An Open Letter to the US President-elect: Remember One Korea

A child suffering from malnutrition rests in a bed in a hospital in Haeju on Sept. 30, 2011. Editor’s note: These images were taken on a government controlled tour.

Photo Credit: NBC (Damir Sagolj, Reuters)

By: Grace M. Kang, Esq., Guest Contributor

Dear President-elect Trump,

I urge you, as the next President of the only superpower, to consider launching a “One Korea” policy that focuses on the peaceful unification of Korea as the ultimate goal for your efforts in resolving the North Korean security threat. I welcome your deal-making skills and willingness to consider out-of-the-box approaches. These qualities will be necessary for the complexities of the Korean peninsula, which requires your urgent attention, given the North’s rapidly advancing nuclear weapons and delivery capabilities. Please understand that long-standing US demands for denuclearization will never be heeded by the Kim Jong Un regime without radically changed circumstances. You should therefore accept a verifiable freeze as an interim step toward denuclearization, plus an end to the regime’s crimes against humanity, starting with the release of the prisoners in its political prison camps. Please make this your opening position for practical, moral, and strategic grounds.

An interim freeze is practical because Kim Jong Un is adamantly clear that he will never denuclearize. If sanctions and other factors allow, a freeze could lead to denuclearization—which must remain the stated objective—but that may be far down the road. No doubt, Kim has noticed what happened to Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi after he dismantled his nuclear efforts. In addition, demanding an end to Kim’s crimes against humanity is a moral necessity. Just as the international community seeks ceasefires in Syria and elsewhere, it must seek to halt North Korea’s crimes against humanity which are as damaging as active warfare; such crimes kill, wound, rape, and torture people daily and have done so for decades. While difficult to imagine, the release of 80,000 to 120,000 people from political prison camps would not be an existential threat to the Kim regime, so he cannot claim his own security as an excuse to refuse. North Korea’s 1.2 million active soldiers plus 7.7 million reserve and paramilitary personnel, as well as other security forces, can protect Kim from this much smaller number of people. Indeed, a major concern would instead be whether the freed prisoners would be able to re-enter society without abuse from state forces.

Even if Kim refused to consider the release of these prisoners, which is highly probable, tightly linking the issue to an interim nuclear freeze is good strategy. It recognizes the root cause of today’s security crisis: the need for legitimate governance of the Korean peninsula. The international community failed to conduct peninsula-wide elections to establish a legitimate government for a single Korea in 1948. Instead, the peninsula was divided into the Communist North and the US-backed South. Through no fault of the Korean people, their thousand-year history of unity ended with an arbitrary pencil marking at a map’s 38th parallel. Legitimacy of the rival governments has been an issue ever since.

Please understand that North Korea, under the Kim family regime, has built its “legitimacy” on crimes against humanity and totalitarian control unparalleled in the world today. It divides the entire population into classes subject to abuses based on levels of alleged disloyalty to the Kim regime, elevates Kim Jong Un to god-like status, and indoctrinates all people from their early childhood to love the Kim family as their fatherly protector from the hated enemy Americans. It also counterfeits US dollars, produces meth, and commits other crimes to finance its nuclear weapons development at the expense of adequately feeding its people. The North Korean government long ago morphed into an illegitimate, unconscionable, criminal enterprise that should shame the international community into correcting the great wrong of dividing a whole Korea for Cold War purposes.

Moreover, the US would benefit from a unified Korea with legitimate governance, including a greatly reduced probability of attack against the US and its allies by nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons of mass destruction (WMD), by proliferation to terrorists, and by conventional forces; withdrawal of US troops from the peninsula; eventual economic prosperity for the whole peninsula; and genuine stability in the region. All actors, including China and even a genuinely reformed Kim under a federal system, could gain from a united, legitimate Korea.

Of course, the people of Korea must want such unification; outsiders cannot forcibly impose it. South Koreans who now oppose unification must understand that unification that is peaceful, requiring legitimate governance and respect for international norms, and strongly supported by the international community, would not threaten their well-being, as it would be gradual with their willing participation, eventually leading to significant economic benefits. South Koreans who favor a more generous approach to North Korea must understand that the road to unification would mean greatly helping the North Korean people to a better standard of living through wide-reaching economic development projects and other opportunities that they would never get under an unreformed Kim regime. Most importantly, North Koreans under legitimate governance would also no longer suffer crimes against humanity and other gross deprivations of their rights.

Peaceful unification with legitimate governance, therefore, must be the beacon that illuminates your North Korea strategy. Let us be clear at the outset that this end state is the correct outcome for Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule at the end of World War II. Too many years have passed in which Korean families have been divided and unable to even contact each other; too many Koreans have perished under the illegitimate Kim regime and continue to suffer its crimes against humanity; too many Koreans are passing away because of old age before they can see their dream of a unified Korea under a single legitimate government.

Mr. President-elect, please consider building an internationally accepted “One Korea” policy with many partner states that demands legitimate governance of the entire peninsula. That governance could be achieved with a federal system composed of the existing southern and northern entities—but only if the North Korean regime radically reformed itself to become legitimate in line with the UN Commission of Inquiry’s 2014 recommendations. Otherwise, the international community must insist that South Korea (the Republic of Korea or ROK) be recognized as the only legitimate government on the Korean peninsula. The ROK Constitution states that its territory encompasses the entire peninsula. The international community must seriously consider de-recognizing the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” (“DPRK” or North Korea) as a state and supporting the ROK as the only lawful Korean government..

Such a position is not far-fetched; indeed, it was accepted international policy following the end of World War II. The UN General Assembly stated repeatedly that “the Korea Question” must be resolved in favor of a unified, independent, and democratic Korea. It also said that the ROK was the only lawful government on the peninsula, albeit that its elections were in the south only. In 1991, however, the United Nations accepted both the “DPRK” and ROK as members for political reasons that failed to foresee the catastrophe the “DPRK” would become. Although UN membership does not by itself create statehood, the international community has largely behaved as if “DPRK” is a state distinctive from the ROK. I contend that the international community must return to its original task of achieving a single, independent Korea under legitimate governance because that failure is the root of today’s crisis.

Facts on the ground today, however, in the form of Kim’s totalitarian control of the northern peninsula, make history seem irrelevant. Nonetheless, the international community has an increasing array of tools that it can use to effect change. International law and accountability have strengthened significantly since 1948; the creation of multiple international and hybrid criminal tribunals and the Responsibility to Protect doctrine (R2P) are examples. While imperfect, the world of 2016 demands accountability more than at any previous time. Opposing atrocity crimes and linking them to the perpetrator government’s illegitimacy is consistent with R2P and developing international law. The United States must be bold in articulating this position to build international political will against the uniquely criminal “DPRK.”

The UN General Assembly can take a leading role by taking away the “DPRK” delegates’ credentials, thereby excluding it from the General Assembly’s work as it did with apartheid-era South Africa. If the “DPRK” does not reform, the General Assembly should go further by becoming a forum where most of the world follows the lead of key states in a campaign whereby each state withdraws recognition of the “DPRK” and recognizes the ROK as encompassing the full peninsula. If the world can accept a “One China” policy and not recognize the democratic and peaceful Taiwan as a state, then surely it can accept a “One Korea” policy by ultimately eroding away diplomatically recognized statehood from the criminal “DPRK” The UN General Assembly, after all, ejected from its membership Taiwan (Republic of China) and accepted the People’s Republic of China as the only China in 1971, setting possible precedent for this type of action. In addition, your unprecedented December 2, 2016, phone call with the President of Taiwan shows your open-mindedness to American leadership of possible new approaches. Building consensus will take time, but considering the decades of “DPRK” abuses and WMD development, it may as well begin now and perhaps can be accelerated. Individual states that are already enforcing UN sanctions and have expelled North Korean workers from their territory are a good start. Individual states can also legislate additional unilateral sanctions and those that are members of the International Criminal Court (ICC), such as Japan, can bring before it “DPRK” crimes under its jurisdiction.

As the “DPRK” flouts its international obligations again and again, each state should find recognition of the ROK as the only Korea an easier and easier choice, especially if it means better relations with the ROK and the United States. China will oppose this campaign, but testing the degree of that resistance is worthwhile, especially because it is only one of 193 members in the UN General Assembly. Regional and national legislatures, such as the European Parliament, spurred by robust civil society alliances, should also fuel pressure. The political cost to China for ensuring life support to an unreformed “DPRK” that is opposed by the great majority of the world’s states must become too high for it to sustain.

Greatly strengthening the world’s political will is critical for real change on the peninsula. This will is the foundation of the international community’s multiple tools that must be used simultaneously with strict vigilance such as sanctions, military readiness, and surreptitious information dissemination to the North Korean people. Such global political will must be of a scale that causes China to pressure the “DPRK” to an unprecedented degree that forces change. If the “DPRK” then bases its self-perceived legitimacy not on nuclear weapons, but on respect for international norms through genuine reform, including releasing its political prison camp inmates and verifiably freezing its nuclear weapons development, the international community should be ready to provide significant in-kind economic development assistance that benefits the population at large, such as that articulated by ROK President Park Geun-hye in Dresden, Germany in 2014. In addition, a reformed, economically healthy “DPRK” would be able to dismantle its frozen nuclear arsenal because its survival would no longer depend on it. At that point, a peace treaty—the ultimate prize for the “DPRK”—could be appropriate.

If, however, the “DPRK” does not reform, it should face a world with the political will to shut it out to a degree it has never before experienced with consequences it has never before faced, including an investigation initiated by the ICC prosecutor and supported by the UN General Assembly, with jurisdiction based on ICC treaty-member ROK encompassing the whole peninsula. If China continues to prop up the “DPRK,” then it too should find itself diplomatically isolated with respect to the “DPRK,” as an abettor to the “DPRK’s” atrocity crimes. Other ways to heighten the cost of continued intransigence include sharing increasingly powerful security technology with our allies and redoubling information penetration into North Korea. Although China has cooperated in the UN Security Council, you are correct that China has not pressured DPRK to the full extent of its capabilities economically and politically. The United States with many partner states should not hesitate to undertake creative measures to make China’s calculus tip in favor of full cooperation that produces “DPRK” reform.

A “One Korea” policy is about profoundly increasing political, diplomatic, and legal pressures for legitimate governance on the peninsula without necessarily increasing the military threat by the US and its allies. It enhances robust sanctions and strong military readiness, in partnership with the ROK, by building a tougher foundation of worldwide political will. It seeks to change the Kim regime’s behavior, not to end the regime itself, while holding it accountable for its actions. As you grapple with the North’s nuclear threat with the full array of tools at your disposal, I respectfully urge you to remember the critical importance of stopping the North’s ongoing crimes against humanity. One Korea, free of atrocity crimes and WMD, must prevail.


Grace M. Kang, Esq., Executive Director of North Korean Refugees in the United States (NKinUSA)

The views expressed in this letter are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of NKinUSA.

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