Former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung plans on journeying north later this month for a reprise of his 2000 summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-il. Although that meeting was filled with hope and helped reduce tensions on the peninsula, Kim Jong-il never fulfilled his promise to visit Seoul and a multitude of critical issues, most notably the North’s nuclear program, remain unresolved.
Indeed, the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, perhaps the most anti-people place on the planet, routinely yanks the chain that hangs so conspicuously from many South Koreans. For instance, Kim Dae-jung had hoped to travel to Pyongyang via rail, and both countries have constructed a line that meets at the border. But at the last minute North Korea canceled the planned tests, allegedly over lack of a military accord to protect passengers.
Unpredictable arbitrariness is about the only predictable aspect of DPRK behavior. That’s better than blowing civilian airliners out of the sky, engaging in naval skirmishes, inserting special forces onto South Korean territory, or launching full-scale invasions, all of which the North has done in the past. Nevertheless, Pyongyang still isn’t ready for primetime if the goal is peace and stability.
Alas, naivete towards the DPRK doesn’t come close to describing the mindsets of many South Koreans, starting with Kim Dae-jung. DJ, as he is called, was a heroic battler for human rights who was jailed and almost assassinated by South Korean military regimes. But his goal for his upcoming trip is to promote reunification: “Unification is the ultimate goal of our nation.”
Yes, reunification would be nice in theory, especially at a human level. The Korean War divided families, separated people from their ancestral homes, and prevented a brave and entrepreneurial people from making a nation free from the threat of war. But in practice what would unification mean, absent the disappearance of the Stalinist North Korean regime?
German reunification was tough enough. Westerners spent hundreds of billions of dollars in an unsuccessful attempt to jump-start the economy in the east. Many easterners today resent the success of their better-off compatriots and pine for some non-existent third way.
More important, what paved the way for reunification was the collapse of the East German regime. There could have been no unity with a government that shot dead citizens seeking to escape its embrace. Reunification occurred because the system with no genuine popular legitimacy dissolved.
The differences are even more stark between the two Koreas. Forget the high financial bill which the Republic of Korea would have to pay.
The North is a hellhole, suffering under probably the worst government on earth. Ignore the crackpot socialist economic doctrines and disastrous philosophy of juche (or self-reliance). The regime is one of mass indifference, brutality, and murder, under which at least a half million and as many as three million people died of starvation over the last decade.
There is no way to sugarcoat the North’s behavior. For instance, in 2003 the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea published a sobering report, “The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Prison Camps.”
Wrote human rights advocate David Hawk:
From the accumulated information, it is possible to outline two distinct systems of incarceration in North Korea. Both of these exhibit exceptional violations of internationally recognized human rights: an extremely brutal gulag of sprawling political penal-labor colonies, called kwan-li-so in Korean, and prison-labor facilities, called kyo-hwa-so; and a separate but also extremely brutal system of imprisonment, interrogation, torture, and forced labor for North Koreans who are forcibly repatriated from China.
Hawk piles depressing detail upon depressing detail for 45 pages.
The fact that North Korea is run by monsters does not mean that the West cannot or should not deal with it. Finding a negotiated settlement to the nuclear issue, however unlikely, would leave hope for an eventual transformation of the regime.
In contrast, demanding respect for human rights first means no solution to either security threats or human rights is imaginable. And harsh confrontation raises the risk of war, which would be disastrous to all concerned. “Pyrrhic” would hardly describe the sort of victory that would come out of such a conflict, with the ROK’s capital of Seoul within range of North Korean artillery and Scud missiles.
However, the basis for any engagement or negotiations must be realism. North Korea is not like the usual authoritarian regime. Kim Jong-il is not like the usual authoritarian dictator. The evil of both transcends common human understanding.
“Six years ago, South and North Korea were not accustomed to face each other to discuss the issue of peace on the Korean peninsula,” observes South Korean Unification Minister Lee Jong-sek. “But now, South and North Korea hold dialogue not only for bilateral issues, but also issues of international peace.” Therefore, he adds, “we are at a time when we should take inter-Korean relations to the next level.”
Actually, the most realistic goal would be to establish a normal relationship between the two Koreas — where threats are absent, agreements are kept, and promises are believable. Until North Korea demonstrates its willingness to live by the minimal international standards expected of all countries, South Koreans need to lower their expectations. They can dream of negotiating reunification and discussing international peace, but they had better spend their time working to improve North Korean behavior in small ways. Expecting anything else out of Pyongyang today is rushing after fool’s gold.
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