15 years ago, June 1991, I was the first journalist from Taiwan to be invited by the North Korean government for a visit to Pyongyang. I was there for seven days, and it was quite a memorable experience. However, after I published a series of reports on the China Times upon my return---though in-depth and objective as they were---I was black-listed by the North Korean authority and have since disallowed from setting a foot in that country again.
North Korea, the “Kingdom of Hermit,” could be said as the world’s most isolated country. Having shut itself out from the international community for half a century, its values and pattern of thoughts are different from that of general majority countries, outsiders accustomed to the universal values therefore find North Korea hard to read and understand.
North Korea is a country with a strong sense of low self-esteem, If you have a friend with a very low self-esteem, you would know better than hitting his sore spot, or else, risk inciting a hostile repercussion in return. The same applies to country as well.
For the past 12 years since the signing of the Agreement Framework of 1994 in Geneva between the US and North Korea, the latter has time and again played “Chicken Game” with the international community. Until as recent as just 8 days ago with launch of its missiles tests, it has been the winner and proven the “containment” and “isolation” policy adopted by the US ineffective. If I were to take the opposition between North Korea and the US as an opposition between an “Oriental hermit” and a “Texan cowboy,” “culture” and “values” could be said as the biggest differences between the two.
It is hard for outsiders to make correct assessment about North Korea because information concerning the country is hard to get. Accuracy of relevant information from Japan and China give room to suspicion as well given the confrontation of different ideologies. In Taiwan, information on North Korea is just as limited that, except a handful of people with expertise in Korean studies, there are not many people really care about what happen in North Korea.
The book “South and North Korea united, we fall” that I translated this January has become the one reference that offers the richest and the most updated information on North Korea. I believe the book is being viewed the same way as well in South Korea. It is a book that drew live experiences from both Germany and North Korea and provides outsiders a look to what’s happening in the North Korea that are previously unknown to many. This book however only has Korean and Chinese editions, hence to many in the English-speaking world remain unaware of the miserable occurrences taking place in North Korea.
The book has mentioned a bit about the human rights situation in Communist regime. For instances, when the author made a visit in 1997 to North Korea’s Rajin and Seonbong, he was told by a North Korean woman that “there are many people died of hunger in the Rajin area, where happened even cases that parents would commit suicide after they feed their kids with the last and only bit of food they have left.” For that reason there was then an orphanage built in the Rajin area to care for these orphans who lost their parents. The woman added that events alike happened to many of her neighbors. With that said, she sighed and expressed concern for the orphans.
While the North Korean authority attributed the straitened poverty and famine to the flood in 1995-1996 as the immediate cause of the problems, truth of matter however lied in its structural matter. North Korea is short of 1.2 million tons of rice annually but its government imported only 500,000 tons of it. Rather than being honest and admitting to its destitution, the poverty-stricken North Korean authority instead often times played with its budgets, in other word, arbitrarily faking up its numbers and statistics. The fact is that North Korea has lost the capability of being self-sufficient, and the situation sees no signs of improving.
Other than deprivation of an individual’s basic human rights to be well-fed, the country’s poor and handicapped are given absolutely no chance of survival in its capital, Pyongyang as well. In the book, it said that the streets in Pyongyang are clear of beggars and handicapped. A staff working with the UN’s relief operation said that several years ago the country’s Communist ranking officials had decided to make Pyongyang “a place that is off-limit to handicapped.” During that process, all disabled were chased out of Pyongyang and, as the result, everywhere in sight on all streets in the capital are “healthy people.” Such is a demonstration of how handicapped are deprived of their human rights in North Korea.
Patients at hospitals experience the third kind of situation where people’s human rights are deprived. According to the book which cited an eyewitness account by an aid volunteer with the Cap Anamur, a Germany-based humanitarian organization, said that due to sever shortage of medical supply, there were no anesthetics in the hospitals’ surgery room and so female patients would under go cesarean delivery without being anesthetized. The agonizing and heartrending howling had left with the volunteer an unforgettable memory.
In addition, there are no psychiatric departments in North Korea’s hospitals, “because patients had all been sent to other places for further care.” But, according to volunteer with the Cap Anamur, such was not the truth. There is no room for psychiatric patients in a totalitarian country such as North Korea. In other words, there is no freedom allowing one to go insane. Psychiatric patients had all been transferred to concentration center. The question is: how many dissidents or prisons of conscious had been regarded as psychiatric patients and been sent to the concentration center? It is a question outsiders would never find an answer to. So I have no leads nor clues on political prisoners’ human rights situations in North Korea.
Of course when the western world provided relief aid to North Korea, it had also tried all ways to help out the poor North Koreans. For instances, doctors working with the Cap Anamur had helped North Korean refuges to seek political asylum by taking them to Beijing’s embassy district. Frequent events alike happened in the past years and, while making their way to become international headlines, they had also in the meanwhile provoked North Korea and put China on an embarrassed spot. Maybe doing so highlight the predicament of sever famine in North Korea as well as achieve the purpose of international publicity for relief aid and humanitarianism, but such were being carried out in a way that “humiliated” North Korea, which I think would only end up having negative impact on improving North Korea’s human rights situations. I believe North Korea would never again allow the Germany-based Cap Anamur to be in the country and perform medical relief work. So isn’t it then an act that burns down the bridge?
Therefore I do not stand for the approach of “Texans cowboy” vs. “Oriental hermit.” Because while a momentary force might bring North Korea to yield and comply, but, based on the psychology of revenge resulted from culture of hatred, it would sure to seek retaliation when it gathers sufficient strength. And that illustrates the very basic of cultural differences to the opposition and clashes between the US and North Korea.
Based on my observation gathered from my stay in North Korea, it is a country that attaches great importance to the Confucian values. Such is also a viewpoint shared by the South Korean, Japanese and westerners. So I’d suggest the western world to try oriental and Confucian approaches to tame North Korea. Just like one would to a kid who is low on self-esteem, one should first of all respect his pride, then build up his self-confidence, that then path way for mutual trust, which then allow persuasion to take effect.
The method adopted by Uncle Sam had proved ineffective. I suggest that why not try a “new key” to open the door to North Korea, “the Kingdom of Hermit.” And, while it hasn’t occurred to many but, Taiwan could actually play the role of an active and constructive partner and help the US, China, South Korea, or even Japan resolve everyone’s common headache.
In fact, Taiwan, given its experience in the Asian Development Bank, could play a more lively and productive role in the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO). KEDO actually needs not look far and seek help from the European Union for Taiwan can play the role as the most qualified player from among the countries surrounding North Korea.
The international community, especially China, needs not worry, for Taiwan wishes not to create problem but to contribute its share of international responsibility in the hope to help resolve problem for everyone. Should assistance provide by Taiwan helps North Korea achieve economy development and social stability can China curb the worry over a ticking bomb in its backyard. Or else, North Korea would forever be a weighty burden that Beijing cannot free itself from.
(Presented at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy Forum on "North Korean Human Rights", July 13, 2006)