[Viewpoint] What’s necessary in the North

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[Viewpoint] What’s necessary in the North

North Korea’s recent opening of a dam’s floodgates and the fatal shooting of a South Korean tourist at a mountain resort in the North last year are symptoms of the same disease. Both actions were unwarranted, and both are inconceivable to our way of thinking.

If the North had to open the floodgates for some urgent reason, it should have warned the South to take precautions against a flash flood. It would have taken no more than a phone call. But it appears that current relations between the two Koreas are not worthy enough even to warrant a call.

The shooting death at the Mount Kumgang resort generated no more than a curt apology from the North. That being the case, we can probably expect nothing more following the flood tragedy.

All of this has left our president to sigh, “The North’s view on human lives seems different than ours.” So true. But what’s even more important is to ask: What motivates the North Koreans to take the lives of their neighbors so lightly? Moreover, what kind of precautions should we take?

While recently visiting the Manchuria region to trace the last steps of independent fighter An Jung-geun, we stopped by a place near Harbin that served as the camp for Unit 731. There, the Imperial Army of Japan conducted experiments for biological weapons for possible use in the Sino-Japanese War and World War II. People were shoved into a high-pressure chamber or hung upside down to see how long they could live before bleeding or suffocating to death.

In another area, prisoners were exposed to extreme temperatures to see how long it takes someone to die of hypothermia. The victims, mostly Chinese and Korean, were called “maruta,” meaning logs, and the camp was reported to the authorities as a lumber mill. The Nazis committed similar atrocities against the Jews. If they do not stem from pure insanity, what can explain these monstrous actions?

They were in fact a form of insanity, with the Japanese immersed in the idea of military imperialism while Nazi Germany sank into totalitarianism. No other values were tolerated, and none mattered apart from war victories and national glory.

The same rationale makes extreme Muslim groups say that terrorist acts are justified. When fanaticism strikes, everything else is secondary to absolute religious or ideological values. When madness permeates a society, that society becomes subject to dictatorship.

North Korea takes human life lightly because its thinking is entirely dominated by the juche ideology, leaving little room for other values. For the sake of juche ideology, leaders can kill millions of their own people as well as others.

Some think that North Korea develops nuclear weapons for deterrence and doubt they would be used against people of their own race. But they are wrong. Once fanatically motivated, the North could fire nuclear bombs any time, which makes it more frightening. Some people may criticize such thinking as mere Cold War rhetoric. Unfortunately, though, it is not.

The essence of our reunification policy lies in economic cooperation. The idea is to improve North Korean living standards and to peacefully coexist with the North. But is that possible? The Nazis and Japanese did not commit atrocities and provoke world war because they were poor.

Even if the North Koreans were suddenly better off economically, they would still pose a potential danger as long as they are tied to absolute authoritarianism. Economic prosperity, of course, could broaden their thinking. But a better economy can free military power and culminate in greater danger under an authoritarian mindset.

Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan knew well the perils of communist absolutism. His aides advised that summit talks with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev primarily focus on cuts in nuclear arms. But secretly, Reagan had another topic of discussion in mind. He wanted to persuade Gorbachev to allow freedom of religion in the Soviet Union so that religion could dilute the absolute standing of communism. According to notes of the meeting revealed in a March 7 article in The Wall Street Journal, Reagan asked Gorbachev if he would consider allowing people of any religion - whether Muslims, Jews, Protestants or members of the Ukrainian Church - to attend the church of their choice. He believed “one [religious] freedom will lead to another and another,” proving more effective than arms control.

For humanitarian reasons, we must help the North Koreans. But more importantly, we must show them that there exists many more values and ideologies than communism and juche. If they find these values, they won’t easily fall prey to fanaticism. Certain freedoms of religion should be allowed in North Korea, as in China. A growing economy without simultaneous development in philosophical outlook can be as dangerous as a savage dinosaur.


*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Moon Chang-keuk

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