We can easily forget as foreigners living in Korea that we are living in a forcibly divided country still at war. Join the ISC in a reunification tour to explore regions of significance to the inter-Korean conflict. You can sign up at http://bit.ly/1eTvmEL
By Erica Sweett
A few months ago the ISC met in Seoul to learn about reunification. We met with reunification activist and former political prisoner, Kwon Nak Gi. At the age of 26, he was imprisoned for breaking the National Security Law in Korea. He spent 18 years of his life in jail, from 1972 to 1989. Trying to relate to a man whose world differed so much from my own was difficult. It raised important questions and forced me to reflect on how I have been living my life thus far.
I have always been interested in social issues. This led me to pursue a degree in political science at university. While I liked the idea of social justice, my understanding of politics at the time didn’t go much past the pages of the classroom textbooks. Yet the past two years I’ve spent in Korea have made me increasingly aware of the role politics plays in the life of everyday people. As I have become more familiar with the Korean social movement, activists and politicians, I have realized that awareness and change stem not from inconsistent ideals but from the lives of dedicated individuals. All of the people we have met have had at least one thing in common: they are all distinctly aware of their purpose. They have sacrificed comfortable, stable jobs and are devoting their lives to improving their community. The big question is, how? How did they discover and find the strength to live each day with purpose?
Kwon Nak Gi’s experiences in prison left him with nothing but his purpose. They took away his clothes, possessions, his home, family, country, and physical freedom. In the eyes of his oppressors, they had successfully dehumanized him. Solitary confinement was supposed to dissolve his beliefs, but it only strengthened them. After hearing his story, it was evident that the thing that makes us human is not superficial, but something that lies deep within us.
Kwon Nak Gi told us that he found strength in three basic ways; everyday resistance to his conditions, studying, and through comradery with his fellow prisoners. It was these basic intentions, along with his unwavering commitment and internal strength, that helped him endure life in prison. A simple confession could have given him the freedom to return to his family. Yet he firmly believed that a life without meaning would be much worse than a life behind bars. While most people reading this will hopefully never have to face what he did, his story is an important lesson on how to live an honest and meaningful life in spite of your conditions.
He started by telling us about how he was always actively struggling, whether he was physically resisting torture or internally resisting confession. Each time he was tortured, his reasons for resisting were reinforced. Each time he refused to denounce his beliefs, he further solidified his commitment to them. Struggle doesn’t always come in the form of organized protests. People make the struggle a part of their everyday lives. While in prison, Kwon and the other prisoners never forgot their reason for fighting.
Education and learning proved to be another important tool for resistance. Prisoners had limited resources and were not allowed to have books. Books were seen as a pleasurable distraction and were thus banned. Within the limits of their prison cells the prisoners, made up of political thinkers, students and professors, worked together to share their knowledge. Kwon told us this as he tapped his finger on the table. He explained that the prisoners transcribed books to one another using morose code. “If you didn’t do the studying and keep the spirit inside, you couldn’t last the whole prison term,” he reflected. Opening the mind and broadening one’s perspective is crucial. Learning and teaching in any form gives substance to life and in this case, made life in prison more tolerable. It gave space for the growth and change needed to continue participating in their struggle while imprisoned.
The third way that Kwon Nak Gi found strength was through comradeship with his fellow prisoners. Because of the bond between prisoners, he was never fighting alone. He told us that “animals can’t resist oppression, but human beings can fight oppression together, so in prison we struggled together.” The prisoners would find ways to help one another, however small, such as making sure to take care of the elderly and sick prisoners. The weight and power of oppression is too much for a single person to carry on their own, but with the help of a strong community, solidarity quickly forms.
Kwon Nak Gi has taught me that to fight for your beliefs is not enough. You have to become them, living each moment with intention. In unsettling times, when everything could be taken from you in an instant, the only thing that you have is not outside of yourself – it is within. Kwon Nak Gi was tortured for 25 years yet, he sat in front of us smiling as he recounted the years of his life spent he spent in prison. He was always free because from behind the bars of his cell he was committed to living each day with a purpose, moving forward and resisting. His time was never wasted because he utilized what he had – the struggle, his mind, and his compassion for his fellow prisoners – to separate himself from the oppression and fight against it.
On the surface, his story may evoke feelings of pity. He sacrificed years of his life struggling for the reunification of a country that remains divided. But after listening to him speak, I instead felt hopeful. If a single man can endure so much loss and sacrifice for 18 years of his life while still firmly holding on to his beliefs, then just imagine the implications that has for a nation.
Kwon Nak Gi’s words and experiences contain an important message. On a personal level, he helped me understand that it is not about finding your purpose. Rather, it is about striving to constantly remain aware of and live by your purpose, especially in the moments when it feels like there is nothing left for which to fight. As he poignantly stated near the end of our meeting, “people need to never forget their reason to exist.”
I am a 27-year-old American expat English teacher in Korea. My major challenges are: navigating a foreign culture and language, making good lessons, and balancing my life. At 25, Kwon Nak-gi and his family went to prison for violating the National Security Law with their pro-reunification activities. During his time in prison, 1972-1990, Kwon’s major challenges were enduring the beatings, torture, and solitary confinement that placed pressure on him to betray his political beliefs and comrades. Listening to Kwon’s account of his prison experience on a Sunday afternoon in June, I asked myself: “What do I stand for? Why do I exist?”
Korea’s prolonged division makes criminals of those who could help build it into a better society. Amidst widespread condemnation of North Korea and other regimes, a little-known fact about South Korea is overlooked: it boasts the world’s longest-serving political prisoners, some of whom have served over forty years. As Michael Breen explains in his 2011 Korea Times article “The Case of World’s Longest Serving Political Prisoners,” Park Chung Hee’s iron grip in the 1960s drove these men from the public consciousness. Many of these unconverted dissidents – who never renounced their beliefs – have died or been killed in prison, but others like Nak-ki survive to tell their stories to the younger generations.
One night, returning to his solitary cell, beaten and bloodied, thoughts of caving in and signing the release papers emerged in Nak-ki’s mind. He had a girlfriend and a good life: signing seemed like such an easy way out. It was seeing the faces of his older comrades that made him realize he could never betray them and his conscience. So he endured until 1990, when Korea’s burgeoning democratization saw the release of the first round of long-term prisoners under Roe Tae-woo.
The Saturday before meeting Kwon Nak-gi, Justice Party candidate and reunification activist Jeong Yeon-ook compared the divided Korean peninsula to a living cell or a person. Jeong said: “If you put together countries that were never meant to be together, they will split apart, but countries meant to be together will come together.” While the former Soviet republics are now proudly independent countries, Korea entered the UN in 1991 as a sadly divided nation. To this day, the governments of the US, DPRK and ROK have been unable to propel this living cell back together. How much longer will this division last?
In the 1940s climate of the Japanese occupation followed by US occupation, leftist anti-colonial movements flourished but were quickly crushed. The window of opportunity for a truly autonomous Korean nation seemed to close under the weight of continued oppression and a brutal 3-year war. Divisions between pro-Japanese collaborators and those staunchly against the occupation plagued society before the demarcation line was even drawn and they only deepened over time, leading to a military border that separates families and national history.
To someone like me who comes from outside this society, Kwon Nak-gi’s account offers immense insight not only into Korean history but human resilience. Yet I’m afraid that many of those in the younger generation here are too concerned with their status and career-building to take advantage of learning lessons from the past and acting in the present. While the June reunification weekend left me with more questions and doubts than answers, one thing is clear – I respect people who have given their lives for the cause of peace and reunification. I hope to learn from their struggles and emulate their level of commitment to a cause. Above all, I hope to one day see Korea reunite as one strong, independent country.
Based on interviews with Jeong Yeon-ook and Kwon Nak-gi, Seoul, June 14-15, 2014
Breen, Michael. (2011, February 20). The Case of World’s Longest Serving Political Prisoners. koreatimes.com
By Dae-Han Song
On June 14th, Kris Pak, an adoptee; Stephanie Park and Dae-Han Song, two Korean-Americans; Taryn Assaf, a Lebanese-Canadian; Anastasia Traynin, a Russian-American; and Erica Sweett, a Canadian meet with Kwon Nak-gi: trim, neatly dressed, nearing 70, set of black hair, hint of slouch, and tattooed eyebrows. He speaks with the earned conviction and justification of one who stayed true to his beliefs and comrades in the face of torture and 17 years of solitary confinement.
The National Security Law
Kwon, Nak-gi was arrested in 1972 (along with his father, mother, and younger brother) for violating the National Security Law in the incident of the Gyongsang Province Revolutionary Party for Reunification. The National Security Law had been created soon after liberation from Japan to repress the uprisings erupting from a divided South Korea: On one side stood the nationalists, communists, and socialists; on the other, the Japanese collaborators. Since that time the National Security Law has been used to censor, incarcerate, torture and kill dissenters. Those imprisoned are grouped between ones who renounced their beliefs under torture, and ones who did not. Separating those let free and those that persisted was a signed statement renouncing one’s beliefs. Those that persisted are referred to as prisoners of conscience. Kwon Nak-gi is a third generation long term political prisoner of conscience.
Four Generations of Political Prisoners
The first generation of political prisoners was arrested at the end of the Korean War: they had fought for the North but were trapped in the South when the war ended. Some were executed; others received life sentences eventually serving up to 40 years. The second generation was arrested upon returning to the South in the early 1960s to jumpstart the South’s reunification movement. The third generation was too young to fight in the war but old enough to participate in the South’s reunification movement in the early 70s. The fourth generation was arrested in the latter half of the 1970s, framed as spies to justify the continued existence of the National Security Law. They were later retried and found innocent, including those executed and those killed in prison.
Struggle and Freedom
As the struggle for democratization intensified, pressure to release the political prisoners mounted. Many, including Kwon Nakki, were released after the October 1987 uprising. Others were released under Kim Yong Sam, and finally one by one the remaining unconverted long term political prisoners were released under the Kim Dae Jung presidency. 63 of them were repatriated to North Korea as a humanitarian gesture under the June 15, 2000 agreement between Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Il.
As we move from the background to his story, I ask, “What was prison life like?” Kwon Nak-gi describes the cells for political prisoners: Each prisoner was held in a 0.75 pyeong (2.5 square meters) cell: just large enough to sit against one wall and touch the other with your feet. To break them, the prison kept them under solitary confinement. “In our cells, we didn’t have any books. If you had books, you could escape. They wanted to keep the pressure on: They wanted us to feel sadness, misery, loneliness.”
As he relates his daily prison life, I glimmer moments of resistance, persistence, and dignity in the mundane: keeping mind and body busy, strict adherence to hygiene and exercise, and even discipline and resourcefulness in the use and reuse of a pail ration of water.
“One of our greatest sources of strength was study. Among the hundreds imprisoned, we had philosophers, professors: learned people. So, they created lessons on dialectical materialism, contradiction, the principles of an organizer, political science, economics.” While each of the political prisoners was kept in solitary confinement, they communicated through a secret system of taps, scratches, and knocks on the wall.
“We would sit alone in our room doing these studies. Our elders would tap out a sentence on the wall. Then I would recite and memorize it in rhyme.” As he demonstrates by tapping, scratching, and knocking in rapid succession, he murmurs off a string of sentences from memory. “It’s been so long, that I’m starting to forget them…It took me about a year to memorize it all.”
“After breakfast and the dishes, I would recite my lessons. It took exactly three hours. Without that, there was no way we could have held out for 10, 20, 30 years. A human being needs a purpose and a practice. That’s the only way to endure. We have to remind ourselves why we exist. For us, it was important to not while away the day. That’s why we studied everyday. It gave us a purpose.”
“The second source of strength was struggle. If they simply left us alone, we would have become bored, listless. But, they tortured us. All animals fight back when you mess with them. But, humans are special: We also fight back when someone messes with others. That is our strength. If they beat one of us, then the others would start a hunger strike. These struggles helped keep our humanity.”
“Study, struggle, and finally comradeship. I wonder if without comrades I could have kept my beliefs for so long.” Kwon Nak-gi relates how, in winter, younger prisoners would pad their underwear and in the exercise yard would exchange it with the worn-out ones of the older prisoners. Or of when someone had diarrhea, he would save his food and pass it on to hungry comrades despite punishment if caught.
His voice recalls a past moment, “One day after getting tortured, I returned to my cell. I was bloodied; my energy was drained. As the sun set and night fell upon me, my eyes welled up with tears. I wondered to myself, ‘Do I really need to keep getting beat up like this?’ My thoughts wandered off to a woman back in Busan. ‘Why did I listen to my father? Why don’t I just give up and live comfortably outside?’”
“The next morning, through the food slot, I saw a senior comrade in his 50s – his skin down to his bones – raising his fist motioning me to stay strong. At seeing that, there was no way I could sign the renunciation document. How could I leave behind all these elders and comrades to live comfortably outside? I stuck it out to the end not because I was smarter, or tougher, or better. It was these relationships. It was these moments, once, twice, thrice, ten times, one year, ten years, twenty, as time flowed…that is how I was made. No one is born good or bad. Our education, our actions – that is what make us.”
Releasing the Han
Anastasia asks, “What are your goals now?” The question stirs a reflection. Kwon Nak-gi pauses then responds, “When you say goal, there is that which forms in our rational self, from our knowledge, which we plan and then try to execute, and there is that which forms within our hearts and releases our unresolved feelings, our Han. The goal which resides in my rational self and in my heart, are one and the same: reunification.”
His “rational” reasons for reunification are many: an independent country; military spending used for social welfare instead; and the freedom to hear, read, learn what one wants and to choose freely. Then, a profundity permeates his voice, “Reunification is also an ardent wish that resides in my heart. We all make promises, like today, we made a promise to meet here. But, a promise between living people, can be changed, postponed, or even canceled if both acquiesce. A promise with those who’ve died cannot be canceled, postponed, or altered. That is the han that resides in the hearts of those that survived. I made a promise to my elders that I would struggle on until the reunification of our homeland. They died in prison. Even my juniors, who I loved and cared for, that were released but passed away, we promised to fight for reunification.”
Advice for the next generation
As our meeting comes to a close, Anastasia asks, “Do you have any advice for the next generation?” Kwon Nak-gi’s voice mingles with delight, expectation, and respect as he answers, “Dialectical materialism states that the new will replace the old, and that the new becomes old. Nothing remains fixed. I see myself as the old: I am 69. You are young; you are in your twenties, in your thirties. I can’t tell you how to live your lives. But, I can tell you that while I spent my twenties and thirties in prison, I never lived in shame. I didn’t accomplish anything great, but I never betrayed my beliefs. I did not live in fear; I did not live in shame. Because you are young, your dreams, your directions, they will all be varied. But, live your life free of fear and shame. To do that, you must preserve your confidence and maintain your self-respect.”
By Stephanie Park
I don’t remember exactly when I learned about Korea’s division into North and South; but I do remember the immediate conviction I felt that the two should be reunified. I didn’t know much about the South, and even less about the North, but my childhood self was convinced it needed to happen. Perhaps, I perceived a desire, unspoken but felt, of my grandparents to return to the provinces where they were born. Perhaps I was simply parroting the idea that Koreans were one people, and should therefore be one nation as well. Or perhaps I just liked the idea of a happy ending. Regardless, before I became serious about critically examining Korean politics, reunification was the one topic I had any opinion on.
It was thus disorienting when after the ISC’s June program on reunification, I found myself more confused about the issue of reunification than I had ever felt before. Addressing reunification is impossible without addressing the matter of “the world’s most isolated country.” While I’m no expert on North Korea, like countless others I had always assumed that there were certain things I could simply take for granted: for example, that the North was responsible for the Korean War, that it brainwashed its citizens into worshipping Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, and that the country was hell-bent on building up its nuclear weapons program to threaten the US and South Korea. Volunteering with North Korean defectors gave me an additional perspective, one that focused on the scarcity of food and resources and painted the situation in North Korea as a human rights issue. I was therefore taken aback by the attitudes of the South Korean activists that we met and their attitude towards the North, which was more nuanced and challenged me to critically examine everything I’d ever thought about the country. As I investigated the issue further, I began to realize how little I knew of the forces that shaped the North Korea that we (think we) know, how deeply and completely my and others’ understanding of North Korea has been shaped by American neoliberalist motives, and above all, that a paradigm shift is necessary to achieving a reunification that truly achieves peace and justice on the peninsula.
As I delved into Korean history to seek answers, I found that to discuss reunification necessitates discussion not only of North Korea, or even the Korean War, but of Japanese colonialism. In a way, the conflict between North and South reflects the still-unresolved conflict between Koreans themselves during the occupation between those who resisted and those who collaborated. The current power hierarchies of both countries reflect that, with the Kim family and other guerilla fighters at the helm in the North, and collaborators who stayed in power through US intervention in charge the South. The unresolved trauma of Japanese colonialism was so central to Korean politics at the time that, in the opinion of historian Bruce Cumings, “a civil conflict purely among Koreans [emphasis added] might have resolved the extraordinary tensions generated by colonialism, national division and foreign intervention. ” Yet, such a resolution was never to be, as Korea was divided arbitrarily by the American military and summarily offered to the USSR as a preemptive compromise in the Cold War conflict. Korea’s division was something I had simply accepted as a child, but revisiting it now, I am struck by the arrogance of dividing another people’s country without any thought to those that inhabit. Yet, this act shows that, from the very beginning, America’s treatment of Korea’s was never that of equals, but as a pawn to be sacrificed to further US interests. Similarly, I had always thought of the Korean War as the fault of a blood-thirsty North; yet if we contextualize the war as a civil conflict in the wake of division by more powerful countries compounded by the lack of resolution of the injustices from Japanese colonialism, it becomes clear that civil wars do not start, they come.  If we examine history, it is clear that both Kim Il Sung and Synghman Rhee desired war to reunify the country. Yet, despite its civil origins, once the war began there were just as many atrocities committed by the US against Koreans than between Koreans themselves, including the massive use of chemical weapons, systematic burning of villages, and destruction of dams affecting 75% of North Korea’s food supply. Perhaps most tragically, the bloodshed proved to be for nothing, as the war ended in an armistice, leaving both Koreas in a state of war to this day. As a kid, I’d grown up with the narrative of MacArthur sailing into Incheon to “save” the Korean peninsula, but given his support (and even advocation) of bombing the North in the name of procuring military victory, it’s clear that the US’ presence brought more death and destruction than it ever brought peace.
Of course, when we think about North Korea today, it is usually with regards to its nuclearization. The imagery of North Korea as a crazed weapons-stockpiling nation that could go berserk at any moment is one that dominates both mainstream media and my family; yet, a critical examination reveals that North Korea’s developments have largely aligned with the desire to either a) exercise self-sovereignty, or b) react defensively to US actions. For example, much was made in 1993 of North Korea’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – but how many people knew that it was due to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s demands to carry out “‘special inspections’” in North Korea, ones which could be utilized to gather intelligence for the United States (a violation of the IAEA’s own mandates)? Similarly, while I had always agreed with the US’ mandate that North Korea de-nuclearize, upon further investigation, I realized how the US has utilized a denuclearized North Korea as a tool to push for unrestricted access to North Korean information, essentially holding peace in the peninsula hostage. Aside from being hypocritical, it’s also a clear violation of any country’s basic right to sovereignty and attempt to subordinate North Korea.
Of course, the fact that such information rarely comes to light is indicative of just how successful American media has been at naturalizing its own stance, and delegitimizing the North Korean perspective, to the point that even those interested in international solidarity continue to see North Korea as simply “that crazy country.” Yet, for all the focus on North Korean propaganda, we fail to see how deeply ensnared we are in our own. We call North Korea “ ‘crazy’ ” – but is it any crazier than a nation that claims to value justice and equality for all, while actively punishing a country whose actions are in the name of self-determination? Is it any crazier than a country that decries the human rights violations in North Korea, yet implements sanctions and refuses to provide aide and is thus directly responsible for these problems in the first place?
I am still struggling to develop my own understanding of reunification and North Korea while holding the contradictions that have developed and that sometimes seem to pull me in opposing directions. How do I honor my grandparents’ history (and thus, my own) while also challenging it? How can I have admiration for the North Korean defectors I have met for their courage, and respect the hardships they have endured, while also not falling into the trap of praising them simply because they defected and contributing to their use as political tools of the US and South Korea? And how can I have an understanding of North Korea and reunification that is critical yet hopeful? I confess that I don’t have an answer to these questions yet. However, one thing I do know is that, as an American, I recognize the burden we bear as citizens of a country who has wronged the Korean people, North and South, and promise to do what I can to contribute towards restoring peace and unity on the peninsula in a way that has the Korean people at heart.
 See: Minjok ideology. According to Luc Walhain in “Transcending Minjok: How Redefining Nation Paved the Way to Korean Democratization,” “while the original meaning of “jok” in minjok was “tribe” sharing a common ancestor, “jok” is now more generally used to designate a race, or ethnic group, e.g. “mong-jok,” meaning Mongolian race. When “jok” is combined with “min.” (people), as in “minjok,” the word becomes loaded with a heavily racial character. It refers to the Korean “nation,” but puts a strong emphasis on the Korean people’s sharing of common blood and a common ancestor, Tan’gun. It is an emotionally loaded term which has been used with great effect to call for the Korean people’s absolute and unconditional love and loyalty for the nation.” (http://studiesonasia.illinoisstate.edu/seriesIII/Vol%204%20No%202/s3v4n2_Walheim.pdf)
 Bruce Cumings, “The Korean War.” (http://books.google.co.kr/books?id=lY5-7ZirsmgC&pg=PA35&lpg=PA35&dq=a+civil+conflict+purely+among+Koreans++might+have+resolved+the+extraordinary+tensions+generated+by+colonialism,+national+division+and+foreign+intervention&source=bl&ots=7GcXcT3n2n&sig=HGA7wUHvb_ogbldGv3taXJGFvLs&hl=en&sa=X&ei=v_ASVIn_AcK58gWy3ICQDw&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=a%20civil%20conflict%20purely%20among%20Koreans%20%20might%20have%20resolved%20the%20extraordinary%20tensions%20generated%20by%20colonialism%2C%20national%20division%20and%20foreign%20intervention&f=false)
 Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun.
 Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun.
 See: Korea Policy Institute’s “The Case for a Peace Treaty to End the Korean War” (https://solidaritystorieskr.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/caseforapeacetreaty.pdf).
 The last time the US divulged that kind of information was due to Edward Snowden, and there’s a reason he’s still in Russia.
Interviewed by Dae-Han Song
Jejun Joo is the Policy Chair of the Korea Alliance of Progressive Movements (KAPM) and the People’s Action Against the War and the Realization of Peace. The KAPM is a broad alliance of sectoral (workers, peasants, women, students, and a political party) and regional social movements in South Korea and a leading alliance for peace and reunification in the Korean Peninsula. The People’s Action Against the War and the Realization of Peace is a coalition of social and civil society movements recently created to deal with the current war crisis in the Korean Peninsula.
The interview is meant to shed some light on the current conditions on the Korean Peninsula regarding peace as well as offer analysis and perspective from some of Korea’s leading peace and reunification social movements.
Dae-Han Song: Can you provide some background to the current state of affairs?
Jejun Joo: Sure, there have basically been five agreements since 1994 between the United States and North Korea, all of which the US has consistently reneged on. I think this is the way that North Korea understands the situation: We are no longer interested in dialogue for dialogue’s sake or dialogue as a stalling tactic [on the part of the United States]. It is within this context that North Korea has realized its nuclear capability. We can see this as the backdrop to our current situation. Without any genuine dialogue between North Korea and the US, there is a high chance that tensions will continue and might even escalate.
Dae-Han Song: Do you think that ultimately the US will recognize that reality?
Jejun Joo: I think it ultimately has no choice but to do so. One important point I want to emphasize is the April 11th announcement at the House of Reps. hearing by Rep. Doug Lamborn of the leaked Defense Intelligence Agency report.[i] In it, the Defense Intelligence Agency acknowledged the possibility that North Korea possessed the ability to arm its ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads.
Dae-Han Song: Can you talk about the chain of events that led to the current situation?
Jejun Joo: If we start from 1994,[ii] it will be too long and complicated, so let’s just start a little bit closer to today. Let’s start in 2009. In April 2009, North Korea launched a rocket to put a satellite into space. Then in May, it conduced its 2nd underground nuclear test. In response, former president Bill Clinton visited North Korea that August and came back with two American journalists that were being held in Pyongyang. This was followed by another vists by Special Envoy Stephen Bosworth in December. After the visit, Stephen Bosworth announced in a press conference in Seoul that North Korea would return to the 6 party talks. The six party negotiations concluded with the February 23 agreement. The mood for dialogue greatly improved.
In 2010, between February and March there were secret negotiations held between North Korea and the US in Berlin and in China. A peace regime was even brought up as a possible scenario. However, this was all shattered in March with the sinking of the Cheonan corvette in March 26th. The sinking of the Cheonan corvette is a great example of the US role in South Korea, and if we examine it closely we can discern its motivations in the Korean Peninsula.
Dae-Han Song: What do you mean?
Jejun Joo: South Korean authorities stated that the Cheonan corvette was sunk by North Korea. Only one other country in the world agreed with this conclusion: the United States. As a result of these conclusions, South Korea levied its May 24th sanctions against North Korea and the UN issued a presidential statement. However, if you take a close look at the UN statement, it does not state that the cause of the Cheonan corvette’s sinking was North Korea.[iii] It never mentions North Korea as the cause. In other words, the only two countries that accused North Korea of sinking the Cheonan corvette are South Korea and the US. Even Russia and China criticized this conclusion.[iv] Even now in South Korean society there are many doubts as to whether or not the Cheonan was sunk by North Korea. There are many inconsistencies and unanswered questions.[v] That is why Russia and China were unwilling to sign onto the final report. Only the US agreed to back the report. Why? Well, I believe that US interests in the Korean Peninsula can be found here.
The US strategy was as follows: with the Lee Administration’s May 24th measures halting inter-Korean economic cooperation in response to the sinking of the Cheonan corvette, the Lee Administration began to apply great pressure on North Korea. Furthermore, the USS George Washington aircraft carrier entered South Korea. As soon as the USS Washington entered South Korea, China strongly protested the move. This is because the USS Washington has a military operational radius of 1000 kilometers[vi] including a long-range surveillance radar. From the point of view of China, all of its strategic information about its North Sea fleet would have been exposed. As tensions rose, South Korea now also had to purchase stealth fighters and Apache helicopters from the large US military company Lockheed Martin. Through increased tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the US was able to sell weapons to South Korea[vii] and also finally announce its pivot to Asia strategy, ultimately meant to pressure China. Thus, we can see the reason why the US supported the South Korean government’s report accusing North Korea as attacking the Cheonan corvette.
The most important consequence of this final report was that it completely stopped the dialogue that had been happening since 2009. In this way, the US gained various benefits from increasing tensions in the Korean Peninsula. When tensions escalate, opposition towards and pressure against North Korea increases and then when the US takes actions to de-escalate, it appears as if it is taking positive steps towards easing tensions while further isolating North Korea.
Dae-Han Song: Can you briefly tell me about the Obama Administration’s policies towards North Korea?
Jejun Joo: Obama’s first term was about achieving denuclearization through face to face dialogue. In the beginning he had stated that the Bush Administration’s policy of pressuring North Korea had only driven it further into developing its nuclear weapons, and that his policy would be one of dialogue. However, as he became more embroiled with the Middle East crisis, he was unable to establish a real North Korea Policy. Ultimately, he adopted strategic patience. This strategic patience contained two components: isolating North Korea and refraining from dialogue. It is in reality a strategy of waiting for North Korea to collapse. In 2008, North Korean Chair of the National Defense Committee Kim Jong Il had a stroke, and the Obama Administration decided to wait until the Kim Government would collapse. This was the origin of strategic patience. However, strategic patience failed in 2009. There was the nuclear test and as I stated before, direct talks between North Korea and the US followed in 2010, 2011, and 2012 ending with the February 9 agreement. Through this process the Obama Administration gave up one of the elements of strategic patience by moving towards US-NK dialogue. This can be seen as Obama’s 2nd term strategy.
For his second term, Obama chose Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense and John Kerry as Secretary of State because they both were proponents of dialogue with North Korea. This did not mean that the Obama Administration gave up on its policy of isolating North Korea: provoking North Korea with its anti-North Korea policies facilitates North Korea’s greater international isolation. The US began to escalate tensions. It dispatched B2 fighters, with its countless bombs, the strategic B52 fighters, and a nuclear submarine to participate in the Key Resolve war games that took place from March 11 to 21 and then the following Foal Eagle war games. North Korea viewed these as provocations and stated that the US is not the only country that can launch a pre-emptive attack and threatened that a single order could launch a nuclear attack on the US mainland or its military bases in the South. In addition, similarly, the Park Administration ramped up its hostile rhetoric by stating the types of measures it would take if there was a hostage situation in the Gaesong Industrial Complex. Many viewed the Park Administration’s statements as being needlessly provocative towards North Korea.
Dae-Han Song: Before North Korea had stated that denuclearization was a possibility, yet now it has switched to a policy of wanting to be recognized as a nuclear power. What has changed?
Jejun Joo: As I’ve stated previously all of the five previous agreements have always been about establishing a peace regime, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, abolishment of hostile policy against North Korea, normalization of relations between North Korea and the US and through this process signing a peace treaty. After each of the negotiations, agreements were made, but then the US escalates tensions which collapses the agreement. Then, we have more negotiations followed again by the US escalating tensions. This is like a hamster running on a treadmill getting nowhere. North Korea looked at this and realized that they needed to extricate themselves out of a process leading nowhere. This was the reason why North Korea announced denuclearization was no longer possible. The nuclear test and the launching of the satellite can be understood within this new North Korean perspective. Negotiations will no longer be about denuclearization, but rather about halting further expansion of nuclear capabilities. In addition, now when the US turns up the heat on North Korea, North Korea too will be able to use inter-continental ballistic missiles and possibly its nuclear warheads to turn up the heat on the US.
Dae-Han Song: What does the US want? You said North Korea wants to normalize relations with the US and establish a peace treaty. Does the US not want this?
Jejun Joo: Strategic Patience is in reality an anti-North Korea policy: we will wait until you collapse. Like I stated before, tension in the Korean Peninsula provides benefits to the US. A peace treaty in the Korean Peninsula would not be able to provide such constant benefits. Thus, from the perspective of the US, a reasonable level of tension short of full scale war is beneficial. A resolution of tensions in the Korean Peninsula would mean disappearance of demand for their arms [by South Korea], and its Pivot to Asia strategy would no longer be possible. Checking China’s expansion may be the great underlying reason for the Pivot to Asia yet North Korea is used as its justification. That is why China is ultimately against this current state of tensions with North Korea.[viii]
Dae-Han Song: Just recently John Kerry stated that he was open to dialogue with North Korea. In addition, the Park Administration stated the same. However, North Korea called the proposals for talks “empty shells” and rejected the proposals. Can you talk about Kerry and Park’s proposals? Why did North Korea reject?
Jejun Joo: First of all, John Kerry and the Park Administration stated that the talks would have to involve denuclearization. Like I stated before, a dialogue with denuclearization in mind, from North Korea’s current point of view is not possible. North Korea stated that they will no longer denuclearize. Without the US accepting very concretely some of the demands of North Korea, such as abolishment of its anti-North Korea policy, the normalization of relations between North Korea and the US, and the establishment of peace regime negotiations dialogue will not be possible. We are talking about meeting some very strategic demands. There needs to be a promise that a process will be established for these. Similarly, North Korea also rejected Park’s offers for talk for the same reason.
However, ultimately time is on North Korea’s side. They can keep expanding and advancing their nuclear program. They will keep on enriching uranium, producing plutonium in large quantities, and upgrading and testing its missile technology.
Dae-Han Song: What is the path to peace?
Jejun Joo: There is only one way: peace dialogue between the US and North Korea, as I’ve stated again and again. North Korea has been showing its willingness to move towards a peace treaty. The armistice agreement must be turned into a peace treaty. Without that, the tensions on the Korean peninsula will persist. The peace process must involve US-North Korea dialogue.
Dae-Han Song: This is an important year with the 60th anniversary of the cease-fire. Can you talk briefly about some of the events planned by the Anti-War and Pro-Peace People’s Action?
Jejun Joo: First of all, in order to demand the de-escalation of tensions through dialogue, we are doing a signature collecting campaign calling for a peace treaty. We are also planning peace envoys to the US to deliver these signatures to the White House. In July, we planned an international march from Gangjeong village[ix] to Imjingak[x] calling for peace. We also held an international forum of academics and experts on the issue of peace in the Korean Peninsula. In order to strengthen international solidarity, we will have a discussion among activists from around the world on how to realize peace in the Korean Peninsula. The path towards a peace treaty won’t be an easy one. It will take some time including more moments of increased tensions. Slowly, we will build greater solidarity with peace organizations around the world in our path towards realizing peace.
[ii] The 1994 Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea marked the first agreement between both countries.
[v] The biggest unanswered question is how a North Korean submarine had entered and left undetected. When the Cheonan sunk, the US and South Korea were executing war military exercises in the West Sea (also referred to as the Yellow Sea), The Cheonan corvette was involved in these war games and its role was to detect submarines. Let’s take a closer look at the results of the investigation: a North Korea submarine carrying two 1.5 ton torpedoes went all the way around the Northern Limit Line…towards the three South Korean and US Aegis boats (Aegis boats are equipped with anti-submarine radar technology) and the Cheonan corvette which were participating in the annual military exercises in the West Sea. The report alleges that during this whole time as the North Korean submarine went around the NLL, it had remained undetected…the Aegis warships can detect substances 30 centimeters big from a distance of a thousand kilometers. It does not make sense that the US and South Korean Aegis ships surrounding the Cheonan corvette, which were equipped with the latest anti-submarine technology, would have been incapable of detecting a North Korean submarine at any point before or after the attack, especially as they were in the middle of military exercises. It also does not make sense that the Cheonan corvette with its anti-submarine functions would not have been able to detect the North Korean submarine. There are many other unanswered questions and inconsistencies.
[vi] A military operational radius implies that within this radius they can launch missiles and conduct surveillance.
[vii] “South Korea said on Wednesday it would buy attack helicopters worth 1.8 trillion won ($1.6 billion) from Boeing Co. to improve its ability to respond to threats from North Korea.”
[viii] With the new Xi Jinping government, China’s interests may appear to conflict with North Korea’s, yet ultimately as tensions escalate in Northeast Asia both sides’ interests cannot but converge. If tensions continue or escalate on the Korean Peninsula, it allows the US to increase its military presence and power in the region. Furthermore, even Japan, after North Korea’s 3rd nuclear test, is discussing nuclear armament. This is very distressing for China. Strategically, China does not want a continuation of tension.
[ix] A village in an island a few hundred miles from China, at the southernmost tip of the Korean Peninsula, where a naval base, which many believe will be used by the US military, is being built.
[x] Imjingak is directly south of the DMZ, the line that divides North and South Korea.
By Taryn Assaf
On Friday, July 26th 2013, the ISC team participated in the International Symposium on Concluding a Peace Treaty on the Korean Peninsula held at the Seoul Women’s Plaza, organized by the People’s Movement for Opposing War and Achieving Peace. The conference was attended by a number of scholars, journalists, politicians and activists from Korea, Canada, Japan, the United States and China, as well as a number of veterans of the Korean peace movement, some of whom had spent over 30 years as political prisoners. The conference addressed key issues on the topic of peace on the Peninsula and reunification of the two Koreas. Speakers investigated the “threat” of North Korea, obstacles to peace (including United States militarism and imperialism, state nationalism, and the relationships between the countries of Northeast Asia) and recommendations for peace (including reunification, normalization of relations between the two Koreas, denuclearization of Northeast Asia, and independence from the United States).
The special session, “US Hegemony and the Globalization of War” was presented by Michel Chossudovsky, a professor at
Ottawa University, an international authority on anti-globalization issues and leader in the pro-peace movement. His talk focused on the role of the US in blocking peace on the Korean Peninsula, arguing that the US has formed a neo-colonial relationship with South Korea through direct military control and indirect political control. He argued that the US-ROK alliance is not an alliance at all, rather, South Korea is under US military occupation. On the issue of denuclearization, Chossudovsky questioned “who the real threat is” to peace. He examined this in the context of North Korea’s relationship to the US, and concluded that the real threat is the US, who is unwilling to show any sort of reciprocity on the issue of nuclear disarmament. Faced with a hostile policy from the US — the number one global nuclear power with over 2000 deployed nuclear weapons currently targeted at various countries– Chossudovsky claimed that North Korea has good reason not to want to denuclearize, and that the US must take the first steps to denuclearization of the peninsula. Thus, an integral part of realizing peace on the Peninsula involves significant action on the part of the United States in ending its hostile policies and asymmetrical standpoint on the issue of nuclear disarmament toward North Korea. Chossudovsky further concluded that peace talks must encompass a repeal of the basic command structure of the military (in which the US military has de facto control of the Korean military), retreat of the 37,000 US troops in the South, and US nuclear disarmament- this would lead to military and economic liberation in the South and are preconditions for a peace treaty.
The speakers of the first session, “Ending the Armistice Agreement with a Peace Treaty in the Korean Peninsula”, included
Gregory Elich, author and anti-war activist from the United States; Lei Xiong, Professor at Tsinghua University, Peking University, and Renmin University of China (People’s University of China); Ryoichi Hattori, Member of Japan’s House of Representatives (Social Democratic Party); Gyungsoon Park, South Korean author and Vice-president of the Progressive Policy Research Institute; and Ik-pyo Hong, Member of the Republic of Korea’s National Assembly (Democratic Unified Party). Speakers analyzed the inter-relatedness of the countries in Northeast Asia and argued that a precondition for peace on the Korean Peninsula included improved relations between China, Japan and Korea and a nuclear free East Asia. For instance, Mr. Hattori spoke of the importance of a denuclearized Japan, stating that after World War 2, Japan reformed its constitution to give up wars and nuclear weapons forever. The Korean War, however, provided a reason for Japan to re-militarize and to be used as an anti-communist outpost for the US. Currently, the Abe government is seeking to repeal the anti-war and anti-nuclear weapons reforms and further re-militarize the country. He stated that no country can justify peace by militarism and that no peace can be achieved by the production of war machines, such as nuclear weapons. The re-nuclearization and re-militarization of Japan would thus be an obstacle to peace for the region. Speakers also investigated whether peace is possible without reunification, what the obstacles to this process include and how to best overcome them. Several speakers mentioned the value of creating a safe space for a grassroots path to peace pioneered by civic and citizens groups and the importance of protecting individual ideas from repression under the banners of nationalism and state.
The speakers of the second session, “Joint Action for Peace in Northeast Asia”, included Kenju Watanabe of Japan, President of the South Korea-Japan People’s Solidarity Network and permanent board member of the Japanese Committee for Asia-Africa People’s Solidarity; Tim Shorrock, an American author, journalist and member of the Working Group for Peace
and De-militarization in Asia-Pacific Region; Jejun Joo, Policy Chair of the Korea Alliance of Progressive Movements; and Byong-ryul Min, member of Unified Progressive Party’s supreme council and founding member of the Democratic Labor Party. This session addressed how concerted actions can promote peace in the region. For example, Tim Shorrock noted the large-scale ignorance of the United States public on the issue of peace and re-unification even among leading progressive groups. He urged those in attendance to help each other educate Americans about the truth of Korean history and current affairs as they relate to peace and reunification from a Korean perspective. He labeled this as a precondition for peace, stating that the fanaticism constructed by the American media toward North Korea prevents popular support for the country and, in the minds of Americans, legitimizes United States military presence in the South, further securing the US geopolitical agenda in the region. Increasing education would likely decrease the fanaticism directed towards the North among the American general public and would create international solidarity in Korea’s quest for peace and reunification. This session demonstrated that the task of establishing peace on the peninsula extends beyond the borders of Korea- it is an issue that affects the world over, especially one characterized by a globalized economy and increasing global relationships.
Peace in Korea and in Northeast Asia is a complicated issue involving many parties, many conditions and many potential obstacles. It may not be an issue quickly resolved, but it is encouraging and hopeful to know that so many people are aligned in its recognition and are so tirelessly working for its realization. Conferences such as these are necessary steps in initiating and engaging in constructive dialogue targeted towards constructive goals. These dialogues, actions and initiatives help to build solidarity in the cause and are integral to peace and reunification in Korea.