Remarks by Eric Sirotkin, Chair of the National Lawyers Guild’s Korean Peace Project, to a Congressional briefing held at the U.S. Capitol on January 25, 2006.
Introductory remarks and thanks to Rep. Kucinich
My name is Eric Sirotkin. I am an international human rights lawyer and Chair of the National Lawyers Guild Korean Peace Project. I want to thank you all for coming and having the courage to look beyond the myths, perceptions, anger and fear, to step outside the framework of good and evil, black and white, build understanding and then hopefully become part of the creative solution for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.
I want to especially thank Congressman Dennis Kucinich, a creative visionary for peace, for sponsoring this important dialogue so that Congress can begin to take a leadership role in finding a peaceful end to the Korean War and a new beginning for relations in Asia. Background on the Korean “conflict” I have traveled several times to the DPRK, North Korea, at the invitation of North Korean lawyers. I have spoken on peace in Korea in dozens of states and in Peru, France, India, South and North Korea, and the Netherlands. Universally I find most people know little about the DPRK and the Korean War. What I knew before getting involved in this work in 2003 was that there had been a war, 50,000 Americans died, the UN was somehow involved and what I saw on MASH re-runs.
As I travel and speak people ask: Do they even have lawyers? Aren’t people all in uniform marching around? Did you take food, because aren’t they all starving? Even US soldiers that we met in North Korea, that’s right in North Korea, on a US mission of recovering bodies from the war, corroborated that “it was not as they had been told.” Most people we speak to are shocked when we share even some of the basic facts:
o The United States spends between $20-30 billion a year on maintaining the weaponry and soldiers in Korea, ostensibly to protect South Korea from the North. We have 34,000 soldiers in South Korea, while dozens of US domestic bases are slated for closing.
o This is done at a time in which South Korea’s trade with North Korea has jumped over 40% as South Korean companies are now engaged in over 557 projects with North Korea, including the building of cars, roads, railroads and the production of clothing and televisions. South Korea is engaged in over $340 million dollars of annual bi-lateral trade with the North, and is the North’s largest foreign investor, and, after China, is the North’s largest trading partner.
o Exchange continues between North and South in sports and cultural activities. I attended a joint arts and craft festivals which now rotates between Seoul and Pyongyang, and in August 2005 I was in Korea as woman golfers from South Korea played their first golf tournament in North Korea called the Pyongyang Open. These are facts that just don’t fit with the dangerous state of war scenario we hear about.
o In fact, both halves of Korea have committed to reunification of the country each proposing a low level joint Federation or Commonwealth. Each has a cabinet level Reunification Minister and both regularly hold peace and reunification conferences and celebrations. I attended such conferences in both North and South Korea.
o We hear a lot about the menacing huge North Korean army. Soldiers in North Korea are large by number, but they also perform citizen tasks such as helping with roads and harvest. They are the largest employer in a fragile economy. Some weaponry, including aircraft, date back to the Korean War. Yet, we always noticed that police and soldiers on the street rarely carried weapons.
o However, we do know that the South Korean army is very well trained and could defend itself. Few know that It spends annually ten times more on its military than the North. Over the past ten years South Korea spent over $127 billion compared with the DPRK’s $3.5 billion on its military and buys much high tech military hardware from the U.S.
o Anti-Americanism has been building in South Korea, including resentment against the U.S. soldiers. We observed protests at bases and spoke with groups angry about US bombing ranges and indifference to their sovereignty. Surveys show that most South Koreans fear the U.S. reaction to North Korea more than they fear the North Koreans.
o North Korea is not as isolated from the rest of the world as we hear. In our trips to DPRK we have met many people from around the world engaged in training North Koreans on international stock markets, farming, art exchanges, computers and other matters. Tourists were present from dozens of countries, including China and South Korea. We met Canadians teachers there on six month rotations, European nurses working in rural clinics and diplomats.
o The European Community, Britain, Italy, New Zealand, Australia and more than 155 countries have formal diplomatic relations with North Korea.
o While there is increased democratization in South Korea, freedom of speech does not exist in the areas of national security, defense or comments related to North Korea. The National Security Act prohibits contact with North Koreans and expressing views consistent with North Korea without government approval. Violators and peace activists we met have spent years in prison for such violations. When I was there this summer a professor was indicted in South Korea for uttering that the Korean war was a war for unification, a view held by the North. The US Congress when it talks about human rights should also call for repeal of the Security Law criminal prohibitions on free association and speech.
o The Korean War was one of the most brutal in history with millions of North Koreans injured or killed. 20 million pounds of napalm were dropped on North Korea in the first 20 months. THIS IS WHAT THEY REMEMBER WELL in North Korea and they have museums that show how North Korea was leveled to the ground by U.S. bombing missions, including full carpet bombing of civilian areas. There were crimes committed during the war that have never been resolved or acknowledged or even spoken about it. Incinerated bomb shelters, decapitated heads, photos hauntingly like Abu Ghraib. It is still etched in their minds.
o But most importantly for the US now is that there was no peace treaty entered ending the war. In fact, the armistice agreement we signed in 1953 to end the fighting said that high level discussions would take place to remove all foreign troops from Korea within three months. For decades we have been the only ones that remain.
Proposals for the U.S. WHAT CAN WE DO TO TURN THIS AROUND?
What is the role for the US? It is not too late to become the peacebuilder and overcome the feeling of many South Koreans that they have been “occupied” for over sixty years. Think about this when we contemplate an exit and timetable strategy from Iraq.
Last century the U.S. unilaterally divided the Korean Peninsula without consulting with Koreans, so we play a unique role in supporting the peace and reunification efforts of the 21st century. We can truly overcome this standoff and move to peace and fully denuclearized Korean Peninsula if we do a few things:
1. UNDERSTANDING: We have to learn to understand the DPRK through their eyes, instead of the way it is depicted. We should consider and learn about:
a) What is the impact of 50 + years of being on the edge of war and fearful that it could happen again anytime, especially after a hellacious unspeakably violent war, done to the psyche of a nation?;
b) Without a peace treaty a state of war still exists;
c) The brutal occupation for 40 years by Japan and the deep desire for self-determination by the Korean people;
d) The role of traditional Confuciusm in explaining some of the extreme reverence for leadership;
e) The role respect and saving face play in the culture and the impact of labeling Kim Jong Il a “pygmy” and a “tyrant;”
f) The love all the Korean people, North and South, for their children and the pride they take in their education and survival;
g) The Juche philosophy of self-reliance and how it drives the pride of the DPRK.
So UNDERSTANDING helps us break down barriers and see through the experiences of another nation.
2. End the Korean War – We need a congressional declaration now calling for a full peace treaty. If we can declare peace with Vietnam, now 30 years later, certainly we can do so with Korea and begin to heal the wounds. If Ariel Sharon can see the importance of unilaterally giving up Gaza, can we not see the benefit of declaring peace formally? Congress can call for a summit between the North and South, the U.S. and the United Nations to formally declare that the war is over. I can tell you through discussion with DPRK lawyers, government officials and military people that it will have a huge impact. What does it cost?
3. Congressional Declaration in support of the June 15th 2000 Joint North-South Declaration. This agreement calls for increased exchanges and that the Koreans would work toward reunification independently, while expanding economic and cultural cooperation. Formal endorsement by the U.S. is key, as it is declaring publicly that we support the will of the Korean people to seek their own destiny.
4. Normalize Relations: Join the rest of the world in normalizing relations with the DPRK. Without relationship how can we talk about human rights or nuclear weapons? Our current position says we don’t even accept you as a nation. Would we not benefit and build trust from having a full time presence and embassy in Pyongyang like 155 + other countries? Waiting for it to collapse has not worked for 60 years.
5. Talk about the War: Acknowledge that there was great suffering in the Korean War by all the Korean people, with massive destruction and civilian causalities. Could we not in this day and age acknowledge the pain and suffering and declare that it will never happen again? This will have a great impact on rebuilding trust in Korea and securing a lasting peace. I know from working in South Africa for years with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that without truth, we cannot have reconciliation. They go hand in hand. Even if we disagree, there needs to be a forum to listen to their experience.
6. Bring US troops home from Korea. The Koreans are on the path to reunification and peace and the South can defend itself. This can be sold in your Districts as a way to re-open or avoid base closing here at home, as 33,000 US soldiers and an operation costing billions, is doing little to make us safer at home.
7. Defund or end the DMZ annual border War Games: Each year relationships cool and trust dissolves as these massive mock attacks toward the North simulate nuclear warfare and other scenarios.
It is clear that the DPRK is not a threat to the United States, nor does it seek to threaten its neighbors or promote terrorism. Also while we fail to find peace in Korea, the North/South bus toward more exchange is leaving. Other countries are getting onto plans for economic exchange and investment. Natural Gas pipelines are forming from Siberia. There are markets for American farmers, for our corporations, if we can secure the peace.
This is a dispute that is calling out for leadership and vision. We are that close to the ability for a deep peace in North Asia. I have held the hands of both the president and Vice President of the DPRK and sat in the Blue House in Seoul with Assemblymen and Security Officials and talked of peace. I can tell you its waiting to happen. The consistent impression throughout the Koreas that we encounter is that the U.S. is the obstacle.
Time, though, is of the essence. In Japan they are talking about repealing Article 9 of their Constitution. It is the article that prohibits them from taking soldiers into war outside their borders. The Bush Administration declares that they support the repeal so that Japan can become a “normal” country. But they are not seeing the devastating impact it will have on peace in Asia. China and both Koreas remember all too well the extreme human destruction wrought on their nations by the Imperial Japanese army. The Japanese use the instability in Korea and the potential for DPRK nuclear weapons as a reason to repeal Article 9. If repealed, it will cause an arms race in Asia and give further rationale for the DPRK to have and stockpile nuclear weapons. The results of such a path have grave consequences for our world. Congress should declare support for maintaining the Article 9 provision in the Japanese Constitution. It was written by the U.S. after the war and its repeal will upset its neighbors far beyond the current outrage at the Prime Minister of Japan visiting a war memorial.
We need a foreign policy that sees the big picture. Can we remember the potential for America to model peace, compassion and an open heart, rather than have our destiny be written through maintaining or fostering conflict? We can be part of the solution. As members of Congress, the choice is yours.
But we have to learn a new way of talking about Korea. The six way talks must move from pointing the finger at one nation to strengthening the relationships of all the parties. What I have outlined today could give the US a key role in stabilization of the region. Conclusion So in conclusion, I’m drawn to the impression of every delegation that has gone with us to the DPRK: the human commonality between the people of the DPRK and the people of the United States. Poet and former President of the Check republic Vaclav Havel, wrote “If the future of humankind is not to be jeopardized by conflicting spheres of civilization and culture, We have no other alternative, but to shift the ray of our attention from that which separates us to that which unites us.”
We have no alternative. I urge each member of Congress to proactively work for peace and common ground on the Korean Peninsula.
Chair, NLG Korean Peace Project