SEOUL, KOREA -The Asia Institute teamed up with the newly-established Arirang Institute to hold a seminar on February 14, 2014, at Korea University’s Graduate School of International Studieson the topic of “North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies.”
The expert-panel discussion, opened with cordial remarks from Korea University’s own Prof. Taehee Whang, and drew a standing-room crowd of concerned people from across Seoul, representing over 20 nationalities. Participating experts included Sokeel Park of LiNK (liberty in North Korea), Rev. Tim Peters of Helping Hands Korea, Matthew Reichel of the Pyongyang Project, and Retired General Sohn Changrae, Visiting Professor at the North Korea Studies University and long-time North Korea hand. The event served as a forum for an energetic, in-depth and, at times, heated discussion.
Emanuel Pastreich, Director of the Asia Institute, served as moderator, beginning with remarks about the profound geopolitical changes that will ineluctably change the situation in North Korea, and perhaps open up new possibilities for engagement. He suggested that desertification was a more serious threat than nuclear weapons, a point which resonated with many members of the audience in the post-debate discussion.
Pastreich was followed by Rev. Tim Peters, the Director of Helping Hands Korea, an NGO dedicated to helping refugees to escape from North Korea and find new futures. Rev. Peters stated that it is essential for both governments and civil society to use their resources as effectively as possible, and stated that all parties must consider the most appropriate level of engagement to achieve their goals when formulating policy. Championing a people-to-people engagement model for civil society, Rev. Peters presented a compelling argument for on-hands support, drawing attention to the tremendous sufferings of those who try to make their way out of North Korea through China, stressing the complete lack of rights in the face of tremendous abuses on the part of many North Korean citizens.
Sokeel Park, Director of Research at LiNK (Liberty in North Korea), spoke of his interactions with North Koreans, and the tremendous social changes that have recently been taking place inside the country. Delivering an informative and eloquent presentation, Mr. Park described LiNK’s core mission of empowering North Koreans through access to knowledge and technology, stressing that a grassroots-led ‘change from within’ initiative has the greatest potential to bring about a solution to the humanitarian crisis most peaceably. Moreover, Park emphasized that the issues faced by North Koreans should be viewed more broadly as ‘human issues’, and encouraged broader participation and activism to help support this cause.
The concrete professional experience of Ret. General Sohn Changrae offered insights of the long-term geopolitical interests of the great powers that inform inter-Korean relations. He suggested that North Korea has never been simply a Korean issue, and expressed his concerns that sections of the US military that support missile defense had been explicitly opposed to normalization with North Korea. He also stated that in over 200 trips to North Korea as a military officer charged with handling Pyongyang, he had found the North Koreans entirely capable of rational discussions.
Presentations were concluded by Mr. Matthew Reichel, founding partner of the Vancouver-based Pyongyang Project, who described how direct academic and cultural exchange programs can help build trust and understanding, and give a human face to an issue that is often shrouded in mystery. Civil society and business engagement, he argued, is essential to improving relations, and spoke of his own first hand experiences of building projects that enable participants to see beyond the over-simplified picture presented by the media, and develop their own understanding of North Korea through a process of mutual interaction.
Following first phase of proceedings, a lively debated ensued as the floor was opened to members of the audience. Marie-Pierre Baril of University of British Columbia in Canada, following up on the issues raised by Rev. Peters’ talk, drew attention to the lack of information on human rights abuses in North Korea available and described the serious challenges of gaining accurate information.
Michael Lammbrau, Seoul Bureau Representative of the Arirang Institute, wrapped up the discussion with some words about the power of social networks and the importance of the seminar. He stressed that it is not enough merely connect online, stating that individuals and groups need also to meet in person in order to build trust and understanding between diverse groups of individuals on controversial topics.