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Peace for Our Time

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By Adrian Hong

Recently, former President Kim Dae-Jung's "Peace Center" sponsored a special event in Seoul calling for democratization and freedom in Burma.

Kim made laudable demands on the Myanmarese (Burmese) junta: access by the U.N. and NGO representatives, credible aid distribution, freedom of political dissent and the basic protection of human rights and liberties.

And while Kim's voice for such ideals in Myanmar, formerly Burma, is certainly noteworthy, it reeks of great hypocrisy that a man who was in a position of tremendous influence over the future of North Korea and did nothing now purports to stand for freedom and justice elsewhere in the world.

From 1998 to 2003, Kim could have called for transparency of aid to North Korea. He could have called for reforms by North Korean officials in return for South Korean motions and gifts ― gifts that ranged from political concessions to outright cash.

He could have pressed to allow humanitarian organizations access to any of the nearly 50 counties North Korea has marked off-limits. Instead, under his leadership, South Korea transferred hundreds of millions of dollars in cash to the North Korean government for use as they saw fit, on top of regular shipments of aid.

None of the shipments were given with conditions of transparency or reciprocity. Much of this money was sent just ahead of Kim's much-vaunted (and Nobel-earning) "Peace Summit" with Kim Jong-il in 2000, an illicit process that ultimately brought senior officials under Kim Dae-jung's government under investigation.

He could have called for the closure of North Korea's concentration camps, and the release of a quarter-million prisoners currently sentenced to deadly terms of hard labor. In 2005, Shin Dong-hyuk managed escape from Political Camp No. 14. He had been born and raised in the camp, grew up witnessing public executions and rapes, and was tortured.

Other survivors testify of prison guards poisoning pregnant women and burying prisoners alive in mines, and the use of child labor to cut timber and dig mass graves. Kim's government not only failed to utter a single word about human rights conditions in the North, but also it actively worked against those activists, defectors, agencies and governments who sought to make an issue of it, for the sake of "dialogue."

Kim could have defended the rights of North Korean refugees, tens of thousands having crossed over to China, facing sex trafficking and exploitation. Many are repatriated to the North, sentenced to harsh interrogation, torture, and sometimes execution.

Instead, during his term, North Korean refugees on the run were routinely turned away from South Korean consulates and embassies throughout Asia, and on occasion reluctantly accepted, for fear of upsetting the North.

Days after receiving his Nobel Peace Prize in 2000, Kim Dae-jung held a press conference in Stockholm where he announced that "peace" took priority over human rights. You can call what Kim's plan accomplished for the two Koreas many things, but peace is not one of them. Stability and economic growth are inadequate substitutes for peace.

The Constitution of the Republic of Korea declares all those on the peninsula its citizens, including those in the North. When Kim calls for "peaceful coexistence" with North Korea, he is not issuing a trumpet call for the cessation of hostilities and steps toward reunification.

He is condemning the North Korean people to a life under a government that has proven repeatedly that they exist to exploit their people. He is calling for coexistence with oppression and injustice.

He is accepting the existence of concentration camps, public execution posts and political oppression on the Korean peninsula. He is, simply, telling the world that human rights and liberties are noble ideals to fight and die for everywhere, except in North Korea.

Kim presented a false choice: hard-line confrontation with the North, or appeasement and unconditional concessions under the guise of "engagement." Neither is the proper course. There is a strategy that has not been given a chance; friendly but firm engagement, aid, concessions and rapprochement balanced with strong benchmarks for human rights improvements and transparency in aid distribution.

Seeking reforms in the North does not make one an advocate of regime change. It simply states that North Korea cannot continue to torture its own citizens and expect legitimacy in the world.

While Kim is no longer in the Blue House, he can still contribute a great deal to the cause of human rights for his North Korean brothers and sisters.

He can call for live family reunions between the South and the North; for accountability in labor practices in the Gaeseong Industrial Complex; for nations that host North Korean laborers to ensure that their rights are respected. He can call upon China to provide amnesty to the thousands of stateless children, many of them orphans.

Most of all, he can use the platform afforded him by his Nobel Peace Prize to finally earn it. It is never too late to do the right thing.


Adrian Hong is executive director of Liberty in North Korea (LiNK). He can be reached at adrianh@linkglobal.org.





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