Last month I had the opportunity to accompany Rod and Kathi Suderman, MCC’s Northeast Asia representatives, on program monitoring trips to the Republic of Korea (ROK, also known as South Korea) and the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK, also known as North Korea).
MCC’s partnerships in both countries are intended to further the prospects for peace on the Korean peninsula. While open hostilities ended with the signing of a cease-fire or armistice agreement in 1953, the ROK and DPRK technically remain at war with each other.
The classic images of this stalemate are often taken from the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates troops on either side of the 38th parallel. After visiting an observation post on the southern side of the border, it was clear that the ROK is well-prepared for an attack.
Indeed, a strong military presence was noticeable in the south, whether it was helicopters buzzing overhead in the Seoul suburb of Deokso, or convoys of troop carriers on the streets in the city of Chuncheon. I didn’t encounter any of the 28,000 U.S. troops currently stationed on 15 military bases, although the large monument to the Korean War right across the street from the Korea Anabaptist Centre was hard to miss.
To be sure, these preparations do not compare in societal impact to the “Military First” policy of the DPRK, a policy that directs national resources to the army before other priorities are addressed. However, the ROK also devotes a significant level of resources to its military. Two years of military service is compulsory, and alternative service for conscientious objectors is not an option.
What was even more striking to me was the way that conversations on both sides of the border emphasized the regional nature of the conflict, and seemed to downplay the extent to which there was direct hostility between the two Koreas. For example, in the DPRK, the forces of “imperialism” were consistently named as the greatest threat or danger, both in the past and the present. As one government official put it, “We love peace, and we love our sovereignty.” Furthermore, there seemed to be little fear of a nuclear attack in the ROK. In the words of one church leader, “The nuclear issue is not our issue. It is intended for other targets.”
This is not to minimize the potential for conflict between the north and south. Yet it does offer a reminder that peace—not to mention reunification—will require more than a significant breakthrough between the governments in Seoul and Pyongyang. Given that the strategic interests of global powers such as the United States and China may be well-served by maintaining the status quo on the Korean peninsula, addressing this conflict will require changes on the part of all the regional actors.
What does this mean for MCC and for Canadians, given that our country is not a global power? Perhaps it is a reminder that isolation breeds misunderstanding in both directions.
After experiencing the lack of contact with the outside world that is the normal state of affairs for people within the DPRK, it is not surprising that their perspectives on the world would be shaped by government propaganda to the extent that they are. Given the lack of direct exposure that Canadians (and South Koreans) have to life in the DPRK, it is also not surprising that our views would be shaped by misunderstandings and, in some cases, manipulations.
While we cannot control the DPRK government’s willingness to engage the outside world, we can continue to take advantage of rare opportunities for people-to-people contact made possible by MCC’s modest program initiatives. This is why current service opportunities such as teaching English or supporting conservation agriculture projects are so important. Perhaps in the long term this may make it possible for MCC to facilitate broader connections.
The risks posed by misunderstandings are also why it is important that the Government of Canada rely on information from those with on-the-ground experience in the DPRK, whether they are United Nations personnel, diplomats from other governments, or Canadian NGOs. Despite our country’s role in the Korean War, and despite our government’s increasingly bellicose rhetoric toward their country in recent years, our hosts in the DPRK insisted that Canada was well-positioned to play a more constructive role.
By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director