The Way Toward Change in North Korea

The North Korean state has been constructed on the ideology of juche — total self reliance: “Man is the master of everything and decides everything.” And, in the heart of Pyongyang, on the banks of the city’s Taedong River, opposite Kim Il-sung Square, stands the Juche Tower. Completed in 1982, to celebrate Kim Il-sung’s 70th birthday, at 558 feet the tower stands marginally taller than the Washington Monument, on which is appears to be modeled.

Last week, during my third visit to North Korea, I was taken to see the tower. Perhaps symbolizing both the condition of North Korea’s economy, and its desperate need for more than self-reliance, my embarrassed guide explained that we could not ascend, as debris was falling from within, onto the elevator. The situation, he explained, was very dangerous — it seemed an appropriately graphic metaphor.

No nation wants to be in thrall to others, especially one that experienced half a century of Japanese occupation But isolation has not served North Korea well.

Beyond the sloganeering rhetoric and braggadocio is a nation that senses change in the air. The Soviet model is discredited; the country’s powerful neighbor, China, is in the throes of a liberalizing revolution; and North Koreans know that self-reliance will not be enough.

Senior officials, including the chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly, Choe Thae Bok, insisted to me that over the next two years the new priorities will be “prosperity and dignity,” with a “unified, denuclearized Korea” as their first objective.

The West should listen carefully and respond appropriately. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.

This year is the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, which killed an estimated 2 million Koreans, almost 38,000 American and U.N. soldiers, and 600,000 Chinese. Since the 1953 armistice there have been intermittent spats and skirmishes — some, like the sinking in March of the South Korean vessel, Cheonan, with loss of life; others, like the shots fired across the border last week, bellicose saber-rattling.

For nearly 60 years there has been neither war nor peace — merely a shaky armistice. The United States has no diplomatic presence, although Britain opened an embassy a decade ago.

A new peace conference, perhaps jointly convened by Switzerland and Britain and held in Beijing, could enable the North and South to conclude a formal peace treaty. This would put new life into the six-party talks on denuclearization.

Throughout the Cold War, the West countered Soviet aggression with formidable defenses. Simultaneously, through the Helsinki Process, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan elevated discourse on human rights. Through engagement they encouraged economic and political reform. Today on the Korean Peninsula we need Helsinki, with a Korean face.

Over the past seven years I have continually raised the issues of political and religious freedom and human rights with the North Koreans. Last week, I once again urged them to address widespread concerns over public executions, torture, child labor, trafficking of women, and religious persecution. Their response, of course, was to deny the very existence of prison camps and the associated violations, but at least they heard the concerns and can have no doubt about international opinion. I left them copies of U.N. and Human Rights Watch reports, urged them to open their prisons to international monitors and to invite the new special rapporteur for human rights in North Korea, the former Indonesian Attorney General Marzuki Darusman, to visit the country. They refused to cooperate with his predecessor; now they have an opportunity to start afresh.

Without a Helsinki-style approach there will be no progress, whereas attempting to talk stands a chance of sowing some seeds of change.

I have witnessed some modest developments. According to the United Nations, about 300,000 people languish in North Korean prison camps, many because of their religious convictions. Yet, despite persecution, Korean Christians are in the vanguard of engagement. One example of this is the new Pyongyang University of Science and Technology established by Dr. James Chin Kyung Kim, a Korean-American entrepreneur who fought the North as a teenage soldier, and later vowed to work for peace and reconciliation. The university is the country’s first privately funded international institution, with staff members drawn from Europe, China and North America. Men like James Kim represent the way in which North Korean citizens can engage in our global society and help their country move on.

There is no alternative. To ignore a crumbling structure — as the debris falling from within the Juche Tower illustrates, is to create an even more dangerous situation.

Lord David Alton, a life peer of the House of Lords and chairman of the British-North Korea Parliamentary Committee.