In an April 27 interview, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made plain that a denuclearized Korean Peninsula was the Trump administration’s only goal. Tillerson also clarified that Trump isn’t interested in human rights, nor the anguished yearning of millions of Koreans for a reunified Peninsula.
He declared, “We have been very clear as to what our objectives are. And equally clear what our objectives are not. And we do not seek regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula. We seek a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.”
Unification is a humanitarian imperative -- and a matter of justice -- of the gravest and most fundamental urgency. This is incontrovertible. Consider the hundreds of thousands of innocents and child slaves subject to unspeakable brutality, mass atrocities and state-enforced starvation in the North’s prison camps. Or the countless thousands of Korean refugees inhumanly sex trafficked in China without legal protection of any kind, and the perils their stateless children are confronted by daily. On top of that, there are the millions of families who have for decades been tearfully awaiting a “miracle” so they could somehow meet after forcibly separated.
Moreover, the division of Korea was an international crime. At some juncture -- sooner rather than later, to defend against chances of said injustice becoming irretrievably abstract by the passage of time and further upheaval -- there should be significant redress for the heinous misdeed.
As Gregory Henderson noted in a 1971 volume titled Conflict in World Politics: “... it is hard to think of a more homogeneous national or cultural entity anywhere than the Korean Peninsula; no other has been divided with a more mindless artificiality by purely external powers; in none are communications so utterly ruptured or conflict positions more implacable.”
Speaking to State Department staff, Tillerson stressed, “Our values around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated ... those are not our policies.”
The JoongAng Ilbo observed he is “suggesting that the US could compromise with states or leaders accused of violating human rights and freedom if they help US national interests.”
The courageous testimony of Lim Hye-jin -- a one-time North Korean prison camp guard -- was published recently. At the age of 17, Lim was assigned to work at the terrifying post, which she managed to endure for seven years. She disclosed that guards were “manipulated not to feel any sympathy for prisoners,” although today she knows those routinely tortured, raped and murdered were normal people, and feels profound remorse for what occurred.
Among the ferociously oppressed were North Korean officials who lost the genocidal leader’s favor. She spoke of two brothers who escaped the camp but were captured -- they were publicly beheaded to halt others who were starved and enslaved from daring to attempt to leave. “The other prisoners then had to throw stones at them,” she recalled, and was not able to eat for days after witnessing the atrocity.
Innocents -- countless thousands of them children -- are being brutalized as a matter of course, labeled “enemies of the state.” She witnessed one woman stripped and burned for “annoying a guard.”
“They do not see them as human beings. ... All the bodies were piled up to one side. There was no respect, no funeral process. After a week the corpses would be burned,” Lim revealed.
Another former guard, Ahn Myung-chul -- whose mother and sister are now political prisoners -- explained: “Those who die are the lucky ones. This is modern-day slavery, torturing people over decades.”
Lim, who defected 15 years ago after becoming the victim of egregious human rights crimes herself, confessed, “I feel so betrayed by leaders who lied to us. We were told not to see these people as humans. Now I feel traumatized.”
I’ve come to the onerous determination that many of these guards are comparable to child soldiers. They have virtually no freedom of decision, no access to factual information about the world or humanitarian principles and are subjugated by some of the world’s most savage and unfeeling indoctrination methods from birth -- in itself a severe human rights violation, namely, interdicting the right to freedom of conscience. They suffer murderous violence themselves if they attempt to resist.
Thus the primary onus for all crimes committed in the North is on the Kim dynasty -- the architects and sole beneficiaries of such a truly Nazi-like system, where none can claim freedom.
UNICEF describes the plight of child soldiers as such, “Children who have grown up surrounded by violence see this as a permanent way of life. ... At a more basic level, joining an army may also be the only way to survive. ... Once recruited, children undergo varying degrees of indoctrination, often verging on the brutal.”
The parallels here with the experiences of some North Korean perpetrators -- who were all once children and developed within such an environment -- are striking.
Kang Cheol-hwan, author of “The Aquariums of Pyongyang,” prominent activist and a former child prisoner at the Yodok political prison camp, has become close friends with Ahn, the former guard. He stated to Al Jazeera in 2015, “Like in the Nazi concentration camps, sometimes people are forced to do things that they don’t want to do under intense situations. I felt it was not his fault. I did not see him as someone I needed to distance myself from.”
In an April 6 commentary for US News and World Report, Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, outlined five “dead-ends for American diplomacy” alongside an “opportunity worth pursuing” -- amnesty for North Korea’s elites and unification.
The “dead-ends” summarized what is normally being discussed vis-a-vis Kim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons program -- sanctions, pressuring China, etc.
The “opportunity worth pursuing”: “[Trump] could encourage Seoul to propose favorable terms for Korean reunification ... negotiating a peaceful end to the 60-year-standoff on the peninsula. Most North Korean elites would not face poverty, prison or severe marginalization along the lines of the disastrous US de-Baathification of Iraq, but rather be promised a generous, East-German-style reunification deal ... for Trump, proposing a deal that gives the North Korean elite an alternative to its murderous and unstable leader could be the safest and most realistic way to sheath North Korean nuclear weapons and safeguard the American people.”
Such an amnesty initiative is “safest” and “most realistic” not only for the security of the American people. A tailor-made amnesty program -- mindful of North Korea’s human rights catastrophe -- would facilitate unprecedented strategic openings to ameliorate the suffering of North Koreans. We could dismantle the camps and preserve the lives of political prisoners by making amnesty contingent upon the verifiable freeing of all political prisoners and cessation of human rights violations -- side-by-side with the prerequisite opposition to the person of Kim Jong-un.
South Korea and the world should propose amnesty and a fresh start within a reunified Korea for all those who refuse Kim’s command. This overture should be conveyed via leaflets throughout North Korea -- including over every prison camp -- dropped by drones and balloon launches, proclaimed through radio broadcast, cellphone communications, smuggled literature and media, to North Korean diplomats and “employees” internationally and through every available channel.
Ousting this single creature, Kim Jong-un -- against the backdrop of an otherwise peaceful reunification -- would be an exceedingly appealing outcome for the vast majority within North Korea. It also wouldn’t be as difficult an undertaking as most may be inclined to believe.By Robert Park
Robert Park is a founding member of the nonpartisan Worldwide Coalition to Stop Genocide in North Korea, minister, musician and former prisoner of conscience. -- Ed.