Building Bridges: Is there hope for North Korea? by David Alton and Rob Chidley is a study of North Korea and world. David Alton is a former teacher and a long time British politician, life peer baron, and member of the House of Lords. Originally a member of the Liberal Democrats, he left the party over their pro-choice position. Alton is an outspoken supporter of human rights and has been appointed to two Roman Catholic orders of chivalry. Rob Chidley, also a former teacher, and former wrote for the British office of Habitat for Humanity and has authored the novel The Third Tribe.
North Korea has been receiving more than its fair share of attention lately. The world’s only family communist dynasty is now in its third generation and not slowing down in its rhetoric. Still technically still at war with South Korea, it now has nuclear weapons and the capability to launch them beyond their borders. North Korea has the disastrous mix of one of the world’s largest army and one of the poorest economies. It is the text book example of a rouge nation.
The problem has been how to deal with North Korea. America is not a viable party in peaceful debate. North Korean leadership has indoctrinated the public to believing America is the force of evil. School children attacked and beat effigies of Americans as a popular recess game. South Korea is seen merely as a pawn of America. The authors introduce a new dimension to the mix: Christianity. South Korea has a sizable Christian population, but in the North, Christianity is effectively outlawed. It is seen as a connection to America and South Korea and although freedom of religion is guaranteed in North Korea, Christianity is seen as treason.
Another topic is food. Food cannot be used as a weapon because it only causes the poorest to suffer more and allows the ruling government to blame those imposing the sanctions. Sanctions, often portrayed as a humanitarian option to war, usually always fail. US sanctions in Cuba probably did more to prop up Castro than bring any change. In other countries sanctions had a devastating effect on the people and little effect on those in power. Food should never be used as a weapon; as a weapon it has failed miserably in North Korea, only adding to the deaths.
China needs to be a major player in the the region. Finished with exporting Marxism/Maoism, China finds itself growing in world prestige and power. China however has attached itself to North Korea half a century ago and cannot find a way to break the bond. It has a policy of mandatory deportation for all North Koreans crossing the border. China has this policy to keep itself from being flooded by refugees, but all the deported refugees are sent to prison camps or die before they get there. China no longer unconditionally supports North Korea any more which is further isolating the country.
The authors suggest something like the Helsinki Accords for North Korea. The Helsinki Accords were a declaration between thirty-five European states, the United States, and Canada to reduce tensions between the the West and the Communist Bloc. The authors support this type of thinking for North Korea. South Korea has repeatedly tried to better relations, and some times they were successful. China and the US (under Clinton) have tried also. The problem with a Helsinki-like solution is that when it was tried in 1975 many people in the Eastern Bloc remembered freedom and the pre-Soviet era. Eastern Europe was also bombarded with the Voice of America and even shortwave BBC. The people knew what western life was and many wanted it. In North Korea, no one remembers living in an open society, and very, very few listen into South Korean radio. There is no outside influence to North Korean life; many people believe that they have a higher standard of living than most of the world because that is what they are told. Opening North Korea would expose the regime for what it is and that will not happen under the current government. The people in Eastern Europe knew they lived under tyranny and wanted to end it. There are no visible cracks in the North Korean regime and no popular dissent among the people. A Helsinki type accord would probably only add legitimacy to the regime and human rights abuses.
It is easy to poke holes into other people’s theories and ideas, but what are the options. Invasion is not the answer. No matter how much you think you are liberating a people, they will still see you as invaders as the US found out in Iraq. Aid in exchange for stopping the nuclear program did not work. South Korea’s olive branches usually end up broken. North Korea is something unique; it is a non-rational player in the world. There can be no reasoning with the regime. It is like trying to talk with a delusion paranoid.
Building Bridges does several things right. First, it provides a detailed history of the Korean peninsula, rather than starting at the end of World War II. Secondly, it includes the Christian tradition in the Koreas; something that is usually not thought of in a Far Eastern country without Western colonization. Third, they offer new ideas on the Korean situation. Lastly, and most importantly, they remind the reader that million of innocent people are victims of some of the worst human rights violations. People, particularity Americans, forget that countries are not just governments, but other people– men, women, children, families. Solutions to international problems must also reflect the impact on the people. Starving a country with a blockade or sanctions is generally as well received as an open invasion. I fully support the authors compassion and their Christian ideals. I appreciate the fact they bring new ideas to the table, but unless there is an improbable change in the regimes thinking or equally improbable popular uprising, I fear there will be no meaningful solution the the Korean question for some time. The authors know this is a difficult problem and it is reflected in the title. It is easier to build walls than bridges; the authors chose the more difficult path. Building Bridges offers a refreshing change form the usual solutions of military power and sanctions. I would recommend it to anyone interested in North Korea or current foreign affairs.
The reviewer hold a Master of Arts degree in International Relations from St. Mary’s University, San Antonio, TX