“Prospects for Change in North Korea”: Event Review

Event details

“Prospects for Change in North Korea”
House of Lords, Committee Room 4A
2014.06.18
Lord Alton of Liverpool (David Alton)
Hosted by the Centre for Opposition Studies
Open to the public

Overview

Lord Alton began by admonishing the impotence on the international community which has so far failed to act in any meaningful way on North Korea’s gross human rights violations, which were passionately enumerated in his powerpoint slide show. Memories of the Holocaust were evoked. American civil rights activists were quoted. We were reminded of the evils of [Soviet] communism, and the BBC was exalted as a beacon of hope for those trapped within the oppressive regime—a regime, we are told, which is comparable to present-day North Korea. Just as Soviet Ukrainians and Jews hoped for the collapse of that hellish communist command, so too the North Koreans hope and pray for change (apparently actioned by a benign external arbitrator). “In defeating communism we did so with wisdom and strength”, Alton clumsily asserted, and Kim Jong-un’s North Korean regime no doubt requires the same Manichaen treatment.

To his credit, Lord Alton offered a list of actionable items which would allegedly create an environment for the DPRK state to redeem its human rights record. This included: formalizing diplomatic relations between the US and DPRK, and ROK and DPRK; diplomatically engaging with the DPRK; protesting human rights abuses and promoting human rights initiatives; breaking the information blockade; encouraging peace talks in Beijing and Seoul; informing ourselves about the human rights situation in the North Korea; and “building bridges” where we can.

He concluded that, after a long history of human rights abuses, the North needs a face-saving strategy: that the regime will not last for long unless it pursues peace and advances rights.

Review

I’ve very much enjoyed going to the Palace of Westminster for these DPRK events, though I’m sorry to say that the setting was far and away the most satisfying aspect of this talk.

The Lord’s Cold War perspective came across as foolishly triumphant and hopelessly outdated. The notion that North Korea needs “saving” by a benign Western allied force is patronizing and othering on top of being unhelpful. Grand narratives (“good capitalism defeated evil communism”) and reductive binaries (good/evil, us/them) demonstrate a clear misunderstanding of a very complex problem.

Alton seemed unaware of the numerous failed attempts at regional peace talks, and the work of human rights organizations already considering this issue. The idea that North Koreans could be empowered to change their system of government—rather than change being imposed upon them externally—completely passed him by.

Finally he failed to appreciate that—moral responsibilities aside—the DPRK’s neighbors are keen to preserve the status quo for the sake of regional stability.

The most interesting bit of the talk was when Alton alluded to potentially creating a DPRK government in exile headed by North Korean refugees in the South, but he did not elaborate on this.

A few minor but nonetheless insufferable points:

The lives of some one thousand fallen British soldiers in the Korean War were tastelessly given prominence over the several hundred thousand Korean dead, the victims of the 1990s famine, DPRK refugees, and those still-living in the North.

There was an unfortunate focus on the prosecution of people practicing Christianity—excluding that of the more commonly practiced Korean Shamanism (16%), Cheondoism (13.5%), or Buddhism (4.5%)—a thinly-veiled attempt at engaging his religious peers and/or appealing to a constituency which can’t empathize in the absence of religious commonality.

There was also one Churchill quote, which is one too many.

That Lord Alton is the Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on North Korea worries me. He is obviously passionate about ending the suffering of North Koreans, but his failure to acknowledge complexity coupled with his apparent “white man’s burden” does not bode well for the DPRK’s “prospects for change”.

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