When is a good time to hold a conference on engaging with North Korea? When the organisers set the date for the 4 May conference they couldn’t possibly have known the heightened level of tension that the peninsula was going to go through in the early months of 2013. Mainstream press coverage has veered from predicting imminent armageddon to a more dismissing the North’s rhetoric as that and nothing more. It was time to take a step back, and somehow the timing of the conference could not have been better.
An academic conference is always faced with compromises. The incentive is always to invite a wide range of speakers to appeal to a broad audience, but then the question is how to fit all the material in: try to cram too much in to one day and speakers end up being rushed; or spread it over two days and discover that the organisers’ and attendees’ budget won’t stretch that far.
Engage Korea‘s compromise on paper looked brutal, but in fact worked well. Plenary sessions in the morning meant that everyone could attend these talks, but parallel streams and multiple breakout sessions in the afternoon meant that it was impossible to hear everyone. Doing the arithmetic, it was only possible to attend three-eighths of the talks in the afternoon. However, in a conference with a wide range of interests in the delegate list – from humanitarian workers to journalists via academics of different specialisations – this was probably the right approach as not all the talks will have been of interest to all participants.
Some of the most interesting talks of the morning echoed the welcoming remarks by James Lewis in looking at the historical perspective. We were reminded that, although we criticize the North for not being able to feed its people, and when we gawp at pictures of oxen pulling the plough or women doing the washing in the river, such sights were once familiar in the South, and it is only relatively recently that the South has achieved food security. We were reminded, too, that it was the Americans who first introduced nuclear weapons into the Korean peninsula, in 1958; and that even when the relations between North and South were at a low following the Rangoon bomb in 1983, in which the North attempted to assassinate the South Korean president and succeeded in killing some senior South Korean cabinet members, engagement was still possible when the South accepted flood aid from the North in September 1984 – engagement which was followed by the first North-South family reunions in 1985.
As well as providing historical perspective, the conference also reminded us of the importance of understanding China’s perspectives on security on the peninsula, and that while there might be an official Chinese policy line on a nuclear-armed DPRK, there are other views expressed on internet portals and elsewhere. Korea-watched will have noted the stir caused by the FT article by Deng Yuwen entitled China should abandon North Korea. But what emerged from the conference is the value provided by the analysts who cover the region from a Chinese perspective and who provide their insights on sites such as Sino NK and elsewhere.
The Engage Korea conference (www.engagekorea.org) was held at Merton College Oxford on 4 May 2013. It was sponsored by the Lotte Scholarship Foundation, with support from the Anglo Korean Society, Green Templeton College and Oxford House Consultancy
All images (other than of the botanical gardens) courtesy of Engage Korea, credit Rasmus Hagen