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Breathless in North Korea

Children play at a daycare center in Pyongyang, where despite widespread poverty and a deeply militarized economy, many children enjoy better healthcare and childcare than children in wealthier Asian countries. But without a peace treaty to end the Korean War, the peninsula remains plagued by militarization and underdevelopment. (Photo: Christine Ahn)

Children play at a daycare center in Pyongyang, where despite widespread poverty and a deeply militarized economy, many children enjoy better healthcare and childcare than children in wealthier Asian countries. But without a peace treaty to end the Korean War, the peninsula remains plagued by militarization and underdevelopment. (Photo: Christine Ahn)

By Christine Ahn* | April 13, 2014 [Originally published in Foreign Policy In Focus, April 1, 2014]

For 60 years, Koreans on both sides of the DMZ have awaited a peace treaty. Instead they’ve gotten an arms race and political repression.

“Please don’t take her,” my sister pleaded with me. “You’ll end up in a prison camp.” She, along with the rest of my family, lobbied forcefully against my bringing my two-year old daughter on a recent peace-building mission to North Korea.

Granted, it wasn’t a great time to go to Pyongyang. It was during the dead of winter, freezing cold, with gray skies and barren trees. Even worse, our trip was bookended by two major events: the release of a 400-page report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea and the start of joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises simulating the invasion of Pyongyang. Furthermore, this year’s exercises featured a new policy of launching pre-emptive strikes against any suspected North Korean missile activity. Given the exchange of fire that nearly erupted during last year’s war games (and that did erupt shortly after our visit), it wasn’t an auspicious time.

What proved to be the greatest threat to my daughter, however, was neither of the above. It was the debilitating air pollution in China. To get to Pyongyang, we had to transit through Beijing, where we happened to be on a day the government advised children stay indoors to avoid breathing the pollution. But staying indoors didn’t stop the pollution from penetrating the airport walls and into my daughter’s lungs. She developed an unrelenting cough that worsened the day we arrived in Pyongyang. By nightfall, she struggled to breathe.

It was enough to make any mother panic. But it was worse. Here we were, far from home, in the most closed off country in the world.

At 2 am I woke up our hosts, and in an instant, we were in a minivan speeding through the dark streets of Pyongyang. The only lights on the road were the cars’ headlights. We pulled up to a dimly lit hospital, and in a flash, a doctor and two nurses greeted us and quickly led us down a cold and dark hallway into a warmed and well-lit examination room.

As the doctor placed his stethoscope on my daughter’s back, the lights went out in the entire hospital, as it often does throughout North Korea due to energy shortages. In that moment of darkness, tears streamed down my face. I cried, not just for my daughter whose condition was precarious, but also for the North Korean people who continue to suffer so heavily under the weight of an ongoing Korean War that has shaped every aspect of their lives.

Human Rights and War

While the UN human rights report and war games appear to be two disparate issues, they are linked by the Korean War, which came to an unresolved end on July 27, 1953 with the signing of the temporary armistice agreement. The signatories—the United States, North Korea, and China—committed to finalize a permanent peace treaty within three months. Sixty years later, we’re still waiting.

What has ensued instead for the past six decades is an endless arms race between South and North Korea. According to SIPRI, in 2013, South Korea was the world’s 12th highest military spender, with its expenditures reaching $31.7 billion for the year—though experts say this figure would be far higher if it included the salaries of soldiers. World Bank data shows that in 2012, 13.6 percent of the central government’s expenditures in South Korea went towards defense spending. And according to Suh Bohyuk, North Korea expert at Seoul National University, South Korea became the world’s number-two weapons importer in 2011.

North Korea invests approximately $8.7 billion—significantly higher than the $570 million Pyongyang claims—or one-third of its GDP in the military, according to the government-run Korea Institute of Defense Analyses in South Korea. To great surprise, Pyongyang acknowledged last year how the unended war has forced it “to divert large human and material resources to bolstering up the armed forces though they should have been directed to the economic development and improvement of people’s living standard.”

Unfortunately, North Korea’s heavy military spending isn’t just to defend against South Korea, but against the world’s most powerful military in the world: the United States. In 2012, by the most conservative estimates, Washington spent $682 billion on its military, or 39 percent of the world’s total spending. While the Pentagon uses China’s military spending, which has grown annually in the double digits, to justify Washington’s Asia-Pacific Pivot and unsustainable defense spending, the Korean War also plays a central role. At a March 25 Senate Defense Committee hearing on the 2015 budget, the commander of the U.S. Forces in Korea (USFK), General Curtis Scaparrotti, argued that while the 28,500 U.S. troops based in South Korea were “fully resourced,” he was concerned about the readiness of “follow-on” forces needed if fighting erupted.

The ongoing Korean War not only diverts investment away from the Korean people; it justifies repression in the name of national security on both sides of the DMZ. One week following the UN report on North Korean human rights, Amnesty International issued a public letter to South Korean President Park Geun-hye, daughter of the former dictator Park Chung-hee, concerning her administration’s use of the country’s National Security Law (NSL) “as a form of censorship to intimidate and imprison people exercising their rights.”

In response to the repression South Koreans are feeling, students launched a poster movement asking, “Are you doing all right?” which went viral through social media. The somber responses ranging from fear about rising poverty and unemployment to government corruption has galvanized millions of South Koreans to protest the Park administration’s policies, including her questionable tactics during the last presidential election. In the run-up to the vote, prosecutors found that the National Intelligence Service had ordered its psychological warfare division to launch a campaign to discredit liberal and left candidates by posting more than 1 million online messages vilifying them as “followers of North Korea.” According to Sukjong Hong, “Park denied that these activities had any effect on her winning margin of 1 million votes, but amid calls for her to step down or appoint an independent prosecutor, the administration filed to disband a leftist opposition party and accused lawmakers and citizens of espionage.”

And while repression in North Korea is widely recognized, less understood is why North Korea is such a militarized nation. “We cannot think of human rights without considering the sovereignty of a nation,” declared the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. North Korea has long declared the right to defend its national sovereignty, justifying its pursuit of nuclear weapons as a precaution against a U.S. invasion and occupation as recently experienced by Iraq and Afghanistan. While it might be easy to brush this off as mere paranoia, North Koreans only have to look back at their own history of surviving indiscriminate and unrestrained U.S. air raids during the war. According to University of Chicago historian Bruce Cumings, during the Korean War, U.S. airstrikes led to the destruction of 18 of 22 major North Korean cities. Cumings cites Hungarian journalist Tibor Meray, who recalled, “I saw destruction and horrible things committed by American forces. … Everything which moved in North Korea is a military target, peasants in the field often were machine gunned by pilots, who, this was my impression, amused themselves to shoot targets which moved.”

North Koreans must not only face down this tragic and traumatic past; their everyday lives are shaped by another form of war: U.S. sanctions. In a special edition on North Korea human rights in the journal Critical Asian Studies, Haeyoung Kim of the Korea Policy Institute documents how U.S. sanctions have not only failed to achieve their policy aims, but have direct bearing on the well-being of the North Korean people: “It is the North Korean people, moreover, not the governing elite, who bear the ultimate costs and suffer under these sanctions, creating an undeniable tension when considering the causal relationship between economic sanctions and human rights.”

While it’s important to see how the unended Korean War impacts the human rights of Koreans on both sides of the DMZ, we must also see the way in which the cause of human rights is being dangerously used to justify “regime change”—code for military intervention. In another Critical Asian Studies piece, North Korea scholar Hazel Smith outlines how “the securitized version of the debate insists that human rights abuses are so egregious that governments should automatically intervene militarily, especially given the international doctrine of the ‘Right to Protect,’ which permits foreign intervention on the grounds of genocide and other heinous crimes.”

And finally, right here in the United States, we must see clearly how the militarization of our country is gravely impacting our own human rights. Our government spends more than half of the federal discretionary budget on the military, diverting funds from investments that improve human health and security. Furthermore, it is perpetuating a culture of war that allows gross transgressions by the government on our basic human rights. In an assessment of how the United States was complying with the International Convention of Civil and Political Rights, the UN human rights committee delivered a heavy blow to the U.S. human rights record, citing torture, failure to close Guantanamo, drone strikes, NSA mass surveillance, the death penalty, fatal shootings by police, and the high proportion of black Americans in U.S. prisons.

At a Crossroads

The people of North Korea live extremely difficult lives. You can see it as you drive along the wide and sparse avenues of Pyongyang alongside over-crowded buses and in the weathered faces of the men and women walking those cold streets. And even during joyful moments, like at a musical performance at a daycare center, my heart ached as I watched four-year old toddlers perform perfectly in a musical ensemble while bundled up in three to four layers of clothes. And yet everyone—from the teachers to the nurses to the toddlers—carried on with immense pride and dignity.

The country is not without achievement. Despite famine, a nearly collapsed economy, and debilitating sanctions, North Korea still provides free and universal healthcare to its citizens and to visitors like my daughter, who under the care of the doctors and nurses in Pyongyang was brought back to health. North Korea’s physician-to-patient ratio is on par with high-income countries. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), North Korea has 33 physicians per 10,000 persons, whereas South Korea and the United States have only 19 and 27 physicians, respectively (though North Korea has a lower rate for nurses). Three decades of on-the-ground work by the WHO has shown that North Korea has amazingly low rates of measles, polio, and whooping cough due to far-reaching immunization programs for preventable diseases. And as Hazel Smith astutely points out, in 2013 when the UN special inquiry was established, “North Korean children were better off than children living in many other Asian countries, including many that were much wealthier than North Korea, such as India and Indonesia.” And unlike the United States—where this mother spends nearly 25 percent of her family income on childcare—North Korea provides universal childcare to all working moms.

I can see why, despite the hardships, North Korean people are proud of the society they are trying to create. But they will never be able to achieve their full potential unless the United States and the American people recognize how much the unresolved Korean War—and its consequent policies, from war games to sanctions—limits them. North Korea has forever requested a settlement of the Korean War with a permanent peace treaty, the lifting of sanctions and economic development, and normalized relations with the United States.

The prospect of constant war not only threatens human security on the Korean peninsula; it diverts urgently needed attention to the ecological crises facing humanity. My daughter’s experience in North Korea is a stark reminder of the real and urgent threats we are all facing. Air pollution is the single largest environmental health risk in the world, according to the World Health Organization. In 2012, it killed an estimated 7 million people.

“We are at the crossroads to either survival or self-destruction,” Pak Chol of the DPRK UN Mission wrote me in an email. “We have no time for hating and killing each other. We should put an end as soon as possible to all those cold war legacies for good and pull together to tackle our common task.” President Obama should put to rest his failed policy of “strategic patience” and re-start talks with North Korea. As former U.S. ambassadors to Korea urged in The New York Times last fall, “the current impasse, which only buys time for North Korea to develop its nuclear program, is unstable and that matters will only get worse if not addressed directly. It’s time for the Obama administration to reopen dialogue with Pyongyang.”

Next year—2015—will be the 70th anniversary of the division of Korea. In 1945, two American colonels drew a line across the 38th parallel so that Washington could have control over Seoul and Moscow everything north. By drawing that line, the United States divided a country that had been unified for thousands of years and paved the way for the Korean War. As the world’s unparalleled military power that was responsible for the division of Korea—whose unbridled air bombings killed millions during the war, and whose current policies of war games and sanctions keep the North Korean people on their knees—Washington must do the right thing and end this senseless and wasteful war. A peace treaty would go a long way towards defusing rapidly escalating tensions in Northeast Asia and freeing our leaders to urgently address the crises we collectively face so my daughter and future generations have a chance for survival.

Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Christine Ahn is also a Senior Fellow of the Oakland Institute, Co-chair of Women De-Militarize the Zone (DMZ) and a Korea Policy Institute Advisor.


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