2013

All eyes on the peninsula

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The Embassy of the Republic of Korea last week invited The Honourable David Kilgour, a former Canadian MP from Winnipeg who served in Parliament for 27 years, to be its 2nd speaker in its ongoing “Embassy Speakers Series.” For those who don’t know, the series is part of the events being hosted by the Embassy in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Korea-Canada diplomatic relations and the 60th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice this year.

In his timely talk entitled “The World’s Eyes on the Korean Peninsula,” Mr. Kilgour, who is well known for his commitment to promoting human rights and peacekeeping around the world, including on the Korean Peninsula, shared his thoughts on North Korea and the recent spate of alarming provocations by the country.

Some very interesting bits of statistics and strands of information came out of this talk, some of which only someone with an insider’s perspective could provide. For example, here are some of the consequences of 2 generations of “Kim absolutism” in North Korea:

▪ Living standards in the country in the late 90s was 1/10 of those of the South, and life expectancy was about 10 years less than South Korea.

▪ The North’s education system has essentially become an exercise in propaganda against “South-appointed enemies,” and the student’s graduation gift – both women and men – is the mandatory requirement to spend the next 10 years in the army! (I guess the only positive we can take from this is the emphasis on gender equality.)

▪ A 50-year war on religion, in which nearly 60 Buddhist shrines, temples and Christian churches were shuttered and religious leaders were either executed or sent to concentration camps. I was also surprised to learn that Pyongyang was known in the 50s as “Asia’s Jerusalem” for its robust Christian communities, but the 5 Christian churches that now exist in the capital city are state-operated for international propaganda purposes.

▪ Based on what he had heard from a trusted source, Mr. Kilgour mentioned that North Korean refugees into China who tell authorities their destination is South Korea are returned and immediately executed, while those who are utlimately fleeing to other countries such as Canada are also returned and jailed for 20 years.

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The collapse of the Soviet Union in the 90s hit North Korea hard because it forced them to rely on China for all of its aid. As Mr. Kilgour succinctly put it, China could “crush” North Korea in a day just by cutting off food and fuel.  Compare this to the situation in South Korea and you have two countries that are side-by-side but going in opposite north-south directions (no pun intended):  South Korea moved toward an export market economy and democracy over the intervening decades and is one of the world’s largest and thriving economies today. Only a few weeks ago, it was announced that the country had climbed the rankings to become the world’s 8th largest economy.

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Now I can’t speak for the rest of the audience, but I was anxiously waiting to hear Mr. Kilgour’s thoughts on the prospects of real violence and war on the peninsula, especially since the North seems to have ratched-up the threats and rhetoric this time around. Like many in the audience that day, I too have family and friends in the South. At the same time, however, I’ve never felt a sense of panic or fear over the situation from my Korean colleagues, friends and family here in Canada. Perhaps I’ve watched too many Woody Allen movies lately and I’ve unwittingly morphed into one of his angst-ridden characters, I semi-seriously thought to myself. Nonetheless, I felt some reassurance when I heard the words that the likelihood the North will attack remains small, since (among other reasons) Kim Jong-un is likely just trying to legitimize his leadership as a young unproven guy with highly incendiary rhetoric and threats.

On the contrary, the larger danger apparently is that the North’s regime could implode. This would cause some very large headaches in the region, such as millions of refugees flooding into China and intervention from the South.  The key to defusing the situation on the peninsula, as Mr. Kilgour concluded, is for the North to move away from investing in nuclear weapons and threats of violence toward developing its own economy and giving peace a chance.

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