The Report of the October 2003 National Lawyers Guild/American Association of Jurists Delegation to the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea
I. The Delegation and its Purpose
II. First Impressions
III. The Role of Lawyers
IV. War Crimes
V. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)
VI. The Countryside and Hours of Talk
VII. The Circus
VIII. Human Exchanges
IX. Particular Observations
A. The Juche idea of Socialism
B. The Role of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il
C. The Legal System
E. Health Care
G. Work Conditions
H. Political System
I. Military Service
K. The Role of Women
X. War and Peace
XI. Final Observations and Future Activities
I. The Delegation and its Purpose
On September 29th, 2003 four lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild of the United States, Peter Erlinder, Professor of Law at the William Mitchell School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota, Neil Berman, Attorney in Boston, Massachusetts and Eric Sirotkin and Jennie Lusk, Attorneys in Albuquerque, New Mexico as well as a member of the American Association of Jurists, Christopher Black, Barrister in Toronto, Canada, traveled to North Korea, formally the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK) at the invitation of the Korean Democratic Lawyers Association (KDLA).
We came to North Korea in order to increase bonds between lawyers in North Korea and the west, as well as to increase understanding between the peoples of North America and North Korea in order to reduce the risk of war between the DPRK and the United States of America.
The visit had several specific purposes: (1) to develop personal and professional relationships with lawyers in North Korea with a view toward understanding their legal system and its role in society, (2) to determine and understand the views of the people of the DPRK with respect to war and peace and its link to the problem of reunification of the “two” Koreas, and (3) to observe as best we could the real situation for the people of the DKRP in the context of the information being propagated in the western press of an Orwellian, totalitarian, impoverished and starving society – allegations which have been used by the United States to justify all its recent wars of aggression. We felt it essential to let the North Koreans know that many Americans and Canadians have a deep desire for peace and oppose the rhetorical “axis of evil” posture announced by the current U.S. administration.
Most of us met in Beijing as virtual strangers, but we parted company days later as friends, transformed by our experience. We came from different backgrounds, different areas of law and represented several political and philosophical points of view. We had one essential thing in common; the real fear of a war between the United States and the DPRK and a deep desire to know the truth. All felt misled over the years by the U.S. government through its misinformation used to justify wars against Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq. We no longer accept bald allegations of “widespread violations of human rights”, the need for a “war on terrorism”, war to destroy “weapons of mass destruction,” or the need to fight wars to preserve and expand our Western way of life. As world citizens we felt obliged to reveal the truth and to take steps to build, rather than destroy, relationships, even with those whom we may disagree.
The delegation met with KDLA members, government officials and military officers, and discussed comparative judicial systems and strategies for building bridges for peace between DPRK and the United States. We toured Pyongyang, traveled hundreds of kilometers into the countryside, visited the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the Northern side at the infamous joint use area of Panmunjom, and interviewed U.S. soldiers and business consultants from around the world who, much to our surprise, were discovered working in North Korea,
II. First Impressions
On September 29th we went to the embassy of the DPRK in Beijing to obtain our visas. It was there that our eyes first began to open. Also waiting for visas were a young Irishman who wanted to tour the country and a Canadian representative of Saskatchewan farmers providing aid to North Korean farmers, whose aid is matched by the Canadian government four to one. Before leaving to North Korea we had already become aware of the many nations in Europe and across the planet that have formal diplomatic relations with the DPRK, but we were not ready for the many international contacts we would make over the next week.
On September 30th we went to the international airport at Beijing to board the Air Koryo plane to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. It was at the Beijing Airport that the image of an isolated country truly began to dissolve. In the check-in line and afterwards on board the full plane we met our Canadian Saskatchewan consultant, a Swede who was going to help farmers learn how to handle cows, a couple of Congolese diplomats, British journalists, a Russian establishing art exchanges, a teacher from Liverpool and, from the sound of the different accents, people from several other countries.
At the airport in Pyongyang we waited for some time while bags were x-rayed coming into the country. One member reported much of her nervousness dissolve as she waited in line and watched guards laughing and joking with each other. It was not a highly charged and intimidating scene, and was more relaxed than most U.S. airport security.
We were met by Mr. Jo Chol Ryong and Mr. Bang Gum Chan of the Korean Democratic Lawyers Association and taken in a small bus to a large guesthouse just outside the city. It was grey and misty but we tried to take in everything we saw. Our first impression of the city was that it was large city of two million, green, fairly modern, quite beautiful in parts especially near the Taedong River. There were more cars than we had heard about, but their relatively low numbers meant quiet streets with primarily pedestrians and cyclists. People appeared active and heading home after a days work, as in most countries for that time of day.
The initial impression of some off the delegation was that there was a feeling of tension hanging in the air, as if they had been at war for a long time. We received some very questioning stares, but these would become mixed with smiles and inquisitiveness. Some delegates felt tense and a bit disoriented, but this proved to be a clash between our initial fears and concerns, and the stark reality of where we were. As we would tour the country and cities in the next few days, and have more human exchanges, this would dissipate.
Throughout the days ahead we were moved by the level of North Korean pride and determination to overcome obstacles, including diplomatic and economic ones by the United States, and sympathized with their need for perpetual readiness for war and their experience of centuries of invasions and occupations. The Korean experience must be viewed through this lens.
Some of the buildings we passed were impressive in size and style. But we noticed right away the complete absence of any old-style buildings. Nothing in the city was older than 50 years and most was much newer. The American planes had bombed the entire city multiple times in the Korean War and obliterated virtually everything in it. Indeed U.S. reports cite a general ordering a stop to the bombing of Pyongyang since “nothing worthy of a name” was left standing. A 1951 international women’s delegation reported U.S. bombers shooting fleeing civilians in the North Korean countryside.
The Delegation questions why such carpet-bombing of civilian urban areas is rarely prosecuted as a war crime. Clearly in light of the photographs we saw, the leveling of entire cities and civilian targets stands as a heinous act equivalent to the bombing of London, Coventry, Rotterdam, Dresden, Hamburg, Tokyo, and Hiroshima.
Upon arrival we had an unexpected experience. In the lobby of our guesthouse hotel was a large muscular fellow who was clearly not Korean. We asked where he was from and he said Hawaii. We were curious as to why there might be other Americans here and became more curious when he told us he was a Major with the U.S. Military. He was there with his unit on a joint project with the North Koreans to recover remains of U.S. soldiers during the Korean War. This seemed strange as we had been led to believe that we were on the verge of war with this country. Further discussions over the next few days with the soldiers in the unit served as important corroboration for our observations. The soldiers indicated that the DPRK was not what they had been led to expect, that people were very friendly to them and that they had traveled extensively in the countryside and the people appeared well fed. As we would also discover, they said. “Crops were growing everywhere,” In addition, it was surprising that the DPRK permitted the soldiers to install and use a radio to communicate with each other and the U.S. in our Pyongyang guest house.
III. The Role of Lawyers
After settling in we had a formal dinner with our hosts and a lawyer who was head of the Government Liaison for International NGOs, Mr. Ri Myong Kuk. He spoke of the DPRK’s Nuclear Deterrent Force being necessary in light of U.S. world actions. If the U.S. signed a peace treaty and non-aggression agreement with the DPRK, it would de-legitimize the presence of American troops in the South and lead to re-unification, he said. He then turned to all of our roles as lawyers, “It’s important that lawyers are gathering to talk about this as “lawyers regulate the social interactions within society and within the world.” He pointed out that our work parallels the responsibilities inherent on interactions between countries. He agreed that the path to peace includes “having to help open the heart.”
The delegation agree that lawyers have a key role to play in the current situation. The Korean standoff raises serious issues of international law that must be addressed. The history between the two nations is replete with promises and breached promises, something that lawyers deal with regularly. Simple promises, if they had been kept, could have changed the course of human history and despair on the peninsula. For example we read the armistice agreement signed at the DMZ in which Article IV promised, “within three months higher level meetings would be held to settle through negotiation the question of withdrawal of all foreign forces and peaceful settlement.” This was not accomplished because the U.S. refused to meet, despite requests over the years by the North Koreans to meet anywhere and anytime. Over fifty years later the troops remain and no peace treaty has been signed. South Korea never even signed the armistice agreement. The 1953 cease-fire agreement provided that both sides “shall not engage in any blockade of any kind of Korea.” This binding agreement appears to be violated by the U.S. conduct to intercept and discourage the transport of goods, food and other materials to the DPRK.
A lack of good faith in discussions, sometimes referenced in the law of contracts as a covenant of good faith and fair dealing, appears violated in many situations. Wendy Sherman, Clinton’s advisor on North Korea, had indicated that when they entered into the famous Agreed Framework of 1994, wherein the North Koreans would be trading their nuclear capability for two light water reactors and fuel oil, and in exchange for working toward normalizing political and economic relations, the Administration had no intention of complying with the agreement. The Clinton Administration believed the Kim Jong Il administration would collapse long before the U.S. had to provide the reactors. This lack of good faith in international relations surrounding a matter of such importance to the world would be against the common law if the breach of promises were between private parties.
Kim Jong Il shakes hands with former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at the Pae Kha Hawon Guest House in Pyongyang, North Korea, in 2000 (Source: Nhpr)
Couple this with the Bush administration declaration of North Korea as a member of the “axis of evil,” and advocating regime change, and we realize that the U.S. must be held accountable for its failure to deal fairing and in good faith with the DPRK. Our research demonstrates that it was the United States that breached nearly all of its obligations under the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework before the DPRK returned to its nuclear program. The delegation feels that the U.S. government cannot advocate the rule of law and democracy, when in fails to model it itself.
Clearly lawyers play an important part in pointing out breaches of agreements and violations of law, but more importantly we can help to demonstrate why trust has been violated by the conduct of the United States. Our group pondered what types of legal actions could be brought to illuminate the situation and bring peace. This will continue to be explored by the Project.
IV. AWWar Crimes
On our first night we met in out hotel room to de-brief from arrival. The enormity of our task as North American lawyers in the DPRK at this moment in history was clear. As we shared our feelings and thoughts, suddenly the world faded to darkness. The power outage had us scrambling for flashlights, solar lamps supplied in our rooms and candles. It was a strange moment and the silence was a stunning reminder of the role technology plays in our lives. Before leaving we had read articles that claimed that this “hermit kingdom” had no power at night and was a dark spot from space. President Bush presents this map in speeches to claim that “the light of freedom” shines only in the South. Yet, we would learn over the next few nights, and even later that evening, that this too was an exaggeration. We had power throughout the other nights of our visit, and with the exception of an occasional rolling blackout for a few minutes, the lights do shine in Pyongyang. We also saw lights on in blocks of apartment buildings as we drove through Pyongyang at night. We suspect that the photo from space was taken during one of the blackouts.
The next day we were taken around Pyongyang by our hosts to the “Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.” The first part of the Museum addresses the struggle against the Japanese from 1925 until liberation in 1945. The “second stage” of the war is devoted to the war against” U.S. Imperialist Aggressors” and the victory they assert the North Koreans achieved in the war. Clearly the North Koreans, along with some million-plus Chinese forces, did preserve their territory during the war, but at great costs.
Before leaving on the trip we researched extensively about the Korean War in an effort to better understand the feelings and motivations of the North Koreans. We had not realized the extent of the level of destruction and human suffering during the war. In Washington we have monuments to the 53,000 U.S. soldiers who died, but there were more than 3.5 million victims of the war, resulting in one in ten Koreans being wounded or killed. The New York Times reported that 17,000,000 pounds of Napalm were sent to Korea in the first 20 months of the war. The North also suffered years of US bombing that leveled nearly the entire Country. The U.S. commander halted the strikes near the end of the war because, he said, there was “nothing standing worthy of a name.” More bomb tonnage was dropped on Korea by the U.S. than they dropped on Japan in the entire Pacific action in World War II. One delegation member exclaimed before the trip “Can you imagine the pain, anger and mistrust of the equivalent to a twin towers attack in every neighborhood?”
The museum has a broad collection of documents, photos and physical evidence of war crimes committed by the United States and its U.N. allies in the Korean War. The museum holds many documents captured in the American embassy by North Korean forces when they overran South Korean defenses in Seoul. Assuming they are legitimate, which they appear to be, the documents are compelling evidence that the United States planned an attack on North Korea in 1950 and used the South Korean army to claim an attack by North Korea. This allowed the United States to persuade the UN Security Council to vote, in the absence of two of its permanent members, the USSR and China, for support for a UN action under US command to repel the “attack form the North.” The museum presented the vote as invalid because of the absence of the USSR and China, concluding that the U.S. manipulated the absences, rendering the entire “police operation” in Korea illegal. In addition, the conclusion was that the illegal action was a cover for the attempt by the United States to conquer and occupy North Korea with a view toward potential invasions of Manchuria and Siberia. Members of our group took notes of these documents and photographs.
We were later provided with the reports on US War Crimes committed in Korea compiled during the war itself by the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL) in 1952 and the Report of the Committee of the Women’s International Democratic Federation in Korea in 1951. The National Lawyers Guild had been part of the IADL, which prepared their report in 1952. The reports are displayed prominently in the Museum and serve as important international legal corroboration of the DPRK positions.
The NLG delegation urges its membership to investigate further DPRK’s allegations that its protests of international law violations have been ignored by the United Nations. The international delegations in North Korea in 1951 and 1952 documented directly the violations, and DPRK evidence of biological and chemical warfare during the Korean War have been confirmed. The delegation urges that the 1951 and 1952 reports be reissued, offering the ill-informed people of the West another truth about the Korean War, and a means of understanding the reality of the fear Koreans live under every day, dreading and fearing a similar attack in the future.
It is important in international affairs to acknowledge and take responsibility for actions. The Japanese has had to express its “heartfelt apologies and remorse” over the pain inflicted in their occupation of Korea. The South African Truth and Reconciliation process has demonstrated that “without truth, you can have no reconciliation.” The atrocities committed under apartheid were exposed and the denial of the white community broken through the “truth” searching process.
The delegation concluded during this trip from their observations and the research already compiled that there were extensive violations of international law and possible war crimes committed during the Korean War that have never been prosecuted or exposed publicly. When the truth is more widely acknowledged, peace and understanding can follow.
The most graphic examples of war crimes became evident during over visit to the town of Sinchon in the province of Hwang Hoe. It was here that troops from the South and U.S. soldiers appear to have engaged in egregious war crimes. We strolled past rows of photographs and depictions of the attacks on civilians and photos of charred and decapitated bodies. Documentation seized from the South supported a policy of hunting and killing Communist party members “and their families.” We saw the documentary evidence of the over 500 people who had been forced into a ditch, doused with gasoline, and set on fire and left to burn to death. We stood in an air raid shelter with still walls blackened with burnt flesh where over 900 people, including, women and children huddled during the onslaught, while U.S. soldiers were seen pouring gasoline down the air vents of the “shelter” and setting it on fire. The murders were allegedly conducted and ordered by a U.S. officer named Harrison, who also dropped lit dynamite down a nearby shelter as well.
When we emerged from the shelter there were hundreds of North Korean soldiers being told the heartfelt story from a woman whose family had died at Sinchon. Her voice shook with emotion and the soldiers watched us carefully as we moved forward to place some flowers at the monument and mass grave site of Sinchon. Shame does not even begin to describe the feelings we experienced at Sinchon, but it has bolstered our commitment to work for peace and demonstrate that war cannot be an option.
V. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)
One of the most dramatic moments of the trip came at the DMZ and the infamous joint use bunkers of Panmunjom. However, the drama was not what was expected. Before coming to the DPRK, we had read about the DMZ being the most tense and dangerous place on the planet. We were ready for a highly charged military fortress flanked by machine guns, barbed wire and masses of military personnel. That was not what we discovered.
The standoff at the bunkers where soldiers stare each other down across an imaginary line seemed filled with showmanship and a certain level of absurdity. When we arrived, U.S. and South Korean soldiers, reportedly chosen for their size, watched us through field glasses as we approached the borderline. We met in the joint use shared space and in the building where the armistice agreement was signed. The beautiful hills of the DMZ, along with the five rivers that poor into the lush landscape, make it more suited for an eco-park than a war staging ground.
South Korean soldiers patrol the barbed-wire fence of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) (Source: PressTV)
The drama came not from the military standoff, but from the heart-felt exchanges we had with military officers on the North side of this fractured land. When we arrived and descended the steps of the bus we were met by Major Kim Myong Hwan, the officer in charge of negotiations between the north and south in the DMZ. When he recognized one member of our delegation from a previous trip, they embraced him and a laugh and beautiful smile spread across his face. “Welcome my old friend,” he said. He and Peter then held hands as they laughed and reminisced through translation a short, but meaningful connection from two years prior that obviously had touched both of their hearts.
Major Kim smiled and shared his dreams of having wanted to be a writer or journalist, but described in more somber tones the story that led him and his five brother to “walk the line in the DMZ” as soldiers. He wanted to tell his story to us as Americans and as lawyers “because lawyers bare trust and justice in their hearts.” He softly assured us that their struggle is clearly “with the American Government, not the American people.” He described being “lonely for his family lost” at Sinchon – his grandfather strung up a pole and tortured, his grandmother dying from a bayonet in her belly. Tears welled up ion his eyes as he described his father being orphaned at six years old and his father’s inability as a young child to defend his family. “So we have to do it,” he said. Astutely, he declared that we “do not oppose the American People. We oppose U.S. hostile policy and its efforts to exercise control over the whole world and inflict calamity on other people.”
As we walked along an overlook he pointed to a South Korean outpost that still flew the United Nations Flag. To fly the UN flag, he said, is illegal, when they are not commanding nor funding the operation. The UN exists “to ensure peace,” not push to ignite a war. He regretted the UN supporting role in the war, but then stated that today most countries that took part in the UN operation now have formal diplomatic relations with the DPRK. He understood very well that “the UN is sometimes misused by the United States.”
At another location some miles away on the DMZ we met a Colonel who set up field glasses through which we could see across the divide. We could see a concrete wall built on the South side, a violation of truce agreements. The major described such a permanent structure as a “disgrace for the Korean people who are a homogenous people.” A loud speaker continuously blared propaganda and music from speakers on the south side. The irritating noise goes on for 22 hours a day, he said. Suddenly, in another surreal moment, the bunker’s loudspeakers began belting out the William Tell overture, better known in America as the theme from the Lone Ranger.
The Colonel urged us to help people see what is really going on in the DPRK, instead of basing their opinions on misinformation. He told us “We know that like us the peace loving people in America have children, parents and families.” We told him of our mission to return with a message for peace and that we hope to return someday and “walk with him together freely in these beautiful hills.” He paused and said, “I too believe it is possible.”
VI. The Countryside and Hours of Talk
Much is written about the alleged starvation, even referred to as intentional, of the North Korean people by their government. On our trips in the countryside, both north and south of Pyongyang, we covered nearly 500 kilometers. During that time we had the opportunity to see agricultural communities and small towns. We noticed that the people on the whole looked well dressed and active. We saw no one who looked malnourished or emaciated and our observations were confirmed by many of the foreigners we met who had dealings around the country. The DPRK has very little are able land and we saw crops being harvested everywhere it was possible to grow them. It appears every square inch of arable land is cultivated, and on the roofs of their country cottages people had planted vines of what looked like melons or squash. The people we passed on the road or in rural towns looked relaxed. The images of children heading to school or playing, or women sitting side saddle on bikes as their husbands pedaled, provided human moments that make war unthinkable. No one seemed dispirited or broken.
We noted that this was not the Orwellian society George Bush and much of the media is trying to portray. The countryside appeared to us to be more typical of the poorer part of Europe, for example rural Greece, or Spain or Portugal. Three members of the delegation who had experience in Africa noted that the country appeared much more prosperous than most places they had been in Africa. This was confirmed by the Congolese visitors we met, who indicated that people in many parts of the Congo would love to have the standard of living apparent in North Korea. The landscape, with its mountains in the background, and ravines, its trees, its rivers and arid parts, and houses with white walled, ochre tiled roofs was similar to southern parts of Europe.
Another surprise was the absence of a police presence throughout the country. We never saw a single policeman with a gun or even a club. The only police we saw were police officers, mainly women, directing traffic at certain intersections. There were occasional guard stations along the road down south as we approached the DMZ. We saw soldiers in many places, usually helping harvest crops or working in the fields or helping on a construction site. But we rarely saw a soldier armed. The contrast between North Korea and its lack of policemen and North America in which armed police in bulletproof vests are commonplace was more than striking – it was startling. If the presence or absence of armed policemen is a criterion for a free society then this speaks volumes about the nature of the two societies.
The towns we passed through although not rich by any means appeared prosperous enough and we could see factories in operation as well as farming. There was clearly a lack of farm machinery as most of the farming we saw was done by manual labor, but this is at least in part due to fifty years of sanctions, the inability to purchase the proper equipment, and fuel shortages related, in part, to shifts in policy by the DPRK in reliance upon the 1994 Agree Framework. We also saw several unrepaired bridges washed out and damaged during the floods in 1995-96 and more recently during a typhoon which devastated the country. We learned that the floods had been catastrophic, wiping out crops and homes, bridges and hydro-electric stations, and flooding mines. It is clear that they suffered from a series of calamities that would have left any country in devastation, regardless of its economic policies. It is to their credit that, despite these disasters, despite the continuing US economic embargo, and despite efforts among some nations to delay food and other aid in the hopes the current government will collapse, they have managed to survive and revive their economy and provide a basic standard of living. They freely admit that after the floods food shortages caused serious deprivations.
VII. The Circus
International relations can sometimes seem like a circus. So it was no surprise when we found ourselves one evening attending a circus performance in Pyongyang. It was a Cirque du Soleil type performance, with acrobats, ice-skating, and a live orchestra. The breathtaking spectacle was made more remarkable by the presence of a large number of soldiers and sailors in the audience who laughed loudly at the clowns and comics and oohed and aahed like the rest of us at the high wire acts. The monolithic robotic repressive army described in the western press became as it appears, a mere figment of the imagination, as we shared joy and laughter rather than threats and rhetoric. We realized that the governments of nations often forget that the alleged “enemy” is really made up of people with hearts and feelings, and that armies are often staffed by teenagers and young men and women. We are walking a tightrope in a nuclear standoff, but for a moment, all differences faded and smiling together at the folly of humanity ruled the day.
The circus also further dissolved the stories of North Korea’s isolation. People attending came from different parts of the world, and from everyday North Koreans as well. But most surprising was when a young man who asked in English where we were from approached us after the performance. It turned out he was with a group of tourists from… South Korea!
VIII. Human Exchanges
The key to the success of any delegation is to have as much human exchange as possible and to then encourage governments to address international relations through a human filter. Former Archbishop Desmond Tutu has eloquently stated that
Their humanity is caught up in our humanity, as ours is caught up in theirs…when I dehumanize you, I inexorably dehumanize myself….
One of our final contacts with people came picnicking along side groups of North Koreans along a crystal clear river in the mountains. We were surprised at the relaxed atmosphere among the people themselves and with us. After learning that there were Americans there, one group next to us sent us over a huge plate of clams. We spoke with them and exchanged hopes for peace and relayed greetings from the millions of peace-loving Americans. As we walked another group wanted to take our photos and to sing them a song. While the delegation disavows any notion of in-tune group harmony, we sang “We Shall Overcome” as the group clapped and smiled joyfully at this likely first for both of us. As we finished they surrounded us and joyfully filled our pockets with apples, as our eyes filled with tears of appreciation. Little did we know upon going to this country, where its populace was allegedly being starved, that we would have our pockets stuffed with produce!
When we returned to our hosts at our picnic site, we were entertained with beautiful Korean songs with each of them taking turns. Playfully each person would finish singing and they would point to another who had to step up and sing. We know that if the contest between the lawyers of each nation were singing that this would have ended with our defeat quite swiftly! We ended up singing old anti-war and protest songs by a creek in the woods of North Korea with pockets bulging with fruit. The threat of war seemed not only far away, but inconceivable.
On our way back to Pyongyang we stopped at a resort hotel in a valley below the picnic area to drop off our hostess who had prepared the food for our picnic, only to run into busloads of Chinese tourists. Isolation does not appear to be the objective of the DPRK. We remember that it was the government based Democratic Lawyers Group that had reached out and invited us to the DPRK.
On a side note, during these days with our hosts and with others we met we never got the impression that anyone felt afraid to talk to us or to approach us or to answer our questions. On the contrary, we were constantly impressed by the sincerity and directness of the Korean people. Our two hosts, Mr. Jo and Mr. Bang earnestly tried to answer all our questions on very aspect of society. No question seemed off limits or answered in an apparent desire to avert the truth. As trial lawyers we have substantial experience and training in telling when someone is being evasive or untruthful. As a group we concluded that we were not being misled, nor were answers intended to divert us from a deeper inquiry. We covered the gamut, including women’s involvement in the high levels of government, criminal justice, capital punishment, crimes against the state and nuclear weapons. Our hosts seemed eager to provide us information and share their experiences. We were treated to the sharing of family photos and laughter over children, ping-pong and the state of the world.
Others we encountered and spoke to also appeared to us to be sincere and direct in their responses to our questions and honestly were trying to make us understand them as a people and to understand their brand of socialism in Korea. We never felt we were being manipulated or used and we were not paraded in front of the media or used for any internal propaganda purposes. We felt like honored and respected guests.
IX. Particular Observations:
A. The Juche idea of socialism
Our delegation began an exploration of the Juche form of socialism developed by the North Koreans to better understand the goals and intentions for society in North Korea. An interesting expansion of socialist philosophy is present in the very symbol of the nation and Juche, wherein the hammer and sickle are joined by an artist’s calligraphy brush, symbolizing the intellegencia and artists, along with the industrial and agricultural workers.
In simple terms Juche is the Korean word for independence, which is the basis of their external and internal policies. The North Koreans consider that no country can maintain true independence of action unless they are truly sovereign. Having experienced multiple invasions over 5,000 years and believing that socialism can be constructed in a single country if the motivation is there, the North Koreans try to maintain as much independence as possible while recognizing their interdependency with the outside world. They also translate this into society itself. “Juche” is often translated as “self-reliance.”
For the North Koreans, Marx and Lenin were great revolutionaries insofar as analyzing capitalist society and its transformation into socialism is concerned, but they could not and did not understand what it meant for human beings to live in a socialist society. These 19th century philosophers could only speculate about what a socialist society would be like. The North Koreans believe that it was Kim Il Sung who developed a philosophy of a socialist society. While statutes and murals abound to the later founder of the Country, Kim Il Sung, we observed no references to Marx and other international socialist leaders.
The Koreans believe they have a way of looking at society that can maintain socialism and the revolutionary and humanistic forces that are needed too maintain and improve it. Kim Il Sung stated that individuals in the society must have independence, creativity and consciousness. If any one of those three is missing no one can be a complete progressive human being and no socialist society can exist. It is the North Koreans’ contention that the fall of the USSR can be primarily ascribed to the mistake of the Soviets in failing to create and sustain this idea and spirit in the USSR, the result being a loss of faith in the revolution in the USSR and a regressive slide back into capitalism.
This appears also to be their concern for China as well, that it has slipped into capitalism due to a complete misunderstanding of what a socialist society is and can be both for the collective society but also for the individual as well. Certainly our delegation’s observations in Mainland China supported that the market system is booming and that vestiges of Mao’s China appear hidden in the seams.
This notion of the role of the individual in socialist society and how it is actually being played out in North Korea will be one of the topics for further delegations to follow-up on. Whether the North Koreans can maintain their approach with increasing joint ventures with corporations and further tourism remains to be seen. Furthermore, unlike stated justifications for isolating other socialist regimes over the years, such as their desire to export revolution, similar concerns seem inapplicable in the North Korean context. We appear to be maintaining this state of war and isolation, not because they are a threat to the rest of the world, but soley because of their ideology.
B. The Role of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il
The U.S. government and press have continually demonized the leadership of North Korea as “evil dictators,” the “last emperors”, “ruthless.” and murderers of their own people. In fact, the U.S. President G.W. Bush went so far as to make insulting and discriminatory comments, calling Kim Jong Il a “pygmy” and that “little” dictator. This attack on leaders that appear to harness great respect from within their country appear misguided and intended to thwart peace. The delegation voiced concerns as to whether efforts to demonize and dehumanize another country’s leader aids in preparing the American people for another war. Saving face in Korean society, called ch’emyon, is very important and we urge our leaders to understand Korean culture when they deal with this complex nation. We cannot be respected unless we respect others.
One afternoon we visited the birthplace of Kim Il Sung, the first leader of the DPRK. He appears highly respected and much loved here because he fought his entire life for the sovereignty, independence and dignity of the Korean people, first against the Japanese, then against the Americans. Despite the allegations made by some in the west that a “personality cult” exists in North Korea, that was not our impression. On the contrary we found that their former leader Kim Il Sung is regarded in much the same way as people regard, for example, Mao in China, Churchill in WW II Britain, or Washington in the United States. Our visit to the birthplace, as one delegation member noted, might have been a stroll around Mt. Vernon – the home of George Washington.
Kim Jong Il appears to be respected as someone who continues to fight for the same principles as his father. He was not immediately appointed after his father’s death, but took a long period of mourning. The Korean Workers Party and National Assembly took much time and allegedly engaged in extensive discussion before electing him. He had been heading the military for some time and continued in this role in the interim. However, there appears to have been some chaos and an actual vacuum of leadership during this time-period. This may have contributed to the economic struggles of the late 1990’s.
We learned that under the Juche principle, a strong leader is necessary to guide the will of the collective as represented in the Workers Party and the Assembly. However, as discussed below, the North Koreans have an elaborate system from the shop or farm level up to receive input on key national issues. How well this is utilized is a project for further delegations, but to assert that there is no democratic participation, only top-down decisions, in the DPRK appears an exaggeration.
We did not meet Kim Jong Il, something that appears possible on a later delegation. We also cannot on such a short trip have sufficient time to assess the basis of his apparent support. However, the absence of weapons and visible military intimidation makes the usual explanation of a brutal intimidating dictatorship suspect. We do know that a state of war leads to a nation rallying around its leadership and North Korea has had the threat of war hanging over it for over fifty years. Until there is peace, it is unlikely that we will fully understand the strengths and weaknesses of the current leadership.
From all observations, in light of the survival of their nation under great pressure and great obstacles, it appears that there are many positives that are overlooked by the simplistic rhetorical bashing of the media. We can only conclude that the people we met appear to have genuine respect for the insights and actions of the “Dear Leader” who is guiding their country. Yet, we questioned whether challenging him openly would result in prison or other penalty. From our own experiences in the U.S. or Canada, we have seen people in our own countries persecuted for their beliefs and opinions. We have watched while Muslims are attacked or detained without due process, teachers fired if they opposed the war and brutal attacks by police against those opposing the war in Iraq. Look at the reaction to Michael Moore as “disloyal” for calling the war fictitious and saying to President Bush “Shame on you, Mr. President.”
Our hosts answered that such challenges to the Leadership rarely happen. The reasons for this might be tied to the Juche philosophy, the reluctance to question a leader during a state of war (something Americans can relate to), peer social pressure or, as some in the West allege, fear of retaliation. We simply cannot know about a broad cross-section of DPRK citizens from our short trip. As more delegations travel to the DPRK, and a peace economy and society prevails, we will begin to understand this relationship more.
One morning we traveled to the north of the country to beautiful Mt. Myohyang and the Museum of Presidential Gifts. The museum itself is impressive in size and architecture, but its placement is stunning. One overlook where we enjoyed some ginseng tea took our breath away and several of the delegation noted it was one of the most beautiful spots they had ever seen. The museum contains all the gifts given to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il by visitors and leaders of other countries. The stated purpose of the museum is to share the gifts with all of society, but it also serves to project to the people the respect given to their leadership by the international community. These gifts comprise all types of works of art and other objects from every country in the world including the United States. It was a spectacular display of fine artwork, furniture and even a car.
Some of the gifts were breathtaking, some surprising. For instance there were two gifts from Jimmy Carter and even one from the Reverend Billy Graham, described as “the religious leader of America.” Whether that is Mr. Graham’s description of himself or the Koreans’ misunderstanding or an exaggeration of his position was unclear. Yet, most Americans would not have realized in this world of myths and rhetoric that the North Koreans not only allowed Billy Graham to come to North Korea, but permitted him to preach in churches there.
The delegation came away from North Korea believing that the U.S. administration spends too much time demonizing the leadership of North Korea and forgetting that it is also a nation of millions of people who are peace-loving and, in the words of the North Korean Colonel we met at the DMZ, of people who “have children, parents and families.” Even our own experience shows that during times of threats and war, the best and worst in governmental leaders comes out. When former U.S. Jimmy Carter went to North Korea in 1994 it was in part because he was shocked that with a crisis brewing, no one was speaking with Kim Il Sung. Carter and Kim met, dined together, took a boat trip and lived the Winston Churchill declaration that it is always better to “talk, talk, talk than to fight, fight, fight.” From the understandings of the needs of each side in that meeting, an agreed framework was negotiated by the Clinton White House that reduced the threat of war.
It is clear that the North Korean leadership is willing to meet at anytime with the United States. Secretary State Madeline Albright found Kim Jong Il to be not what she had expected in her visit to Pyongyang. In fact, Kim Jong Il had invited Bill Clinton in 2000 and a trip was being discussed at the end of his administration, but the election debacle of 2000 and developments in the Middle East ended that dream.
The delegation is greatly saddened by the shift from a policy of dialogue to one of demonization and commits to work to reverse this dangerous and provocative trend. It welcomes quite recent moves in the Bush administration to reconsider signing a non-aggression agreement, but urge them to also establish formal diplomatic and economic relations and agree on a timetable to remove U.S. troops. It takes more than promises to be non-aggressive, as a nation’s actions must reflect their words.
C. The Legal System
We were told that the legal system is based on the Napoleonic Code, but it appears to be more in line with the German Civil code, as introduced by the Japanese. There is a structured court system in both the criminal and civil fields, and that there is a system of family and tort law as well. In our short trip we could not learn the details of the DPRK legal system and we need to go back to learn more. We asked to be taken to courts and law faculties to speak to professors and students, but due to the short nature of the trip, and a misunderstanding about our arrival date, it was not possible to arrange. We have also asked to visit courts, but it was not possible on this trip.
Through discussions and research de discovered that the law of criminal procedure provides that court proceedings shall be open, but also contains a clause that allows a hearing to be closed if “there is a fear of exercising a bad effect on society.” Such a provision could lead to abuses and to better understand it we need a sense as to how many proceedings are really open. Is it used more broadly than some of the privacy and national security claims made in the U.S., or the current military tribunals for alleged terrorists, to justify closed or secret hearings? However, our hosts assured those of us from the delegation who plan to return, that our future delegations would include visits to the courts and meetings with more lawyers and judges.
We were struck by the design of the DPRK criminal justice system. We even found in a bookstore the Criminal Procedures Act of the DPRK in English. Several principles seem quite progressive and reflect more of restorative justice, than retributive justice. The prime objective of the criminal justice system is rehabilitation or setting an example, not punishment,. There is an element of the latter, as there are jail terms for crimes, but this is not the major thrust of their system. In fact, they have codified a process by which those affected by the decision or the conduct of the accused have a real role in the process and those that contributed to the delinquent act or were involved in educating the person (i.e. a parent or friend) have to be available in the process to receive a “lecture” from the court. Penalties include submitting the accused to “social” or “public education.” Those arrested are required to have their families notified within 48 hours. A defense counsel is to be provided to represent the rights of the accused.
We were told that there was no death penalty and that the maximum penalty for any crime is 12 years, with the objective being to try to determine why the person committed the crime and to help that person become a productive member of society. A lack of a death penalty was seen by the delegation as a sign of a civilized nation. There appear to be labor camps where people work out their sentences. No effort was made to hide the presence of these camps. The U.S. media’s recent reports on the poor conditions, high mortality rate and lack of proper care or food, in the camps requires further investigation. In light of the false and exaggerated claims about starvation in the country in general, these reports must be viewed with a grain of salt. We will ask to visit these camps on future delegations.
We asked about the penalties for crimes against the state and whether there was a separate system for those crimes. There is not, but provisions are made for crimes that present a “social danger.” This seems consistent with a socialist society organized around the “common good,” but very general and could be subject to abuse. How it is applied remains to be discovered. However, the North Koreans we met with seemed professed to not understanding how someone would really formally challenge the decisions of the collective, as there is, according to them, an elaborate mechanisms for participation and input at various levels off society.
As in Cuba, education is free up to Ph.D level. University students are paid a small stipend. Universities and specialty colleges have been established for all regions of the country and entry is by competitive examination. Any student can apply to go to any university or college as long as they pass the entrance examination. After the completion of their education DPRK tries to place the students in the field in which they are trained. Apparently the country has the capacity to enroll between 40 and 60% of the high school students in university at this time.
E. Health Care
Again as in Canada, Cuba, and much of Europe, health care is completely free of charge. Moreover, doctors make house calls in rural areas. Every city has a main hospital and there are specialty hospitals in the larger towns. The system is then composed of regional, district and local clinics all staffed by doctors and nurses so that no one in the country is without medical care. Further, doctor visits each village or city district to ensure preventive techniques are used and that people are doing their best to keep fit. There is an on-going keep fit program in place in the country in which the population has to maintain a certain level of fitness appropriate for age categories. However, in light of economic sanctions there is a shortage of medical supplies.
The floods and drought periods caused disruption of the food supply and caused malnutrition but this appears to have been overcome and the population generally appeared in good condition. Contrary to claims that the disabled are hidden away by the secret regime, we observed disabled people in public who needed canes or had amputated limbs. Further, a woman with a developmental disability was among the friendly picnickers we encountered. According to the North Koreans, parents of children born with chronic conditions receive an extra stipend for their care at home, so long as they are able to stay in the home.
Housing is also free and consists either of fairly modern high rises or traditional cottage style houses with brick walls and tile roofs. While many of the high rises looked in need of paint or plaster, they appeared well kept and clean. On an evening drive through Pyongyang one of our delegation observed beauty and barber shops on the ground floor of an apartment building. We also observed work crews working on refinishing buildings within Pyongyang. While the homes lack many modern conveniences, we saw TV antennae attached to many of them. Housing is allotted by local peoples’ committees in each area who decide who in the area gets which accommodation taking into account various family needs and availability. Young people who are single and not away at school generally live with their parents until marriage at which time they are provided free accommodation.
G. Work Conditions
Labor unions exist but strikes are almost unknown as the government consults with the unions and managers on all aspects of work including wages and work conditions on what seemed to be a consensual basis. More needs to be learned about this process and the issues of unions in socialist states with only governmental employers are very complex. The next delegation hopes to tour plants and meet with worker groups.
Miners and steel factory workers—those whose labor is most dangerous and difficult — earn more than lawyers or doctors. The professionals take their reward out of the mental satisfaction of the job itself and the prestige which comes with it. So, unlike our society, it is those who work the hardest physically who make the most. Workers are encouraged to speak out if they have ideas on improving things and committees exist at the shop levels for input.
We received some magazines showing the foreign trade of the DPRK. One publication asserts that it has trade with over 100 countries and the government claims as a basis of trade policy that it is based on “the principle of independence, equality and mutual benefit.” The manufacturing sector produces generators, compressors, pumps, automobiles and trains; mines include lead, zinc, cadmium and steel. We saw photos taken within plants of very modern looking equipment, but did not have time to tour facilities. The textile plants and silk mills produce items and the many rivers make fisheries a growing business. Of interest was their development of solar battery production, seawater plants for health and longevity, peppermint oil, Insam ginseng and medicinal herbs.
H. Political System
As in Cuba and other one party socialist societies, North Korea has a system of direct democracy in which elections are held for local peoples committees, district and provincial committees and to the Supreme People’s Assembly. The absence of other parties is not considered a failing, as the entire society is socialist. The question of multiple parties did not even seem understandable to those we spoke to. The delegation questioned whether within that system, there is in fact more participatory democracy than in the American federal system or the parliamentary system in which democracy ceases to operate once the elections are over. It is more circular, with local committees sending up to the next level requests, complaints and so on and so on up to the national level with discussion, at least in theory at these levels and then feedback to the local level until an agreement is reached based on resources available and circumstances.
However, the issue is not whether we agree with DPRK’s system or feel that our democracy is better or more just. The sharing of ideas, principles and approaches can only come after establishing trust and building relationship. The delegation feels that it is incumbent on the United States to commit to peace and demilitarization of Korea and to agree to more exchanges. Through these exchanges ideas also change hands and both societies can benefit from the dialogue. Certainly we cannot say that only one political system is successful and generates a participatory and healthy society. We hope that future delegations can learn more about political dialogue within the DPRK system and share the pros and cons of our system without blame or judgment.
I. Military Service
Military service is compulsory for young men and lasts for three years. Young men can choose to defer their service until after university. Women are not obliged to serve in the armed forces, but a significant number do so out of a feeling of duty to the defense of the country. Substantial pride was evident in the manner in which troops appeared to hold themselves in public and through our personal contacts with officers at the DMZ as discussed above.
The goal of the DPRK and the Republic of Korea (ROK) has been to reunify the country. Kim Il Sung, just prior to his death in 1994, wrote a statement that declared that the two countries must make all efforts to achieve reunification. A monument to that historic document is found on the north side of DMZ. The country has been one for 1300 years, and two for only 58. In 2000, a joint declaration arose after a meeting between the Presidents of the two splintered nations to use respective proposals for a confederation to promote reunification. They agreed to economic cooperation and exchanges in “civic, cultural, sports, public health, environment and all other fields.” The delegation urges the U.S. to support, rather than continue to frustrate, these efforts and exchanges. If the South Koreans can commit to such relations isn’t it incumbent upon the U.S. to follow its lead?
The DPRK officials provided us with their written proposal for unification that calls for a Federation with a joint Supreme Assembly to pass laws for the federation, but one that allows each side to maintain its systems of government. Whether this is achievable remains uncertain, but the point remains that both sides want to have a united and peaceful nation. Therefore, it is our observation that the U.S. “defenses” may be doing more than “protecting” the South Koreans.
In fact, a unified and peaceful Korea, with a combined population of 77 million people, coupled with the growing economic power of China and the increased trade with Japan, makes Asia an increasing threat to the economic prowess of the United States. Already China is the largest manufacturing country in the world and has had an unparalleled growth rate of 10-15% per year for over twenty years. It was the opinion of the delegation that by maintaining instability in Asia, the U.S. can maintain a massive military presence and keep China at bay in its relations with South and North Korea and Japan and use it as a lever against China and Russia.
With the pressure to remove the U.S. bases in Okinawa, the Korean military operation remains a central point of American efforts to dominate the region. Furthermore, when read in light of the Cheney/Rumsfield and right wing pronouncements for a New American Century and the Clash of Civilizations, wherein they plan to fight several simultaneous theatre wars to preserve Western culture against Islam and then Asia, it is clear there is more at work here than we are being told.
K. The Role of Women
Most of people we spent extensive time with were men. We asked about the Supreme Assembly and saw photos of it. Women had not achieved proportional representation there In talks about gender issues there appears to be a great deal of respect for women, and an indication that they are recognized as capable for any job. However, whether this translates into a cultural paternalism was not clear. Clearly the dress is conservative and women did not appear objectified in the same ways they sometimes are as in the west. We met several very strong assertive women who were guides at some of our stops and who clearly and strongly put forth the Country’s positions. However, our nightly dinners with DPRK lawyers were all male. Further, the women entertainers and guides we encountered were often in “traditional” dress of organza in stark contrast to the garb of women in other jobs. The North Koreans have invited us to send a woman’s attorney delegation this next year and assured us that they would make arrangements to have the delegation meet with women lawyers and judges.
X. War and Peace
The U.S. military estimates that a new Korean war would lead to as many as I million people killed, including 80-100,000 Americans, out of pocket expenses of over $100 billion and an impact on the region of over 1 trillion dollars. Therefore, war is not a viable or civilized option. Yet, the U.S. continues to spend from 20-30 million dollars a year to maintain equipment and the military in South Korea. The delegation feels that this money could easily be diverted to the U.S. for health care or other important social functions.
The fundamental foundation of North Korean policy is to achieve a non-aggression pact and peace treaty with the United States. The North Koreans repeatedly stated that they did not want to attack anyone, hurt anyone or be at war with anyone. But they have seen what has happened to Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq and they have no intention of having that happen to them. It is clear that any U.S. invasion would be defended vigorously and that the nation can endure a long, arduous struggle.
The DPRK has given mixed signals on whether or not it has nuclear weapons. It refers to a “nuclear deterrent force.” One officer told us that they do not have such weapons and other officials indicated that they did. So one can conclude nuclear deterrent force exists, though it may be bluster to make the US think twice about an attack.
Nevertheless, the question is not whether the DPRK has such weapons, but whether the U.S., which has nuclear arm capability on the Korean peninsula, is willing to work with the North toward a peace treaty. In the end the cat and mouse game of “do they or don’t they” begs the question. We found North Koreans avid for peace and not attached to having nuclear weapons if peace can be established. However, in this age of “regime change” in Iraq, “pre-emptive war” doctrines, the U.S. efforts to develop low yield nuclear weapons and its abandonment of international treaties, it was not surprising to us that the DPRK would play the nuclear card. The tragedy is how can the American people fail to demand that their leaders exhaust all avenues of dialogue and peacemaking before even contemplating aggression and the continual deceptions being spun to justify maintaining a state of militarism on the Korean Peninsula.
XI. Final Observations and Future Activities.
Multiple reasons exist for having international delegations such as ours. First, we can be witnesses for peace and observe what is going on in another country. Second, we can carry messages of peace and friendship to countries under attack by our policies. Finally, we can carry back information to our country to have people better understand what is going on. We have engaged in all of these tasks and will continue to perform them. The above report seeks to share our observations and activities.
We are currently planning three delegations in the year 2004 and have invited DPRK to the National Lawyers Guild Convention in October 2004. One of the delegations will focus on women’s issues and one will combine the trip with a visit to South Korea for a regional progressive lawyers conference.
As to messages of peace we have taken steps to share them at every opportunity. Congressman Dennis Kucinich told the delegation to carry a message to Kim Jong Il that “there is someone running for President who won’t demonize him, genuinely believes in peace between our nations and will stop all the rhetoric.” At Mt. Myohyang we left a written message for all visitors to see that was immediately written out and translated in Korean:
To the People of the DPRK:
Thank you for the many inspirations from our trip to Mt. Myohyang and across the country. We carry you in our hearts as we head back to the United States and Canada to work for Peace, Friendship and a positive future for our nations and the our world.
The USA/CANADA NLG Peace Delegation October 2003
When we met with groups of people in parks or at gatherings, or even with soldiers along the DMZ, we let them know that there are millions of peace-loving Americans who are supportive of a peaceful co-existence with the DPRK. As with Americans before we left, the Koreans seemed relieved and hopeful that our trip can play a part in healing this conflict.
Upon leaving we left our hosts and the government with a message of thanks for their warm hospitality and declared:
We will return to America and Canada and join in the struggle to have the U.S. ends is aggression, establish full diplomatic relations and remove U.S. troops from Korea, thereby leaving the Koreans free to establish a peaceful unification.
On the nuclear issue, we believe that both sides should destroy all weapons of mass destruction and model for the world a peaceful relationship based upon respect, understanding and the principles of international law.
Already since our return we have appeared on television and radio, written articles, talked in Peace Centers, schools and meeting halls. We’ve held meetings with Presidential candidates and are drumming up support for further peace activities. Talks in the first few weeks have been given in Toronto, New Hampshire, Boston, Albuquerque, Los Angeles and Minneapolis.
The night before we left, one member from the delegation ran into the Congolese diplomats who had entered the country with us. They were asked what their experience of the country had been. They stated that they were shocked. That everything they had heard about North Korea, all the negative propaganda, was false. They added that it would be a dream for most Africans to have the life that people in North Korea had. They repeated that they were shocked and were intent on telling people so. It takes each of us to get the word out.
Upon leaving the country we met a Scottish businessman from Edinburgh who was enthusiastic about the country and was hoping to get in on the ground floor, a British journalist who was teaching web techniques and training on international stock markets to journalism students and government officials, and a Finnish nurse who had been there for three years. All had positive feelings for the country and its people, none wanted war and all hoped that the people of America would learn the truth. We carry their hopes and aspirations with us.
The people of the world have to be told the complete story about Korea and our government’s role in fostering imbalance and conflict. Action must be taken by lawyers, community groups, peace activists and all citizens of the planet, to prevent the U.S. government from successfully generating a propaganda campaign to support aggression in North Korea. The American people have been subjected to a grand deception. There is too much at stake to get fooled again. This peace delegation learned in the DPRK a significant piece of truth essential in international relations. It’s how broader communication, negotiation followed by maintained promises, and a deep commitment to peace can save the world – literally – from a dark nuclear future. Experience and truth free us from the threat of war. Our foray into North Korea, this report and our on-going project are small efforts to make and set us free.
Submitted by the 2003 NLG /AAJ Korea Peace Project Delegation