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Engaging with North Korea.

In the Sixties, there were occasional news reports of Japanese soldiers emerging bewildered from the jungle, having not realized that World War II was over. One wasn't sure whether to deplore their foolishness or to admire their dedication. North Korea and her people present the world with a similar conundrum. The country is a political anachronism.

I got involved in North Korea after attending a US Congressional Breakfast during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2003. The room was set for 100, but only 20 turned up, as a result of an 'unofficial' boycott related to the impending war in Iraq. The only two non-Americans were the Prime Minister of Mongolia and me. As our American hosts vented their disappointment, the Prime Minister began to talk with great compassion, knowledge and wisdom about the causes and potential cures of the nuclear stand-off in North Korea.

I was humbled by how little I knew about a situation which was so threatening to international peace and asked the Mongolian Prime Minister what could be done. 'Engage with the issue and then engage with the people,' he replied.


I approached Gary Streeter, an internationally-minded British Member of Parliament, and we resolved to walk this path of engagement with North Korea together. We approached the North Korean Embassy in London and eventually received an invitation from the Chairman of the Supreme People's Assembly, Cheo Theo Bok, to visit Pyongyang in late 2003.

On our flight from Beijing we were provided with the English language newspaper, The Pyongyang Times, for in-flight reading. The lead headline read, 'Bosh prepares for nuclear strike against DPRK' (Democratic Peoples' Republic of Korea)--an insight into its siege mentality. It was part of the routine news feed of a people gripped by fear.


Some ridicule North Korea for their paranoia, but when one learns about the troubled history of the Korean Peninsula one begins to understand where they are coming from. This is a proud and ancient people, which has been successively pushed around by its neighbours: Japan, China and Russia. The most brutal of these interventions was when Japanese imperial forces annexed the country in 1905 and repressed its people harshly for 40 years. The defeat of Japan led not to freedom, but to a divided land. The 38th parallel became a frontier of Cold-War politics, and three million were killed in the ensuing confrontation between North Korea (backed by China and the Soviet Union) and South Korea (backed by the US). The conflict has still not been officially ended.

The feeling of being under threat is one of the principal forces which holds this improbable country together. One of our key questions was why had North Korea remained standing when so many other totalitarian and Communist regimes had been swept into the pages of history? Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, differed from Mao and Stalin in his respect for the mind and the soul. He added a pen to the traditional hammer and sickle on the Communist flag of North Korea, and developed a religion for his state, juche or self-reliance. North Korea succeeded in capturing not only the bodies of its citizens, but also their minds and souls in a triple lock. This is one reason why sabre-rattling from the West has been so ineffective.

On our last day we travelled to the Boman Co-operative Farm in North Hwanghae Province where conditions were very tough. It was an opportunity, after a series of high-level meetings, to spend time with ordinary North Koreans. We found people of real warmth, great humour and incredible generosity. We talked about the challenges of raising teenagers and realized how similar we were. We talked about sport: remembering our teams' triumphs in England during the 1966 World Cup and bemoaning our inability to repeat them.

If we reach beyond the political rhetoric with the hand of friendship, then we may realize that we share a common humanity and spirituality and that ultimately that which unites us is far greater than that which divides us.


Our discussions are ongoing. A high level delegation led by Cheo Theo Bok came to London last March, and in April I returned to Pyongyang. We are seeking further exchanges. It is a painfully slow process, but problems born of 100 years are unlikely to be resolved in one. This requires humility, persistence, patience and prayer.

On my return from my first visit to Pyongyang I was given a copy of a remarkable personal reflection by Syngman Rhee (For A Change, October/November 2002), who had spoken that summer in Caux on his work for reconciliation between North and South Korea. He concluded his article with these words, 'I have a dream that some day a delegation from North Korea and a delegation from South Korea will gather together in this hall on this holy mountain, in a spirit of true reconciliation and peace.' I share that dream and pledge to work towards its realization.

Michael Bates is Director of Research for Oxford Analytica, an international consulting firm. Between 1992 and 1997 he was a UK MP, and held a number of ministerial posts including Paymaster General.
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Title Annotation:Guest Column
Author:Bates, Michael
Publication:For A Change
Geographic Code:9NORT
Date:Oct 1, 2004
Previous Article:Daybreak.
Next Article:Downscaling.

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