Will Pope Francis address North Korean atrocities?

Pope Francis leaves on Wednesday for five days in South Korea, his first outing to Asia. The pontiff is scheduled to meet government leaders and to take part in an Asian Catholic youth festival, beatify a group of Korean martyrs from the 18th and 19th centuries, and also meet family members of victims of the recent Sewol shipwreck that claimed more than 300 lives, and will lay out a role for the church’s mission in Asia in a speech to bishops from the continent.

The outing poses challenges to Francis the peacemaker on multiple levels. First is the division of Korea itself. Francis will try to send signals of openness across the DMZ that separates the peninsula, without provoking the North Korean regime. He’ll want to promote reconciliation but can’t afford to turn a blind eye to the problems in the north, including an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 believed to languish in forced labor camps.

There’s no indication Francis will spring another surprise by inviting leaders of the two Koreas to join him for a peace prayer in the Vatican, as he did with the Israelis and Palestinians while visiting the Middle East in late May. North Korea has spurned an invitation to send a delegation to an August 18 papal Mass in Seoul.

In addition to the North Koreans, Francis will be speaking to another party that won’t be physically present but will certainly be listening: China, especially President Xi Jinping, with whom Francis has already had backdoor contact. China is one of just a handful of nations without diplomatic relations with the Vatican.  The Vatican wants to improve the lot of China’s roughly 13 million Catholics, many of whom are compelled to practice their faith underground.

Francis is certainly conscious that martyrdom is very much with us in the here and now. For one thing, he can’t ignore the fact that just across the DMZ to the north, Christians face a systematic form of persecution that’s arguably the most grotesque anywhere in the world. Since the armistice in 1953 that stabilized the division of the peninsula, some 300,000 Christians in North Korea have simply disappeared and are presumed dead.

The anti-Christian animus in North Korea is so strong that even people with Christian grandparents are frozen out of the most important jobs — a grand irony, given that founder Kim Il Sung’s mother was a Presbyterian deaconess.

It would be odd indeed if Francis were to celebrate the memories of martyrs from three centuries ago without at least acknowledging the reality that many Koreans today are paying a similar price. Figuring out how to do that in a way that doesn’t anger the North Koreans, potentially making life even more difficult for Christians, will be among the pontiff’s stiffest challenges.

[Boston Globe

Has Washington kept South Korea welfare dependent?

From a Forbes opinion piece by Doug Bandow:

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is angry with the U.S. again, citing all manner of crimes and misdemeanors.  To emphasize its point the DPRK is prosecuting two Americans currently held in the North for “hostile” behavior. [Additionally, another American]  Kenneth Bae is serving a prison term, apparently for promoting Christianity while visiting.  Pyongyang has been using them as bargaining chips in an attempt to get America’s attention.

Why is North Korea worried about Washington?  Because the U.S. military remains deployed in the South 61 years after the end of the Korean War.  Washington has turned the otherwise successful Republic of Korea into an international welfare queen, apparently forever stuck on the U.S. defense dole.

Last week North Korea’s deputy UN ambassador, Ri Tong-il, gave a press conference denouncing Washington in florid terms.  U.S. behavior “is reminding us of the historical lasting symptoms of a mentally retarded patient,” said Ambassador Ri.

His list of grievances was long [including] that Washington was sabotaging improved inter-Korean relations and ignoring Pyongyang’s proposals for reducing tensions on the peninsula. Although it’s tempting to dismiss Ambassador Ri’s dyspeptic remarks, he made a legitimate point when justifying his nation’s nuclear program:  “No country in the world has been living like the DPRK, under serious threats to its existence, sovereignty, survival.”  There is much not to like about North Korea, but even paranoids have enemies.

In any war the North would face South Korea, which has vastly outstripped Pyongyang on virtually every measure of national power, and the U.S., the globe’s superpower.  East Asia is filled with additional American allies, while the North’s Cold War partners, Moscow and Beijing, have drifted away and almost certainly wouldn’t help in a conflict.

Which raises the question:  just what is America doing with troops on the Korean peninsula?

Today the ROK leads the North on most measures of national power.  The former has 40 times the GDP, twice the population, all the new technologies, the most important allies, access to international markets, and a system legitimized by elections and popular consent.  This is precisely the development the American defense shield was supposed to enable.

The politics of Beijing’s impatience with North Korea

Senior officials from China and South Korea will hold talks over the coming days to boost their cooperation on regional security, following a landmark visit to Seoul by President Xi Jinping. Xi’s visit indicated Beijing was shifting its attention from North Korea to the South as the Chinese president broke a tradition of his predecessors by not visiting Pyongyang first on an official visit to the Korean peninsula.

There have been no top-level visits between Beijing and Pyongyang since Kim Jong-un assumed power in 2012. Xi’s trip to Seoul is being interpreted as a sign of Beijing’s growing frustration with the volatile hardline state following a series of nuclear tests and missile launches.

An Asia-based diplomat who did not wish to be named said Beijing had been exerting pressure through diplomatic channels to stop Pyongyang launching a fourth nuclear test after it conducted its third in 2013.

Stalled six-nation nuclear talks have been dormant since late 2008. South Korea, the US and Japan demanded Pyongyang show its sincerity to seek denuclearisation before the talks could resume, but Pyongyang demanded there be no pre-conditions.

[Despite these recent actions] Cui Zhiying, a professor of Korean affairs at Tongji University in Shanghai, said China still believed that taking tough action against Pyongyang would create further uncertainties on the Korean peninsula. So Beijing would not go hand in hand with Seoul against Pyongyang, while Seoul still depends on its security alliance with Washington.

The US has urged Seoul and Tokyo to improve their relationship as their worsening ties could play into China’s hands, while Seoul is aware that its strategic value to Beijing will be lessened should Sino-US relations return to a more positive track, Lee Jung-nam, a professor at the Asiatic Research Institute at Korea University said.

“The development of ties between South Korea and China has implications for the relationship between South Korea, the US and Japan.”

[South China Morning Post]

North Korean anti-South-Korea propaganda falling on unbelieving ears

North Korean textbooks describe South Korea as a “fascist, military dictatorship” filled with “poverty and starvation,” but fewer and fewer North Koreans are buying the propaganda.

North Korean textbooks teach that South Korea is dominated by “foreign powers” that trample on the Korean people and “taint” its history, language and way of life. The North also teaches students that the U.S. must be driven out and South Korea liberated. Textbooks say U.S. soldiers stationed in South Korea “fire guns in broad daylight, plunder homes and rape women.” There are also rumors that North Korean defectors have their “eyes gouged out and limbs severed” if they go to South Korea.

But North Koreans from all walks of life prize South Korean-made products. One North Korean trader who crossed over the border into China said South Korean products are traded illicitly in open-air markets and can be sold at high prices if the removed labels are shown to customers.

Another North Korean said, “North Koreans know people in the South are better off, because they watch South Korean TV shows and movies. High-ranking officials and fairly well-off families all have South Korean products at home.”

Around 12 million North Koreans are believed to have access to South Korean TV shows. A government source said South Korean TV can be accessed from areas south of Sinuiju in North Pyongan Province and Wonsan in Kangwon Province.

A survey of 200 North Korean defectors last month by Media Research showed 70.5 percent of them had watched South Korean TV and other media content in the North.

[Chosun Ilbo]

More on North Korean defector discovered working for Seoul Metropolitan Government

The data gathered by the City Hall bureaucrat Yoo, which he fed to Pyongyang, could potentially threaten the safety of thousands of North Korean defectors, as well as their families still in North Korea, and has also raised questions about oversight of the South Korean government’s handling of defectors.

He apparently joined the Seoul city government in June 2011 in a two-year contract. The contract public servant was hired by the Seoul Metropolitan Government through an employment procedure for North Korean defectors , and worked at the welfare policy bureau. He was in charge of collating information for more than 10,000 North Koreans who have fled their homeland over the years. His duties apparently included meeting with families on a weekly basis, providing advice and counseling by phone and collecting details on the defectors’ lives.

Security officials were reportedly alerted to the man’s activities after it was learned that he was travelling to China frequently and may also have crossed the border back into North Korea.

“The city government is keeping a close eye on the case, waiting until the result of the investigation comes out,” said Lee Chang-hak, the spokesperson for the Seoul Metropolitan Government, emphasizing Yoo had limited access to information, such as names and phone numbers.

The claim has not helped address the understandable paranoia suffered by the nearly 25,000 North Korean defectors living in the south, said Kim Sang-hun, chairman of the Database Centre for North Korean Human Rights. “Many North Koreans here feel that the whole North Korean apparatus is after them,” he said.

In any case, it is the first time a North Korea defector working at a public office has been arrested for espionage. The man’s family are still apparently in North Korea and it is also possible that they were being used as hostages to make him comply with Pyongyang’s demands for information on defectors.

Rare New Years address by Kim Jong-un

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called for an end to confrontation between the two Koreas, in a surprise New Year’s broadcast on state media.

“An important issue in putting an end to the division of the country and achieving its reunification is to remove confrontation between the north and the south,” Kim said in an address that appeared to be pre-recorded. “Past records of inter-Korean relations show that confrontation between fellow countrymen leads to nothing but war,” he said, speaking from an undisclosed location.

The New Year’s address was the first in 19 years by a North Korean leader, and appeared to take the place of the policy-setting New Year’s editorial published annually in the past in leading state newspapers. Additionally, his father, Kim Jong-il, rarely spoke in public.

Conspicuously absent from Kim’s speech though was any mention of North Korea’s nuclear arms program.

Kim’s statement “apparently contains a message that he has an intention to dispel the current face-off (between the two Koreas), which could eventually be linked with the North’s call for aid” from the South, said Kim Tae-woo, a North Korea expert at the state-funded Korea Institute for National Unification. “But such a move does not necessarily mean any substantive change in the North Korean regime’s policy towards the South.”

North Korea has offered olive branches before and Kim’s speech does not necessarily signify a change in tack from a country which vilifies the United States and U.S. ally South Korea at every chance.

South Korea’s new trustpolitik with North Korea

After a tight race, South Korean voters last week picked Park Geun-hye of the establishment Saenuri Party as their next President.

Park’s foremost challenge when she takes office in February will be North Korea. The outgoing government of President Lee Myung-bak, a no-nonsense former corporate CEO, reversed 10 years of so-called sunshine policy — a conciliatory approach to Pyongyang that saw two summits, the South’s investments in the North and reunions of family members separated by the Korean War. Lee adopted a stern approach, cutting off dialogue and humanitarian aid over Pyongyang’s unwillingness to drop its nuclear-weapons program.

When Pyongyang shelled South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island, Lee ordered the South Korean military to prepare for retaliatory strikes on the North’s missile bases in the event of further provocation. He also canceled inter-Korean Red Cross talks that were scheduled to occur two days after the shelling.

This past year, Pyongyang’s failed long-range rocket launch in April and a successful launch earlier this month further strained relations between the two Koreas. “There’s a sense that something has to give,” says Hahm Chai-bong, head of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

Park looks as if she will be doing the giving. Despite Pyongyang’s persistent recalcitrance, Park believes that improving bilateral relations will help persuade North Korea to curtail its nuclear program as well as set the two Koreas on a path of reunification — the “100% completion of Korea,” as she has termed it. Her confidence-building measures — she calls them “trustpolitik” — include the renewal of humanitarian aid to the North and re-establishing social and cultural exchanges.

TIME

Cautious South Korea appears open to dialogue with North

Emerging from victory, Park Geun-hye who will become the next, and the first woman, president of South Korea. Concerning North Korea, Park has said she will try to find a middle ground between the two much-criticized approaches of previous presidents — Roh Moo-hyun, who showered North Korea with unconditional aid, and the outgoing Lee Myung-bak, who treated the North as an adversary.

Pyongyang managed to exploit both approaches, continuing with its weapons program — and conducting its first nuclear test — during a long period of South-led engagement, and later turning more violent, launching two fatal attacks on the South, when that engagement was yanked away.

Park has stressed that she will use “robust deterrence” to counter the North Korean military threat. But she says she is also open to meeting with 29-year-old North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, “if it helps in moving forward North-South relations.”

Three in five Koreans, according to a recent government poll, believe that Lee took too hard a line against the North during his soon-to-end five-year term. He ended almost all humanitarian aid and economic projects, saying everything would be restored if the North gave up its weapons. He also talked often about the “inevitability” of unification, hinting that the North was unstable and soon to collapse.

Lee had hoped his stance would pressure the North, turning it desperate and compliant. Instead, the North drastically increased its ties with China and continued with its nuclear tests and long-range rocket launches, the latest coming earlier this month.

Park’s approach is more dovish than Lee’s but still much more stern than the “Sunshine Policy” — introduced by Kim Dae-jung in 1998 and continued by Roh — that liberal candidate Moon Jae-in promised to reinstate. No matter the North’s behavior, Park says, she will resume political dialogue and provide some sort of humanitarian aid. She also plans to restore some small-scale economic projects and cultural exchanges, although she has stayed vague about specifics.

But for the South to provide anything more significant, Park says, the North must begin to dismantle its nuclear weapons — something it has vowed will never happen.

North Korea policy of new South Korean President Park Geun-hye

Conservative candidate Park Geun-hye,  the daughter of former president Park Chung-hee, claimed victory Wednesday in South Korea’s presidential election, a result that will make her the country’s first woman president. Park will assume office in February 2013, in a country grappling with income inequality, angst over education and employment prospects for its youth, and strained relations with North Korea.

Polls showed that North-South relations ranked fifth in the most salient issues to the Korean public, falling far behind job creation, economic issues and education.

Less than 10% prioritized relations with Pyongyang, according to polls. “Threat perception overall toward North Korea has somewhat waned,” said Jong Kun Choi, an associate professor of political sciences and international studies at Yonsei University in Seoul.

After the announcement of North Korea’s missile launch, about half of the respondents in a poll said they expected the rocket to have no effect in the election. “It used to be the case that a major blow from North Korea would critically affect South Korea’s election. However, this may not have a major impact as it used to be, because first of all, we are so used to it,” Choi said.

Steve Chung, who has examined the North Korean factor in South Korean presidential elections in the last two decades, said he observed that the regime is “less and less important” in this election compared with previous ones. “This year, the inter-Korea atmosphere is not as strong,” said Chung, a PhD candidate in the department of Korean studies at the university of Sydney.

South Koreans have become used to provocation from their neighbor, said Choi. “It’s been going on for the last 20 years, despite so many sporadic skirmishes, virtually nothing has happened,” he said.

Park’s policy of engaging with North Korea may not differ much from Lee’s, said Christopher Green, manager of international affairs for DailyNK, which covers North Korea. Even if Seoul was to implement a policy of unrestricted aid for North Korea, there is little guarantee that the regime would respond.

 

South Korea’s Park pledges engagement with Pyongyang

South Korea’s presidential frontrunner Park Geun-hye proposed on Monday to open liaison offices in the capitals of the rival Koreas in a sweeping policy statement that aimed to revive ties between the two countries.

Park, who is seeking to become the country’s first woman president, said she was willing to meet North Korea’s leader but said Pyongyang must renew its commitment to end its nuclear programme. Park, who is the daughter of assassinated leader Park Chung-hee, leads her two major liberal opponents by double digits in a race for a December 19 vote to pick South Korea’s president for a single five-year term.

Park’s call for a more accommodative policy toward the North is aimed at distancing herself from President Lee Myung-bak’s hardline position. Offering a different policy approach to Lee, Park also said she would separate the humanitarian crisis in North Korea from politics. Lee, who cut off aid to the North when he took power in 2008, has linked a resumption of food aid to a political thaw.

“For continued and systematic development of South-North economic cooperation and social and cultural exchange, I will establish South-North exchange and cooperation offices in Seoul and Pyongyang,” Park told a news conference. Park called for a confidence building process as a way to normalize ties between the two Koreas, adding it should begin with the two sides reaffirming existing agreements.