If you think establishing a government in exile is a simple matter of renting an office and designing a flag, just pause to consider the history of past efforts that had backing in Washington. The Iraqi National Congress may have loosely united many of the Iraqi emigres in Washington, but it appears to have had little support in Iraq or among most of Washington’s own feuding factions. Angola’s UNITA lived up to its name by uniting the country’s only effective opposition under a charismatic and brutal practitioner of witch-burning who was at least as bad as the Soviet-backed government he sought to replace. Afghanistan’s rebels may have been decisive in winning World War III, but their failure to achieve political unity nearly destroyed their country and sowed the seeds of World War IV.
Few exiled opposition movements have managed to successfully navigate the uncharted path between disunity and factionalism on one hand, and unity imposed by terror on the other. Then there is the matter of appealing to all of the squabbling factions in Washington, whose views vary between blind enthusiasm, hopeless naivete, and perfidious obstructionism. And the relative dominance of these views is subject to change with each U.S. election season.
In the case of North Korea, the challenges are even greater. There is still no known internal opposition of any significance. There are no dissident poets or scientists writing for clandestine newspapers, no Helsinki Watch, and no liberal priests. Any dissidents worthy of the name occupy mass graves. Hwang Jang Yop, an octagenarian with little charisma and deep ties to the regime and its ideology, is the only opposition figure of any national prominence.
North Korea’s Opposition Movement Is Born
Yet if the North Korean people are ever to see past the hopelessness of resisting the irresistable to a better future worth the risk of their lives, they must see a vision of what that future could be. That someone has finally stepped forward to build it deserves to be seen as an important step. At the very least, it should start a discussion among North Korean exiles and refugees (and perhaps, even a few still inside the North) that may lead to the formation of political parties and movements that can compete for popular support, and eventually, votes.
Last Friday, the Exile Committee for North Korean Democracy staked its claim on the barren soil of North Korean politics with a conference at the National Press Club and an event in one of the House office buildings on Capitol Hill. The ECNKD advocates supplying information to people inside North Korea, including the smuggling of radios and the broadcasting of information. It speaks of the need to take on the difficult and dangerous work of organizing resistance against the regime, giving a voice to those who are disaffected, hungry, or bereaved by losses during the famine. It means to recruit and train “democratic missionaries” from its 6,300 exiled members to go back and sow resistance inside North Korea.
It is both commendable and overdue for someone to speak to these needs directly, and any North Korean political movement that doesn’t undertake such measures assures that its constituency will not include any actual North Koreans.
The Right Man?
That being said, add me to the “skeptical” column when it comes to the question of whether Hwang Jang-Yop and the other men and women who lead the ECNKD are the ones who can inspire the North Korean people or lead them through what promises to be a difficult transition to reunification. Hwang could have spent his autumn years in the peace of his home. Instead, he has defied threats and South Korean efforts to muzzle him, and yet he remains politically active. It’s never easy to judge men like Hwang Jang-Yop or Rudolf Hess who were instrumental in setting up murderous regimes but later broke from them.
This is not the only baggage Hwang carries to the exiled opposition movement. At the Defense Forum Foundation event last Friday, former Democratic New York Representative Stephen Solarz drove directly to this point. Solarz, now a member of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, asked why Washington should accept Hwang’s professions of belief in democracy as sincere when he was the architect of the juche ideology and frankly, given that his departure from the North appears to have been a prudent act of self-preservation. The ECNKD’s representatives could only respond by asserting that Mr. Hwang is absolutely committed to democracy. Politics takes practice, but I was not among the persuaded.
Hwang doesn’t help matters by clinging to the juche system that was his intellectual offspring. He insists that the real juche–the one with which I’m obviously not familiar, since the one I recognize owes much to the Fuhrerprinzip–was a “people first” system, in contrast to Kim Jong Il’s “military first” wrongheadedness. I suppose it was inevitable that such in a Stalinist system, two such interpretations couldn’t coexist, and the holder of one of the diverging views would end up getting himself shot or running for dear life. The problem is, that’s how it was during the “good old” juche of Kim Il-Sung’s day. Hwang appears disturbingly untroubled by this, as do his colleages, many of whom appear to have absorbed his revisionist view of juche, and none of whom showed signs of the fire-eating charisma that inspires people to risk their lives for their freedom.
How to Lose Your Independence Before You Gain It
The Question of Reunification
The ECNKD also declares that reunification should be delayed for five to ten years while North Korea achieves prosperity under an interim government led by . . . Hwang Jang-Yop.
At this point, Gordon Cucullu (Gordon will emerge as an intellectual and organizational leader in the North Korean human rights movement this year; he has a book on North Korea’s drug trade coming out this fall) asked how Hwang’s interim government could possibly contain the human waves of hungry refugees and job-seekers who will start streaming into Dorasan the minute the statutes of the Great Leader are pulled down. Again, there was no satisfactory answer, nor many details. Would delayed reunification mean no votes for North Koreans in the interim? Would South Korean troops move in? How quickly would the machinery of oppression be dismantled? Does delaying reunification really mean something more like the creation of “special economic zones” inside North Korea, and which would be absorbed into a united Korea on a set timetable?
A sudden collapse will almost certainly mean chaos. Who will restore order if North Korean soldiers and police suddenly strip off their uniforms, blend into the population, or turn to banditry? Someone–either South Korea or China–will have to do it, and delaying the entry of South Korean troops invites China to step into a vacuum of dithering Korean politicians and take control itself. I didn’t leave the event with a clear understanding of whether Hwang was completely hostile to such a scenario. In this case, reunification would probably have to await a democratic upheaval in China itself, and perhaps longer.
A Start, Nonetheless
I hope these important and tough questions won’t be perceived as one ankle-biting American blogger’s criticism of the hard work of a small group of North Koreans who seek to bring freedom to their homeland. These criticisms, because they are honest, could greatly strengthen an opposition movement’s appeal within North Korea. I hope my year-or-two of writing and blogging speaks for my commitment to a common cause. Our own independence movement featured quasi-monarchists and slave-owners, and yet things did eventually work out much for the better. So it usually goes with open political systems, no matter how imperfect they may be at their inception.
If, five years from now, we look back on this as the week that the Exile Committee for North Korean Democracy formed the first embryonic political alternative for a new North Korea, it will have been a historic day. But for it to achieve its objectives, it will need the help of other defectors who understand that the North Korean system can only be ended by revolution, not by evolution.