Reimagining the Korean peninsula

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Photos by JESSIE LAU 

By SEUNGWOO BAEK

InDepth (Interrogating Notions of Development and Progress) Korea 2014 Conference on March 21 concluded two days of intense discussions that explored novel avenues of engagement with the totalitarian regime of North Korea, analyzed its provocative military aggression, looked at the plight of North Korean refugees and examined the whole Korean peninsula’s current foreign policy, with an eye towards the future.

The University of Toronto student-run conference brought together academics, humanitarian NGOs, and students alike to talk on topics ranging from the roles of non-state actors on inter-state agendas to a re-conceptualization of the Korean peninsula.

Korea-Canada bilateral relation has seen numerous media permutations in recent memory – from Psy’s breakout hit “Gangnam Style” to a free trade agreement that marked not only eight years of on-again, off-again negotiations, but also of Canada’s first-ever free trade foray into the Asia Pacific region, and ultimately, the Korean peninsula and its political geography.

But the overwhelming focus has been developments that stood astride nation-state oriented approaches to issues involving the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea).

The conference, organized by a team of U of T undergraduate students under the helm of co-presidents, Jungik (James) Moon and Justin Patrick Kwan, trained its sights on “greater articulation of the roles of non-state actors and grassroots agents,”  and proved itself to be a forum of robust dialogue and critical engagement on politically charged topics, all the while drawing attendees that ranged in their official capacity and interest—from professional to personal – simply, “because I am Korean.”

Queens, McMaster and McGill universities’ graduate studies were also represented by a number of students attending.

In his opening remark, Marius Grinius, former Canadian ambassador to the Republic of Korea (2004) and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (2005), turned a critical eye on the doctrine of “controlled engagement,” Canada’s current foreign policy towards North Korea, developed in 2011 by the Harper government. The policy has had the effect of severing diplomatic ties with North Korea entirely and has the potential risk of turning Canada into “a marginal player at best on North Korean file, and is in further danger of becoming a non-player,” said Grinius, who is also Canada’s permanent representative to the Office of the United Nations and to the United Nations Conference on Disarmament.

Canada must address this inter-state silence, said Grinius, suggesting that it send regular official missions to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. Grinius underscored the importance of maintaining a delicate balance between economic interest and security politics, saying, “In order to have South Korea, [which Canada maintains economic ties with], you have to be in North Korea.”

‘Trust, but verify’

Grinius began his speech by saying that predicting the future of the Korean peninsula is  not only “a bit presumptuous,” but ultimately, an exercise in futility.

Much of his speech gave the audience – who were to spend the next two days intensely debating about the concerns and fate of the peninsula – a concise primer on the political history of the now divided peninsula, and the two countries’ differing historical trajectories leading up to the present. In his characterization of South Korea, he discussed the student movements and the weather-worn battle of the 1980s that ushered in democracy and where, today, the ideals of the rule of law and human rights are “arguably not perfect, but well-entrenched.”

His first-hand account of North Korean socio-political landscape was less than optimistic however.  The North Korean dictatorship is enough to “make Stalin jealous” and is “reminiscent of the Brave New World,” said Grinius, recounting incidents of duplicity, censorship, and less than honest translations by the North Korean interpreters, who often redacted the conversation.  He recalled an anecdote that revealed the depth and severity of the information blackout in the so-called “hermit kingdom”: a North Korean official had asked him what life was like in Seoul and when Grinius responded that his biggest complaint was the interminable traffic jam resulting from the fact that everyone seems to own a car, the official was extremely surprised.

Grinius made several references to the Soviet Union and Stalin’s dictatorial history, but even then, he noted that “even in the darkest times, the Soviet Union allowed for exchanges between families, even my family,” unlike North Korea, which has cut off communication between families separated at the 38th parallel.

He also discussed South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s much-touted trustpolitik and the way in which this latest iteration of South Korean policy of engagement with the North had to be tamped with “trust, but verify,” an old Russian proverb often quoted by former US President Ronald Reagan.

China, as one of the major state players in the region, has been a “strategic thinker” capable of weighing the benefits of having a strong economic ally and partner in a unified (or at least more stable) Korean peninsula, Grinius added.

Ginius ended his remarks on a hopeful note, citing the experience of the once divided Socialist Republic of Vietnam. “Ultimately, things change,” he said.

Are we ready for a North Korean collapse?’

The conference panel discussion saw academia, legal aid perspective and journalistic experiences coming together to consider the unexplored side of North Korea.

Jack Kim, founder and former executive director of HanVoice, the largest North Korean human rights and refugees advocacy group in Canada, discussed the need to create a robust support network and culture of understanding and greater awareness of the refugee problem.

The statistics are startling: 75 per cent of North Korean refugees suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and with a lack of transferable skills in the South Korean and overseas job markets, they often face a bleak future, said Kim. And, yet, “No one is talking about what would happen if reunification does occur,” he said. “Are we ready for [a] North Korean collapse?

There are 25,000 refugees in South Korea; the biggest push came in mid-1990s with the great famine that resulted in the reported death of about 600,000 to a million North Koreans.

Since then, a fairly well-established network of Chinese brokers and Christian missionaries have been smuggling North Korean hopefuls out across the Yalu and Imrok River and into China. However, this number of refugees has not warranted South Korean engagement with the refugee problem to the degree that necessitates it, said Kim. Many refugees find that the South Korean public are ill-informed or even uninterested in the North Korean situation, and this lack of knowledge and prejudiced perception has led to severe integration problem for many refugees. This raises further question as to how well would Canadian North Korean refugees would be in their attempts at integration, said Kim.

Professor Michael Robinson of Indiana University underscored the importance of negotiating a common historical narrative between North and South Korea as the reunification process gains momentum.

He illustrated how conflicting, and oftentimes vitriolic, national narratives have led to fissures in diplomatic relations by citing of Korea-Japan-China relations versus Japanese colonization, as well as the good example between post-WWII France and Germany. While the Japanese colonial legacy still reels in the throes of contentious politics around apology, truth-claiming, and calls for state acceptance and recognition of historical atrocities, Robinson pointed to postwar Europe, which saw France and Germany coming together to create a single history textbook for their students. Both North and South Korea are locked in a mud-slinging and wide-sweeping propaganda-driven education.  Much of South Korean democracy has been awash with “red-scare” akin to McCarthyism, where critics can be routinely dismissed as “commies” or “communist sympathizers.”

Many narratives arise from the nascent problem of conflicting ideological needs. In this case, the need to embrace Korea’s northern “brothers and sisters” and wrest its people from dictatorial regimes have led to quite uneasy messages of “we must reunify” that come from either a place of hatred or love, but ultimately, ignorance. This has given rise to generation after generation of students having to grapple with navigating the difficult terrain of love and hate.

Kwang-Kyun Chung, Consul General of the Republic of Korea in Toronto, who delivered the conference closing remarks, emphasized that the trust-building process should aim towards “mutually acceptable steps that increase the confidence building.”

He cited, as a sign of renewed diplomatic relations between the North and South, the family reunification project that re-opened the doors at Mt. Geumgang [aka as Mount Kumgang] for the first time in three years last February.

Mr. Chung also focused on the recent FTA deal struck between Canada and South Korea. He mentioned the “Miracle of Hanggang (Han River),” and posited that the rapid economic resurgence of South Korea was due to “the aid of the international community, including Canada.”

His benign closing remarks about “writing a new chapter under the leadership of President Park Geunhye,” was a rather disappointing end to what had been a robust dialogue. But his last words did leave some questions as to how two-days’ worth of revelations and information sharing could translate into a re-shaping of policy, away from inter-state agenda.

The two co-presidents, when asked about the biggest boon that they took from the conference, said that they were glad to have initiated conversations that would, hopefully, lead to more public engagement with issues surrounding six decades of conflict between South and North Korea.

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