Thinking the unthinkable on North Korea

Hyun Jin Preston Moon, left, founder and chairman of the Washington D.C.-based non-profit group Global Peace Foundation, and his wife Jun Sook Moon, clap during the International Forum on One Korea 2022 held at Fairmont Ambassador Hotel in Yeoido, Seoul, on Saturday. Courtesy of Global Peace Foundation

'Change is bound to come. We just don't know when, or in what form it will happen,' says expert

By Kang Hyun-kyung

The unification of the two Koreas seems to be one of the least likely things to happen any time soon, particularly now when inter-Korean relations have become more confrontational and volatile than ever before. There have been few signs of improvement in South-North relations since conservative President Yoon Suk-yeol was inaugurated on May 10.

Unlike his predecessor, Moon Jae-in, who sought peace and sustainable inter-Korean relations and tried to curry favor with the North when the reclusive nation relied on a brinkmanship diplomacy, Yoon is a hardliner showing no appetite for conciliatory gestures. Analysts say that North Korea could be preparing for another nuclear test, following the test-firing of missiles with advanced technology despite international condemnation. This situation is yet more evidence showing the current state of inter-Korean relations.

Amid the prevailing pessimistic views about North Korea, among Korea observers, some have begun to think the unthinkable: the prospect of a unified, peaceful Korea. Their optimism ― if not confidence ― about a shared future for the two Koreas is based on the rational belief that there are several different ways to achieve unification. One of them is the mutual agreement of the two Koreas on such unification.

On top of dialogue and talks, retired Col. David Maxwell said there are three other paths to unification ― namely war, regime change and regime collapse ― stressing that peaceful unification is the most complex and difficult path to unify the two Koreas and "possibly the least likely one to occur because Kim Jong-un is unlikely to ever go quietly into the night."

"But it is the morally right path because we must seek to do it as peacefully as possible," Maxwell said during a speech to the International Forum on One Korea 2022 held at the Fairmont Ambassador Hotel in Seoul on Aug. 13 and 14. "However, even if war or regime collapse occurs, all the work done for peaceful planning will still have applicability in the unification process. Regardless of the path taken, planning for peaceful unification planning will provide the foundation for a free and unified Korea."

Maxwell is one of the dozens of experts who gathered in Seoul during the weekend to figure out ways to "make the impossible possible," as he put it. Also joining the two-day international forum were lawmakers, think tank experts, human rights activists and academics.

Also a senior fellow of the Washington D.C-based think tank, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Maxwell called for the active role of civil society, together with the governments of South Korea and the U.S., to make peace on the Korean Peninsula happen.

"I recommend the formation of civil society task forces that are willing to support the goal of a free and unified Korea," he said. "There is much work that can be done in long-term preparation for the future: humanitarian assistance, education, economic engagement, infrastructure development, political process integration and communications, just to name a few areas for consideration."

Maxwell argued that unification costs could become manageable if civil society around the world is willing to step up and show their support for the Korean people.

Retired Col. David Maxwell, senior fellow at the non-profit group Foundation for Defense of Democracies, gives a speech during the opening session of the Interntional Forum on One Korea 2022 at Fairmont Ambassador Hotel in Seoul on Saturday. Courtesy of Global Peace Foundation

During the two-day event, professionals in three areas of specialization ― peace and security, the economy and human rights ― shared their thoughts and insights into the reclusive state in order to find a constructive way to build peace in East Asia.

Park Ji-hyun, a North Korean defector-turned-human rights activist based in the United Kingdom, addressed human trafficking and modern-day slavery as two of the most acute problems in the North and called for international action to stop them.

In North Korea, she said, "the state is driving its citizens into human trafficking and forced labor," adding that "types of forced labor include forced child labor, illegal recruitment and the deployment of child soldiers."

Park, human rights research manager at the U.K.-based non-profit group, Slavefreetrade, mentioned the prevalence of state-sponsored sex crimes in the North, saying, "The North Korean government welcomes women over the age of 17 with joy by raping them, forcing them to dance and sing in front of them, and commits sexual violence against women without hesitation."

Among others, she underscored information as one of the most important tools that could transform North Korea's younger generations into agents of change to stand up against the repressive Kim Jong-un regime.

"Younger generations who have escaped North Korea have focused much more on defending themselves for (the goal of) freedom than (escaping from) economic hardship," she said. "For those who have hope of freedom and to live their dreams, they say that the collapse of North Korea should be focused and changed through internal forces rather than external forces."

For decades, information has been touted as one of the most effective ways to change the North. Many are convinced that the infiltration of outside information could help the North Korean public realize that they have been deceived and brainwashed by the North Korean authorities and encourage them to launch a grassroots movement to stand up against the dictatorship. This kind of thinking has emboldened some activists, and they have sent leaflets to educate North Koreans about the Kim dynasty, their decades of dictatorship and human rights abuses, despite death threats from the North Korean regime.

Although information can be effective, some claim that its role has been overstated. These skeptics say that knowing is one thing and performing collective action to break the miserable status quo is another. In a country like North Korea, in which its leader makes use of the politics of fear and brutally cracks down on any kind of anti-government activities, the naysayers say organizing anti-government rallies or protests is something unthinkable.

Jagannath Panda, head of the Stockholm Center for South Asian and Indo-Pacific Affairs, speaks at the Peace and Security session of the One Korea forum held at Fairmont Ambassador Hotel in Seoul, Saturday. Courtesy of Global Peace Foundation

Hyun Jin Preston Moon, founder and chairman of the U.S.-based group, Global Peace Foundation, however, believes in the potential of information, noting that North Koreans today are not the same as those of the past.

The origin of his confidence about North Korea having changed is the younger generations, particularly those who are called "the Jangmadang generation," people who were raised when informal markets began to thrive in North Korea, following the great famine in the mid-1990s.

"People in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea no longer live in a cocoon with no information from the world outside. The current generation of North Koreans has experienced the freedom of enterprise and choice ― however restricted ― offered by the jangmadang informal markets," he said during a keynote speech to the forum. "They watch TV dramas from China and South Korea and do not accept the propaganda that, however harsh their lives might be," he said. "The regime fears the confluence of a more informed, less unconditionally loyal population, with greater hardships."

When loyalty is replaced by fear and the general population suffers increasing hardships, he said, the situation becomes unsustainable. "Change is bound to come. We just don't know when, or in what form it will happen."

The annual One Korea Forum hosted by Global Peace Foundation wrapped up on Sunday.

Audience listen during the One Korea forum at Fairmont Ambassador Hotel in Seoul on Saturday. Courtesy of Global Peace Foundation
Kang Hyun-kyung

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