President George Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun met in Kyongju just prior to the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference. They toured the famous Bulguksa temple and its grounds while discussing options to deal with another part of Korea overrun by aberrant ideology: communist North Korea under dictator Kim Jong Il. That the two leaders seemed to come away from their bilateral meetings with a common cause was heartening for many observers. There have been serious issues between the Roh and Bush administrations, most centered around North Korea.
The rift between America and South Korea has been growing since 1997 when committed leftist Kim Dae Jung was elected to the presidency. Kim actively moved the government of South Korea away from open conflict with North Korea. Moreover, in a diplomatic maneuver called “duplicitous” by former National Security Advisor Richard Allen, Kim positioned South Korea between North Korea and the U.S. as a supposedly neutral broker between the two. After decades of standing shoulder to shoulder with South Korea against hostile forces, Kim betrayed that relationship by cozying up to the North.
It was revealed after Kim left office and his like-minded successor President Roh Moo Hyun took office, that massive corruption and bribery characterized the Kim presidency. In fact, upwards to $1.5 billion US dollars were funneled surreptitiously to North Korea by Kim in order to establish a pretense that his vaunted “Sunshine Policy” was working. While the move won Kim the Nobel Peace Prize (joining luminaries like Yassar Arafat and Jimmy Carter) his real legacy will be his craven approach to South-North relationships and his disgraceful venality. Kim was willing to sacrifice as many of his Northern brothers and sisters as necessary in order to make his own legacy a success. Like many who value legacy over morality and who lack courage to do the right thing, Kim’s memory is forever tarnished.
Unfortunately, Roh Moon Hyun is following in his predecessor’s footsteps. His administration may not be as crooked, although cursory contemporary investigations would lead us to think that corruption is pervasive. Nevertheless, Roh has vigorously pursued a policy of appeasement toward the North and consistently voiced veiled hostility and suspicion toward the US. That said, some of the actions of the Roh government have been supportive of US regional and international policy. The South Koreans have fielded a 3,300-man troop contingent that is serving in Iraq as part of the Coalition forces.
So while President Bush owed a thank you to Roh for his country’s support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Iraqi reconstruction, Bush would have been justified in pushing Roh toward a more moral position on North Korea. Bush was firm, as had been expected, about Kim Jong Il’s continued development of nuclear weapons. Under Bush and Clinton before him, U.S. policy has been set against a nuclear North Korea. However, the two American presidents adopted radically different policies toward achieving that goal.
As detailed in my book Separated at Birth, the North Korean nuclear issue has dominated regional relationships with North Korea since the late 1980s. The original dictator of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, had nuclear ambitions as early as the mid-1960s. In 1994 when it seemed as if the crisis would reach a flash point, former President Jimmy Carter, at the urging of then Vice President Al Gore, was given the green light to cut a desperate deal with North Korea (See also Ben Johnson’s recent reviews of Carter’s new book). For a decade afterwards the world was able to pretend that North Korea had ceased nuclear ambitions. However despite promises to the contrary, nuclear and missile research dominated Kim’s priority list. Meanwhile, food aid poured into the small country in unprecedented amounts.
While receiving unimaginable amounts of food aid, fuel oil, medicines, economic investment, and hard cash transfers, the Kim Jong Il regime diverted the aid to military and party pockets. Using starvation as civilian control measures, Kim cold-bloodedly allowed upwards of 3 million innocent North Korean citizens to starve. In a country of mass hunger, Kim directed that 25% of collective farmland be converted to opium poppy growth. Kim liked to manufacture heroin and sell it for scarce hard currency. He expanded the concentration camps to clamp down further on his restless population, and reacted hysterically to any refugees unlucky enough to be captured and returned to North Korea by China’s harsh forcible repatriation policy. Summary public executions became common, and have even made a special program on CNN that showed smuggled video of refugees being shot at the stake amidst a public poverty and squalor that defies description.
We know from credible sources that experimentation with poison gas is common in Kim’s prisons along with testing of poisons and biological warfare agents. We have documented stories of forcible abortion of pregnant women, persecution of Christians, and elimination of families down through three generations by a paranoid, self-absorbed dictatorship. In America last year, after months of hard work, primarily by members of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, especially Suzanne Scholte and Mariam Bell, Congress passed and the president signed the North Korea Human Rights Act. This is a remarkable act in that it acknowledges the horrible abuses of the Kim regime and that requires all negotiations and interactions with North Korea include demands of immediate reform.
For this reason, it is a continuing disappointment that discussions with North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia – all Six Party talk members – have failed to abide by both the spirit and letter of the new law. Even President Bush on this most recent Asia visit, at least according to preliminary reports, did not raise human rights issues along with the strategic arms limitations as is required. While we do not know for a fact that human rights in North Korea was not discussed, it is apparent that none of the covering media reported such discussions, nor were they mentioned in depth in any of the bilateral memoranda issuing from high level meetings.
While diplomats continue to posture and country leaders continue to maneuver, the people of North Korea continue to suffer. America leads the world in moral clarity and expressed values. In order to be true to that vision, we must speak for the people of North Korea until they are allowed to have their own voice.
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