bit on the human rights nightmare that is North Korea, it was politically correct in Washington to state that there was not enough information on the Stalinist Hermit Kingdom to comment on its human rights record. Silence then was considered safe and human rights concerns were not raised at all as an issue in the pursuit of engagement.

That silence is no longer a tenable position. Defector Lee Sun-Ok's memoirs on her internment in the North Korean political prison camp system, titled "Eyes of the Tailless Animals" has made such a position unthinkable. Ms. Lee's vivid descriptions include eye witness accounts of babies torn from their returned refugee mothers' wombs and executed because they might contain seeds from Chinese fathers which would "taint" the Korean bloodline. One had hoped that such racial profiling of genocidal dimensions had been laid to rest after the Second World War. Not so in the case of North Korea.

There is also the research of Rabbi Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center on the use of chemical experimentation on political prisoners, described in a recent Washington Post editorial. Such descriptions should prick at even the most hardened of consciences.

Kim Jong Il's 2002 admission to Prime Minister Koizumi that his regime had indeed violated Japan's homeland security by abducting Japanese citizens from their own country, including a thirteen year-old school girl, gave every parent a reason to pause for thought. (Many in the U.S. government had for years insisted that reports of abductions of both Japanese and South Korean citizens were tall tales with all the credibility of the Cold War film "the Manchurian Candidate." This was, of course, before the Dear Leader himself confirmed their validity.) Further elaboration on the shocking human rights record of North Korea, the likes of which have not been seen in Asia since the murderous Pol Pot regime came to power in Cambodia exactly thirty years ago this month, is not needed. We all know what that record is. Is there anyone here who would question the assertion of the British Ambassador in Geneva that North Korea has "the worst" record in the world or that it is indeed one of the world's remaining "outposts of tyranny" as Secretary Rice stated?

The true crisis over human rights on the Korean peninsula is not in North Korea. It is in South Korea. Let me explain.

When the history of the Korean peninsula is written, after eventual unification, there will be a dark stain upon the record of the South Korean government and South Korean society which no attempts to whitewash will be able to remove. When South Korean soldiers enter the concentration camps of the North they will find victims of abuse as severely mistreated as those seen by my ninety-five year-old uncle when he participated in the liberation of the Nazi death camp at Buchenwald in the spring of 1945. And these South Korean soldiers will be accompanied by CNN and other media journalists who will instantly send images of the camp detainees to television sets around the world.

This will be the hour that South Korea will lose its face before the international community. People around the world will ask how Seoul could have maintained its silence on North Korea's human rights tragedy, year after year in Geneva, as its brethren in the North endured such intolerable suffering.

Britain's wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was a master of oratory. After the fall of France, awaiting the coming Battle of Britain, he rallied the British people to face the immense challenge before them by asserting: "if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.' Unfortunately, if the Korean nation and people last for five thousand more years I fear, as a friend of Korea, that men will still say "This was their hour of greatest shame."

I have come to realize, as an observer of Korea for over thirty years, that the 386 generation, which now should be called 486 as they enter their forties, is caught in a time warp and sees all political and human rights issues through the narrow prism of Kwangju. I was working at the American Embassy in Seoul when the Kwangju Massacre occurred. Kwangju was an immense tragedy and I have repeatedly expressed deep regret for the American government's continued silence for nine years after the massacre took place there. But American silence over Kwangju cannot justify South Korea's silence over the human rights nightmare that is unfolding in North Korea.

Many of the 386 generation, who hold the leverage of political power in Seoul, appear to be blinded by their extreme animosity toward the past South Korean military regimes and the United States government for the erroneous perception that it authorized the events of Kwangju. As a result, these 386 leaders in Seoul appear willing to embrace many of the ideological pronouncements and even raw propaganda emanating out of Pyongyang. They even join Pyongyang in discussing an American threat, ignoring the fact that it was North Korean propaganda that threatened to turn Seoul into "a sea of fire." It is North Korean artillery, after all, which is aimed directly at the southern capital. This head-in-the-sand attitude in Seoul reminds me of the Korean proverb that "it is darkest directly under the lamp."

They should look at North Korean maps which still show Pyongyang as the capital for the entire peninsula and omit both the DMZ armistice line and the notation of "Republic of Korea." Yet given their anti-American bias, some in Seoul still find common cause with the ultimate anti-Americans, the ruling faction in North Korea.

The tragic result of this bias is an apologist policy with regard to North Korean human rights. A recent Reuters report on Seoul's decision to abstain on the North Korea human rights resolution in Geneva pointed out what it termed "the hypocrisy" of 386 generation leaders who fought the South Korean military regime for human rights but now turn their backs on the North Korean people's human rights tragedy.

The issue, however, goes beyond the Korean government. South Korean society, with some notable heroic exceptions, remains surprisingly silent on the issue of North Korean human rights. A younger generation has been taught anti-American bias in South Korean schools by 386 members of the Chunkyojo radical teachers' union. These political activist teachers have been documented as teaching anti-Americanism directed particularly against the U.S. military. History textbooks in South Korean schools emphasize the 2000 Kim Dae Jung/Kim Jong Il Summit and the brotherly ties with North Korea, meaning the regime in Pyongyang, while largely ignoring the international intervention in 1950 which preserved South Korea as a separate political entity. This young generation grew up, of course, after the events of the Korean War, but they were also born after the period of colonial occupation under imperial Japan. Judged by the widespread participation of young people in anti-Japanese demonstrations in Seoul, one must surmise they have no problem recalling historic events from over sixty years ago while demonstrating ignorance concerning the events of 1950 to 1953.

One major player in that conflict was General Douglas MacArthur, the strategist of the Inchon landing, the major turning point of the Korean War. MacArthur once famously said "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away." It now seems apparent that sometimes old soldiers undergo a resurrection long after they have faded away, returning to challenge the conscience of a nation they once faithfully served but which has now largely forgotten them. Two South Korean POWs have made appearances in Washington this past week as part of the events honoring North Korea Freedom Week. These two courageous men were held for over forty years against their wills as coal mine slaves in violation of the POW accords contained in the 1953 Armistice Agreement. Their comments have raised serious questions about the conscience of South Korean society. The pair of POWs stated that they have left at least five hundred of their comrades-in-arms behind to this very day. These of course are not North Korean defectors; they are South Korean men who sacrificed their lives and freedom for the peace, prosperity and liberty which later South Korean generations have taken for granted.

Even more shocking was the amazing degree of silence in Seoul which followed the forced repatriation to North Korea by Chinese authorities, earlier this year, of another South Korean POW who had escaped from the gulag. If an old American POW ever crossed into China and was detained for repatriation by Chinese authorities the very roof of the Capitol Building would be lifted by Congressional outrage. The American people would demand action from their government. As a Congressional staff colleague, a former American Marine, observed to me: "the indifference displayed by South Korean society over the forced repatriation of an old POW who fought for the South Korean people raises real questions about South Korea's reliability as an ally."

My Marine friend's question about South Korea's reliability appeared, sadly, to be answered this week by a young military widow in Seoul. South Korean press reported as follows: Mrs. Kim Jong-seon, the widow of Petty Officer Han Sang-guk, who was killed in a June 2002 naval battle with North Korea in the Yellow Sea, made remarks at the airport before leaving her homeland for the United States. She said, with tears reportedly flowing down her face, that "I did not want any economic compensation, I just wanted sympathy from the government and the citizens towards those who died saving the country. If this indifference and inhospitality shown to those soldiers who were killed or wounded protecting the nation continue, what soldier will lay down his life on the battlefield?" What the widow was referring to was the following, as reported: "Nervous government officials, worrying that the naval incident might cast a pall over the Sunshine Policy, even warned the families to please keep quiet. During the first two remembrance ceremonies in 2003 and 2004, not one high-ranking government official, let alone the Minister of Defense, showed up." And, as I and several other foreign observers recall with deep shock, then South Korean President Kim Dae Jung chose to attend the last World Cup Game and closing ceremonies in Japan rather than to attend the funeral service for the dead sailors in Seoul. Can one imagine an American President traveling abroad or going to a baseball game after the Okalahoma City bombing or the attacks of September 11th?

No one wants a war on the Korean peninsula. But accepting the evil of the status quo is not a viable alternative. One need neither be largely silent on an atrocious human rights record nor largely uncritical of a regime that imposes such abuse in order to be seen as a proponent of a peaceful solution. It is not a mutually exclusive choice, as some in Seoul and Washington seem to think. Those who would make it so have crossed the line from engagement to accommodation.

The only way for regime survival in North Korea is for Kim Jong Il and his ruling group to clearly understand that the regime, as it is presently formulated, is unacceptable to the international community and that genuine economic and political reform, verified through greater openness, is the only way they will retain power in the long term. That is the message, along with the expression of a deep concern for the welfare of the North Korean people and North Korean refugees in third countries, which was sent by the Congress in the passage last year of the North Korean Human Rights Act. The chief architects of that Act in the House of Representatives, Mr. Leach of Iowa and Mr. Lantos of California, are not, of course, identified as neo-conservatives by any credible Washington observers.

So my message would be to all of you tonight: contact your relatives and friends in South Korea and tell them that, for the sake of the North Korean people and for the preservation of the face of South Korea, they should contact their government and demand that North Korean human rights be given at least equal attention with Tokdo. Contact the South Korean press and demand that they give extensive coverage within South Korea to the immense human rights tragedy unfolding this very hour inside North Korea.

Then we can all repeat with conviction to Kim Jong Il the words written on the Holocaust Museum: "Never again." And that word "never" should not be just applied to the western white world but for Asia and Africa as well. For the people of North Korea, for the people of Cambodia, for the people of Rwanda, for the people of the Sudan. We will no longer accept racial profiling with regard to the prioritization of human rights issues within the United Nations, within the United States or within South Korea.

As far as the future of the Korean peninsula is concerned, we should take heart from the words of our late Pope, John Paul II: "Be not afraid." Thank you.

This page last updated 4/30/2005 jdb

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