Dispatch From Seoul

Seoul, South Korea.

Sixty years have passed since the end of the Korean War, and still the sides remain technically at war. The armistice that ended hostilities was meant to be a temporary measure leading to the signing of a peace treaty. Within three months of the armistice taking effect, a political conference was to have been held “to settle through negotiations the questions of the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Korea” and the “settlement of the Korean question.” That conference never took place, and a peace treaty remains no closer to attainment than it was sixty years ago.

Given the growing tensions on the Korean Peninsula, Korean activists regard the signing of a peace treaty as an urgent goal. Several events in Korea marked the July 27 anniversary of the armistice, beginning with the Great International Peace March that began on July 4 at Jeju Island, where a naval base is under construction. From there, marchers made their way north to Seoul.

I was honored to join two of the most prominent and hard-working activists working on Korean issues, Tim Shorrock and Hyun Lee, in participating in the Symposium on Concluding a Peace Treaty on the Korean Peninsula, which was held in Seoul.

Shorrock, who writes for The Nation and Salon, was the first U.S. journalist to expose the full story of the Gwangju massacre. In 1980, South Korean troops crushed resistance to military rule through violent repression, killing many in the process. Shorrock interviewed people who had lived through those events. Through the Freedom of Information Act, he obtained documentation of meetings and contacts between the U.S. and the South Korean governments, which showed that the U.S. had given the green light for the crackdown. In recent years, Shorrock has exposed the extent of privatization of government intelligence work, a pattern that is representative of the trend throughout the Federal government. Shorrock is a member of the Working Group for Peace and Demilitarization in Asia and the Pacific and on the advisory board of the Korea Policy Institute.

Hyun Lee is a producer on the Asia Pacific Forum program on WBAI in New York, and a member of the Korean-American activist group Nodutdol and the Working Group for Peace and Demilitarization in Asia and the Pacific. She has also written for such publications as Foreign Policy in Focus. Lee impresses with her tireless dedication, and she contributed an enormous amount of time and energy in helping to organize events and to ensure their success.

On our first full day in Seoul, we joined Canadian political economist Michel Chossudovsky, Japan-based videographer James Corbett, Andy Hu, editor-in-chief for Beijing-based April Media, and Xiong Lei, a journalist and guest professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, Tsinghua University, and Renmin University of China, for a series of media interviews.

Afterwards, we met officials of the Unified Progressive Party for a wide-ranging discussion at the National Assembly. The party currently has six members in the National Assembly (out of 300), a respectable total for an organization that receives little coverage in the mass media, and which finds itself the target of red-baiting. The Unified Progressive Party defines itself as “a party for laborers, fishermen and the working class,” and “the only one that identifies itself as a party for independence, peace and reunification.” In all, the party has around 100,000 members, and it is the members who set the party’s agenda. The top priority for the party is “peaceful reunification through implementation of the June 15 and October 4 Joint Declarations,” and along those lines it has been working assiduously on behalf of a peace treaty on the Korean Peninsula. Our discussion centered on the challenges facing the achievement of a peace treaty, as well as the work of the party in the face of smears by right-wing forces.

That evening, various delegations, including the 40-some strong Japanese delegation, met for a dinner hosted by the Korean Alliance of Progressive Movements, the co-organizers of the conference along with the Unified Progressive Party. Both organizations provided us with an exceptionally warmhearted hospitality that made a deep impression.

The Korean Alliance of Progressive Movements (KAPM) describes its mission as striving “to unify progressive movements,” since dispersed forces make social change difficult. The KAPM “struggles for a new society and for reunification, including struggles against neoliberal globalization, imperialism, and war, by rising above traditional solidarity struggles that have been limited to defending the basic rights of various sectors and classes.” The struggle is an international one, and the KPM “extends solidarity to the world. We clearly recognize that the global effects of neoliberalism and militarism must be countered by international solidarity of all peoples.”

Among those who sat at my dinner table was the Rev. Lee Gang-sil, a member of KAPM. Her husband, the Rev. Han Sang-ryol, was due to be released from prison the following month after serving three years in prison for violating South Korea’s National Security Law. This vaguely-written law can be – and often is – used to suppress the Left and to impose censorship and restrict the range of allowable discourse. The Rev. Han – co-founder of the Korean Alliance of Progressive Movements – was imprisoned for visiting North Korea to attend an event to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the June 15 Declaration on reunification, signed between South and North Korea in 2000. Han had visited North Korea on prior occasions to mark the anniversary. However, by 2010 the reactionary administration of South Korean president Lee Myung-bak had severed nearly all ties and agreements with its neighbor to the north. Lee imposed the National Security Law on a frequent basis to repress advocates of better relations between the two Koreas, and the Rev. Han was one of many victims.

The struggles of today connect with those of the past, and along those lines we began the next day by paying a visit to Seodaemun Prison, which was built in 1907 by Japanese colonial forces. As we walked through the rows of prison cells and viewed the torture chambers and execution building, the museum’s charming docent explained the prison’s role in the suppression of the Korean independence movement. The docent told us several touching stories of independence activists who had been imprisoned and then tortured and killed. After the Korean Peninsula was free of colonial rule in 1945, the prison remained in use for similar purposes while South Korea was under rule of right-wing dictatorships, and it did not close until 1987. Dissidents and leftists arrested for violating the National Security Law were imprisoned and tortured. With the advent of democracy in South Korea, prisoners are no longer tortured, but it remains an important task for the National Security Law to be rescinded.

We next visited the War and Women’s Rights Museum, which is dedicated to the suffering of women during wartime, with its main focus on telling the story of Korean “comfort women” forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan founded the museum last year, with the hope that others would learn from their experience, and the conviction that the fate of the comfort women should never be repeated again. After viewing the artifacts and displays, I watched an unsettling animated audio testimony of one survivor’s experiences.

On the afternoon of Friday, July 26, we attended the International Symposium on Concluding a Peace Treaty on the Korean Peninsula. The participants in the International Peace March had arrived in Seoul by now and were in attendance, and they received a rousing standing ovation from the audience and speakers.

Lee Jung-hee, chairperson of the Unified Progressive Party, welcomed the guests, and warned, “The potential for military confrontation has reached its climax. We could learn from these experiences that peace cannot be attained in an unstable environment under the armistice agreement. We need to declare an end to the war and conclude a peace treaty on the Korean Peninsula immediately. Our challenge is to create a stable peace system now.”

Oh Jong-ryul, chairperson of the General Assembly of the Korean Alliance of Progressive Movements, reminded the audience that it is always ordinary people who suffer the most in wartime. “Among 200,000 comfort women, I wonder how many women were from families of capitalists, the big landowners or pro-Japan noblemen. Among one million student soldiers conscripted for aggressive wars, how many soldiers came from families of capitalists, big landowners or pro-Japan noblemen?”

Michel Chossudovsky gave the keynote speech, and he talked of the total devastation inflicted on North Korea by American carpet bombing during the Korean War. Addressing U.S. geopolitical interests, he said: “Washington’s objective in Asia is to create political divisions, not only between North and South Korea, but also between North Korea and China. The ultimate objective is also to threaten China. In other words, the so-called Asia Pivot is a much broader process of militarization, which threatens Russia and China with nuclear warheads, and it’s geared toward the militarization of both East Asia and Southeast Asia.”

Hattori Ryoichi, a former member of the House of Representatives in Japan, argued that six essential steps are necessary to establish lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula: 1) an end to the Korean War through a peace treaty; 2) the establishment of a security standing committee comprised of representatives from the same nations that have been engaged in six-party talks on North Korean denuclearization; 3) a declaration by the two Koreas affirming each other’s social system, with no hostility; 4) mutual energy support; 5) a prohibition against independent sanctions; 6) and the establishment of a nuclear weapon-free zone.

Xiong Lei emphasized the importance of reciprocity and balance in achieving peace on the Korean Peninsula. “If one side has got three-fold guarantees while the other side faces three-fold threats and if one side has constantly staged joint military exercises to intensify the situation while the other side without any sense of security is demanded to disarm the most effective weapons in its mind, there will be no equity or justice to speak of, nor will it be possible to realize peace on the Peninsula.”

According to Park Sun-Song, a professor at the Department of North Korean Studies at Dongguk University and a former director of the Peace Center for Peace and Disarmament of the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, in the long process of normalization of relations hostile acts will first have to disappear. Then disarmament and denuclearization can take place, ultimately leading to economic cooperation between the two Koreas, which should reduce economic disparities.

Park Kyoung-soon, vice chairperson of the Unified Progressive Party, pointed out, “The key reason why the peace regime on the Korean Peninsula is not yet established is the U.S. hostile policy towards North Korea. The United States does not apply to North Korea the basic principles of international relations that one respects the sovereignty and peaceful coexistence of others. Instead, the United States defined North Korea as the axis of evil and is seeking a strategy to subvert North Korea.” Park added, “The outbreak of war on the Korean Peninsula is only a matter of time” if the current situation persists, and another war would threaten to destroy civilization on the Korean Peninsula. “That is why I emphasize the urgency of the peace treaty on the Korean Peninsula.”

Tim Shorrock warned, “As reflected in the U.S. mass media, the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the official name for North Korea] is widely seen as a vassal of China that is run by crazy people with no claim whatsoever to national sovereignty. It’s not unusual to hear U.S. officials and even reporters talk casually about bombing the DPRK. These views, framed by decades of anti-communism and distorted by racism, deny the true history and nature of Korea on both sides of the DMZ and are in my opinion the biggest barriers to peace. We see these views reflected in U.S. foreign policy and, unfortunately, in the American progressive movement.”

Watanabe Kenju, president of the South Korea-Japan People’s Solidarity Network, argued that in order to dispel distrust and promote North Korean denuclearization, South Korea and Japan should offer the denuclearization of Northeast Asia, which would entail their rejecting the protection of the American “nuclear umbrella.” This would enable North Korea to proceed with denuclearization with an easy mind.

The presentation by Min Byung-ryul, member of the Supreme Council of the Unified Progressive Party, was action-oriented, and he called for a strengthening of international solidarity. Among his recommendations was that “various strategies for Asia” are needed “to be free from the U.S. forces.” The U.S. Asia Pivot presents “a very important challenge in Northeast Asia and for international solidarity.”

One of the most significant speeches at the conference was delivered by Joo Je-jun, director of the Policy Department of the Korean Alliance of Progressive Movements. Joo spoke of the growing militarization of the Korean Peninsula, pointing out that if the salaries of its soldiers are included, then the military budget of South Korea would rank among the five highest in the world. South Korea has recently been expending huge sums on the purchase of next generation weaponry from the United States and Western Europe. Joo revealed the astonishing statistic that 43 percent of U.S. weapons exports are going to South Korea.

As nearly three quarters of the weapons imported by South Korea come from the United States, Joo said, “This clearly explains why the U.S. created and strengthened tensions against North Korea in the last sixty years through the Korea-U.S. alliance and how big the profits are for the U.S. military-industrial complex.”

The biggest victim of this policy, he said, is the Korean people. “The money that ought to go into social welfare constantly flows to the defense budget,” placing South Korea at the bottom of thirty other OECD countries in terms of spending on social welfare.

The symposium ended with a talk by Lee Tae-ho, secretary-general of the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy. Lee spoke of recent measures taken by the U.S. and South Korea. “The U.S. and South Korea are strengthening the nuclear umbrella with their absolute superiority in conventional arms and strategies. In this context, insisting on the abolition of the North Korean nuclear program is unlikely to resolve the situation. South Korea, the U.S., Japan and other neighboring countries as well as North Korea are not ready to abandon their nuclear deterrence policy. A nuclear deterrence policy results in another nuclear threat. The ineffectiveness of such unilateral measurement has been revealed in many cases such as the nuclear tests conducted by North Korea and deadlock situations in the Six Party Talks. It is time to take another stance unless South Korea wants to provoke North Korea’s militarization.”

To mark the anniversary of the armistice on July 27, South Korean, Chinese, Japanese, U.S. and Canadian activists travelled to the Demilitarized Zone. We held a rally at the site of the Bridge of No Return, where prisoners of war were exchanged after the Korean War. Among those who spoke at the rally was Andy Hu, who said, “We all know that the Korean War not just divided North and South Korea, but also contributed to postponing the reunification of China. And there are also those who suspect that the Chinese position to combat imperialism has shifted. And some say that China itself has become the aggressor in many aspects. And we’re here to tell you that spirit has not been lost and that the Chinese people do still firmly oppose all acts of aggression here or in any part of the world.”

We also stopped at the Dorasan Train Station, just meters from the Demilitarized Zone. The rail connection between North and South Korea was restored during the administration of Roh Myun-hun. It was ironic to see a photograph of President George W. Bush signing a railroad tie during his visit on February 20, 2002, given that the U.S. subsequently attempted to delay or block the reconnection of rail service. Yet South Korea persisted, and the first train since the Korean War travelled between the two Koreas in 2007. In recent years, trains ferried supplies along this line to the Kaesong Industrial Complex until it closed earlier this year.

We next went to the Yongsan military base in Seoul, which houses the headquarters of the United States Forces Korea. There we joined a demonstration to demand the signing of a peace treaty. Also joining the demonstration were our colleagues from the symposium and members of the Great International Peace March. The police were out in full force, and when marchers attempted to post signs on the wall of the base, the police swarmed in, snatched down the signs and formed a line with their shields up, to protect the wall from further “desecration.” Undeterred, the demonstration proceeded with great enthusiasm. Tim Shorrock was one of the speakers, and he told the crowd: “As an American, I say for South Korea to be a sovereign country this joint command has to end. And as an American, I must support Korea’s right to determine its own future free from foreign influence. The first step is an end to this joint command.”

When the demonstration was coming to a close, we went to Seoul Plaza to join a 25,000-strong protest against the intervention by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) in the presidential election last December. Weeks beforehand, it had been revealed that the spy agency had used hundreds of internet IDs to upload comments and articles to smear labor activists and liberal and left political candidates as followers of North Korea. He chief of the NIS ordered agents to write articles and posts, and out over 5,000 posts that have been identified so far, more than 1,700 were direct attempts to sway the election in favor of the conservative New Frontier Party.

Demonstrations had been taking place on Seoul Plaza on a weekly basis, in ever stronger numbers and would continue to grow after our departure from Korea. By August 10, the weekly demonstration had grown to 50,000, entirely filling the plaza and leaving no space for the additional demonstrators who had come to join the protest. Since that time candlelight demonstrations have spread to towns and cities across South Korea.

In an apparent attempt to stifle the growing protests over the abuse of power by the NIS, on August 28, agents of the NIS raided the homes and offices of ten members of the Unified Progressive Party, including that of Assemblyman Lee Seok-ki. Three party members, including the party’s vice chairman, Hong Soon-seok, were placed under arrest and charged with treason.

In a press conference held on the day of the raids, party chair Lee Jung-hee charged the government with conducting a witch hunt. “This is an attempt to silence the candle-light protests as the truth of the fraudulent crimes of the National Intelligence Service are exposed, and voices demanding accountability from President Park Geun-hye intensify,” she declared. “The ruling forces, which talked about dissolving our party and tried to annihilate the progressive forces, have now set into motion their scheme to hold onto power.”

The Unified Progressive Party has a leading role in the mass protests against the NIS, and the repression appears to be an attempt to crush opposition. Certainly the demonstrations were having an effect. Both of the demonstrations I attended were the most inspirational I have ever participated in, bursting with energy and conviction and characterized by a militant spirit. The organizers were extremely efficient and capable. Koreans know how to do demonstrations, perhaps due to the experience of the long struggle to bring democracy to South Korea.

There is a scene toward the end of Bill Morrison’s film, The Miners’ Hymns, comprised of a series of clips of British mineworkers on the march. At one point, a march is shown led by children skipping with joy as the music on the soundtrack soars. It is a moment I find deeply affecting and one which illustrates that those who struggle for the rights of working people and against militarism are on the side of life. The demonstrations in Korea exude that same joyous spirit of resistance, and it was impossible not to feel deeply moved.

The struggle for a peace treaty on the Korean Peninsula will continue, and the international delegations at the symposium committed to working together in the future to achieve our common goal. The symposium’s International Peace Declaration outlined our aims:

We cannot continue with the instability of the past 60 years of the armistice. Now is the time to end the Korean War once and for all and open a new era of peace and cooperation.

1. Peace negotiations between North Korea and the U.S. must start at once, and a Peace Treaty must be signed to realize full and complete peace in the Korean Peninsula.

2. All relevant countries must stop military exercises and shows of force that damage Northeast Asia’s Peace and Cooperation and must lead efforts to establish a peace and cooperation regime.

3. South and North Korea must fully implement the South-North Korea Joint Declaration that was agreed upon and widely supported by international society!

Gregory Elich is on the Board of Directors of the Jasenovac Research Institute and on the Advisory Boards of the Korea Policy Institute and the Korea Truth Commission. He is the author of the book Strange Liberators: Militarism, Mayhem, and the Pursuit of Profit

Gregory Elich is a Korea Policy Institute board member. He is a contributor to the collection, Sanctions as War: Anti-Imperialist Perspectives on American Geo-Economic Strategy (Haymarket Books, 2023). His website is https://gregoryelich.org  Follow him on Twitter at @GregoryElich.