Can you change the country without changing the regime, asks David Alton
Talking to North Korea by Glyn Ford, Pluto Press, 320pp, £14.99
There’s no doubting that Glyn Ford has spent much of his life trying to understand North Korea – he has been there 50 times. However, given that entry to the country is severely restricted, and visitors only see what their minders permit them to see, multiple North Korean visa stamps are of strictly limited worth.
In reading Ford’s book, subtitled “Ending the Nuclear Standoff”, I began with an inbuilt bias as I have long thought that many visitors, due to the restrictions, can come close to sounding like apologists for the regime. Ford claims to have a more “nuanced appreciation” but, while we both believe in “critical engagement”, I cannot understand why he does not devote more space to the atrocities committed by this appalling regime – and passionately denounce them.
Four years ago, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) described North Korea as having committed crimes against humanity and said its violations of human rights were “without parallel”. Every one of the 30 articles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights are denied or egregiously violated – with between 100,000 and 200,000 people in its gulags, which the COI compared to Nazi death camps.
While Ford refers to this brutality, his approach to North Korea is summed up by his contention that he is for “changing the regime, not regime change”. Underneath this soundbite lurks the question: can you achieve the former without the latter? Will there ever be fundamental change while this dictatorship remains in power?
Beyond my reservations about his political instincts, Ford does provide an interesting Baedeker guide to life in a country where there has been devastating famine and malnutrition and the health system has collapsed. Occasionally there are glimpses of the phenomenal discrepancies between the lives of the regime’s elites and its citizens.
He dedicates a great deal of the book to the build-up of North Korea’s nuclear capability and looks at whether the summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un in Singapore is likely to deliver peace.
He is instinctively anti-Trump but praises the US Agreed Framework of 1994 to freeze and replace North Korea’s nuclear power plant programme with light water reactors, thus limiting proliferation. In a curious statement, Ford says that “of all the deals done with Pyongyang, the Agreed Framework was the only one that worked”. That deal collapsed and proliferation continued. If that’s success, it’s hard to imagine what failure looks like.
In 2017 alone, North Korea conducted six nuclear tests and has repeatedly acted in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions. It is said to possess 5,000 tons of chemical and biological agents and 1,000 artillery pieces trained on the Seoul, capital of South Korea. North Korea has carried out abductions and assassinations, cyber-attacks, the hacking of cryptocurrencies and cyber-robberies.
We need to be clear: without the complete, verifiable and irreversible de-nuclearisation of North Korea, the threat to its neighbours will remain – let alone the tyranny it exercises day by day over its own people.
The current White House policy of “disruptive diplomacy” has undoubtedly been in marked contrast to Barack Obama’s “strategic patience” – which was certainly patient but hardly strategic and emboldened North Kora even more. The jury remains out on how strategic and how successful the Trump approach will be. But it is surely better than what went before and a lot better than a slide into war.
The last Korean War, fought without nuclear weapons, claimed three million lives. A little more praise for America’s attempts to break the logjam would not go amiss in Ford’s account.
It’s hard not to get seriously fed up with the way some on the Left impute a moral equivalence between the US and North Korea. Intriguingly, the Trump-Kim summit took place on June 12 – the 31st anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s famous Berlin Wall speech, in which he linked the security of the world with the fundamental human rights and freedoms of oppressed people. Ronald Reagan, with the strong backing of Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, trenchantly argued that “Freedom and security go together: the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace.”
After his 50 trips to North Korea – and at the end of my reading of this book – I am left wondering whether Glyn Ford shares that view.
David Alton is an independent crossbench peer and is co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea