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Conference report: ROK-UK Forum on Peaceful Unification of Korea and Human Rights in North Korea

Thanks to guest contributor Sinae Hong for this report from the conference earlier this week.

Forum poster banner

The ROK-UK Forum on Peaceful Unification of Korea and Human Rights in North Korea was held at the Millennium Gloucester Hotel on Friday 19th November, 2013.

The Cromwell Suite was full with well over 150 people, from British Veterans of the Korean War to enthusiastic students, with some people having to stand at the back. Opening addresses were given by Dr Shin Woo-seung (Chairman of National Unification Advisory Council UK), Mr Lim Sung-nam (ROK ambassador to the UK), Mr Richard Morris (UK Foreign Office) and Sir Peter Bottomley MP.

Trust Building Process

Mark Fizpatrick, Director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies opened his presentation somewhat pessimistically by stating his conclusion that, “the DPRK will remain nuclear-armed and repressive as long as there is a DPRK” and the only long-term solution is “the end of that regime”. Thus he suggested concerned nations to “increase the flow of facts and figures” to the DPRK, through radio broadcasting, and launching balloons – though I wasn’t sure how the South Korean government may feel about this particular suggestion as balloon launches by North Korean defectors and Human rights organisations have been stopped by the local police in the past due to residents’ concerns over North Korea’s possible retaliation.

In the first session, entitled “Park Guen-hye Administration’s Trust-Building Process on the Korean Peninsula and the Role of British and Korean Cooperation in its Successful implementation”, Professor Lee Jung-hoon, who was one of the architects behind this policy, explained the origin of the process and how it was conceptualised. Professor Lee emphasised ‘the clear vision of the end state for the Korean peninsula’ – namely, the unification of the two Koreas, as what separates the current Korean government’s policy towards North Korea from the predecessor’s. He also provided a possible sample of what the trust index may be, which can be found in the table below.

North Korea’s official admission and apology for the sinking of Cheonan naval ship and the bombing of Yeonpyong Island 3 phase lifting of 5.24 conditions:

  1. Discretionary visits to North Korea allowed.
  2. Resumption of North–South Commercial activities; and
  3. Passage of North Korean ships through ROK waters
Institutionalization of family reunion Expansion of humanitarian assistance
Planning for the return of ROK POWs and kidnapped citizens Resumption of Kumgang Mountain tour
Moratorium on missile development Expansion of Kaesong Industrial Park
Moratorium on nuclear weapons development Construction of 2nd Industrial Park in North Korea
Permission for UNHCR, UNHCHR and IGOs and NGOs to work in North Korea Establishment of a system for IMF, World Bank and other global agencies to assist North Korea

Source: The Park Geun-hye Government’s Unification/Foreign & Security Policy Vision and its Implementation Strategy, KINU Policy Research Series 13-03(2013) (with slight variation in the sequence)

My question to him later on was how the South Korean government would react to the DPRK when they haven’t completed any of the actions illustrated above and it is quite unlikely that they will. Professor Lee answered that patience was the key in dealing with the DPRK and it will be a slow process. I was somewhat disappointed at this remark because there are so many ordinary North Korean people including very young children who are being affected badly by this new policy. However, engaging the DPRK was mentioned as an important factor by former UK ambassador to the ROK, Sir Stephen Brown, who quoted brilliant words from the German Field Marshall von Moltke: “No plan survives contact with the enemy”. He also said that “the leader must be flexible, robust, resolute and above all realistic”, saying President Park will need all those qualities in dealing with DPRK.

Ruth Taplin, Director of the Centre for Japanese and East Asian Studies bravely suggested the UK and Korea should help North Korea to revive its economy by re-opening the Kaesung factory park and having UK businesses invest in it whilst providing training to North Korea’s small businesses. Though in the past, North Korea had not been credible, the fact that North Korea did repay on time at a very high rate of interest in four deals with Mr. Gabriel Schulze of Schulze Global investments was encouraging to find out.

Human rights in North Korea

After a short tea break, the second session started with the agenda on Human rights in North Korea. Professor Hong Seong-phil started his presentation with his own story of how he first got involved in campaigning for North Korean human rights. Even though the human rights record is worsening in North Korea, he argued that we need to take a ‘target-oriented approach’. One of the targets he mentioned as a priority was ‘dismantlement of the political prison camps.’

Adam Cathcart (Lecturer at University of Leeds) analysed how North Korea is using ‘double defectors’ press conferences in order to strengthen the North Korean regime. He argued the focus in portraying life in the South has changed from refuting South Korea’s affluence to “accentuating the class division between wealthier South Koreans and the underclass of North Korean defectors”.

On improving human rights conditions in North Korea, Professor James Hoare (of SOAS) argued that shouting at them will only produce a negative result. Instead, he suggested, we should be encouraging economic development and offering training. Recounting his own experience as a British representative in Pyongyang, when he was talking about UK’s own human rights abuses in the past, and the continued death penalty in the USA, North Koreans would listen to the stories. Also when offered human rights training in London which had mandatory field work, they were forced to visit Amnesty International as part of their training. He concluded engagement and teaching will “help to open North Korean eyes beyond Juche.”

Cho Jung-hyun, a research fellow at the Unification Institute in Korea, talked about the current human rights situation in North Korea. He shed light on issues around children born of a North Korean mother and a Chinese father as these children cannot obtain hukou (Chinese household registration documents).

Finally, Lord Alton closed the session with a hopeful note by pointing out how quickly things have changed since the military dictatorship of General Park in South Korea. He also suggested that we need to invest in tomorrow’s North Korean leaders, such as Timothy, a 24 year-old North Korean refugee who came to the UK as a young boy and is currently studying Politics and International Affairs at a British university, and Shin Dong-Hyok, born in Camp 14, but is currently tirelessly telling his story to the world risking his own life in order to bring about change. He also supported the idea of the BBC broadcasting to North Koreans so that the information blockade can be broken. He concluded his discussion by saying “we who have voices must raise them on behalf of those who cannot be heard.”

All in all, it was a very informative forum and it was great to see so many people from different walks of life. It was especially encouraging to see many young Koreans and British who clearly have interests in this subject.

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