South Korea: No Shortcuts to Peace

Feb 9, 2020 | Speeches

There are no shortcuts to peace but All is possible when we persevere and keep the faith

Keynote speech

By J. Ramos-Horta

Former President of Timor-Leste , Nobel Peace Prize Laureate 1996)

At the PyeongChang Peace Forum (2020), Republic of Korea

As always, I am honored and pleased to be back in the Republic of Korea. I have been here on numerous occasions over the past 20 years and in different times of the year, and enjoyed warmer weather when this vast mountainous region is covered by thick, an endless tapestry of green forests that extends beyond the majestic mountains.

I am a confessed admirer of the proud, patriotic, resilient and hardworking people of Korea, who like our own people, the Timorese, were invaded, colonized, robbed, raped, massacred – but never surrendered, never gave up, never lost faith and hope, rising up, fighting and triumphing, and rebuilt our countries, healed the wounds of the body and soul.

The peoples of Timor-Leste and ROK are both enjoying freedom, democracy and rule of law, all fundamental human rights are guaranteed and protected in our respective Constitutions, both rated very high in recent reputed surveys on democracy or lack of around the world.

We have come a long way from the past of war, death and extreme destitution. In 1999 our people went to the polls and voted to separate from Indonesia and in 2002 independence was proclaimed. As we celebrated our hard won independence we rejected revenge and pursued national reconciliation and normalization of relations with Indonesia and all our neighbors and they all embraced us.

We did not allow ourselves to be hostage of the past, we refused to surrender to temptations of hatred and revenge. We tended to the wounds of the body and the soul. We resisted pressures to pursue that centuries old form of justice of the victors over the vanquished. Instead we opted for healing the wounds of the soul, reconciled our divided communities, and simultaneously extended a hand of friendship to Indonesia, and together we chartered a new relationship as friends and neighbors.

If I am to cite some salient examples of achievements in our journey since independence, I would not hesitate to name reconciliation and forgiveness, the main enablers of peace and development. Led by our Founding Father Mr. Xanana GUSMÃO our society rejected revenge, knowing too well that only the courage of the truly brave to forgive and embrace the other side would spare us endless conflict and instability.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We live in particularly challenging times. Liberal and social democracies are being overrun by intolerant far right ideologies that embrace ethno-nationalism, xenophobia, racism, exclusion and violence.

This is not only a Western phenomenon. We are witnessing manifestations of these virulent ideologies in Asia, namely, in India, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, in Latin America, namely in Brazil and Bolivia,  and in USA, Africa and the Middle East, dangerously undermining democracy and rule of law, fundamental freedoms and human rights. A recent survey conducted by The Economist magazine shows clearly the decline of democracies around the world.

Not surprisingly the rise of etno-nationalism with its many manifestations lead to violence and armed conflict exacerbated by a dramatic increased in weapons exports, both light and heavy weaponry, namely, aircrafts and attack helicopters, short, medium and long range tactical missiles, etc.

The centuries old Arab-Persian and Sunni-Shia violent rivalry has worsened by the interference of external interests and massive, unrestrained introduction of lethal weapons in the region.

European powers and an enlightened US Administration labored over 10 years to reach a verifiable an milestone agreement with Iran considered by the vast majority of the international community to be the best possible treaty ensuring Iran’s commitment to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty and the same time it’s access to, and use, of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

Israel, the self-proclaimed “God’s chosen people”   – the only Middle East Nuclear power possessing an estimated stock of 100-200 nuclear bombs – was the only country in the world vehemently opposed to the Iran Treaty. Prime Minister Netanyahu (facing multiple charges of bribe and corruption) secured the blind support of the powerful Israeli lobby in the US, Republicans and many Democrats toeing the line, and succeeded in undermining the treaty soon after the inauguration of President Trump.

The Sunni-Shia and Iran-Saudi Arabia mutual hatred led the two countries and their respective proxies to wage a brutal war that has destroyed any semblance of infrastructure, state and economy of the poorest country in the Arab world, killed and maimed tens of thousands of civilians, mostly women, elderly and children in Yemen.

Target assassinations of foreign leaders – Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi (after he dismantled the nuclear program), Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani, the abandonment of the Iran Nuclear Deal by the Trump Administration, attempts at overthrowing Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad, betrayal of US allies the Kurdish fighters – not to mention a long list of other leaders assassinated by US agents, reinforces North Korean leadership extreme distrust of the US and explain why they are not going to give up prematurely their nuclear plans.

I am sorry that I cannot be optimistic in regards denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. President Trump newly discovered and publicly professed love for Kim Jong Un and their photo opportunities may serve to massage the inflated egos of both leaders but the North Korean leader is surrounded by dozens of hardline military leaders who are even more distrustful of the US than the more urbane Kim Jong Un.

It is not my intention to dwell on the extremely complex Korean Peninsula situation. More enlightened and experienced statesmen and scholars have written abundantly on the topic and made strenuous attempts at achieving permanent peace in the region.

In the 1990’s we believed that the impossible was possible. We saw the end the Cold War, demise of the Soviet Empire, reunification of the divided Germany, freedom for the former Soviet vassal States of Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltic States, the dismantling of the Warsaw Pact, the expansion of the European Union and NATO. But here we are…the Korean Peninsula remains divided, Korean families are still separated by the past war, they have aged, some passed away, many will not live much longer.

The people of the Republic of Korea can be proud of the extraordinary progress they made since independence and the devastation caused by the Korean War.

There cannot be greater contrast between two countries and two realities: one, the people living south of the DMZ, enjoying complete freedom and prosperity, and the other, north of the DMZ living in fear, oppression, and extreme poverty.

While much of Asia has prospered and democratized, North Korea has been frozen in time. The communist regime of the north, with its bellicose totalitarian ideology and nuclear arsenal, continues to be a source of tension and unpredictability.

Long after the collapse of the Soviet Union and of the totalitarian philosophies and ideologies, and with the few remaining communist regimes undergoing incremental political reforms and economic liberalization, the North Korean regime stands out as the last outpost of a gulag where millions of human beings are deprived of basic human rights, hostages of a communist dynasty.

The heartbreaking scenes of long-separated Korean siblings meeting for the first time since their separation some 60 to 70 years ago only brought to mind the tragic reality of this Cold War legacy.

It is not my purpose to elaborate on the ongoing widespread, gross, and systematic human rights abuses in North Korea. Numerous eyewitnesses and defectors from the north have amply documented this over decades.

The world is generally aware of the prevailing situation in North Korea; however, the regime has been extremely effective in impeding and suppressing a regular flow of information in and out of the gulag. Hence, the sad and tragic reality in North Korea is not a daily concern for the rest of the world.

And even if there were more regular flow of information about the shocking reality of life in North Korea, in the prisons and labor camps, there is still very little anyone can do to influence the behavior of the totalitarian regime in the north.

The supremely well-choreographed scenes of mass hysteria by Korean masses displaying their love to the “dear leader” illustrate, in my view, both a people intoxicated by propaganda reminiscent of the phenomenon of Nazism and Hitler in Germany and Austria, and a certain degree of genuine adulation.

We are not dealing with a regime that is about to collapse from within; nor is there a people that is ready to march in the streets.

There is no possible comparison between the situations in North Korea and any other in history. From an ideological perspective, the North Korean regime reminds me of the situations in Albania and Romania during the years of the dictators Enver Hoxha and Nicolai Ceauşescu, the two worst and most retrograde communist regimes of that time.

But neither had military capabilities of much significance.

An armed nuclear North Korea seems inevitable. The other nuclear powers should begin to get used to the idea that they will have to share the nuclear “privilege” with a new guy in the block. Who is to blame for North Korea’s obsession with acquiring armed nuclear capabilities? The invasion of Iraq and the death of Saddam Hussein, the tragic demise of the Libyan dictator Kaddafi, the attempts at regime change in Syria, orchestrated by the US and its NATO allies all play a major part in shaping North Korean leaders determination to acquire nuclear capability. Koreans are one and the same people, a notoriously stubborn, independent minded and proud people, and always react badly to what they perceive to be unfair pressure.  Real culprits are all the nuclear powers who have not had the statesmanship to deescalate nuclear arsenals and dismantle them all.

Leaders and academics of the Republic of Korea know only too well the limits of outside influence, of how much and what can the international community do to influence the behavior of the regime in North Korea, a regime that thrives in state gangsterism, blackmail, and brinkmanship.

Three generations of communist leaders, from grandfather to son and now to grandson, have established a de facto communist monarchy in North Korea, of the mold of the Middle Ages, absolutist monarchies who ruled over their subjects in complete disregard for basic human rights and dignity. And this communist monarchy has assembled a mighty army and intelligence network that spy on and intimidate every North Korean family.

There is no light at the end of the tunnel, because this is a tunnel without an obvious end. While there is every reason for us not to be hopeful for a peaceful transformation of North Korea and a happy reunification of the two separated peoples, let us remember that colonial empires generally lasted centuries; the briefest colonial occupation of any country must have been the Japanese occupation of Korea.

European colonization of Africa and Asia lasted much longer, from 100 to 500 years.

There is no valid comparison between the situation prevailing in North Korea and the situations experienced by the hundreds of millions of peoples in Africa and Asia conquered and colonized by the European powers from the Middle Ages till the twentieth century. But at times it might be helpful to remind ourselves that empires and regimes built on falsehoods and oppression do come to an end; this has been humanity’s history, from the ancient times to the 21st century.

In the face of overwhelming force, fear or prudence prevail, and people appear to resign themselves to their fate; the wait can be long, too long. But the people always rise up when time has arrives. And time will arrive in North Korea when the people will rise up for freedom and dignity.

Ladies and gentlemen,

There are no shortcuts to peace as conflicts impact profoundly on individuals, families, communities and nations, leaving deep wounds in the heart and soul. We can end a war via way of skillfully managed negotiations and at other times a war ends in the battle field when one side is militarily annihilated. This was the case of Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan during WWII. But even though the Japanese were defeated in WWII leading to Korea’s independence and China’s liberation, we know the wounds of the war are still in the hearts and souls in China and Korea. But the great nations of Northeast Asia should be braver and take new additional steps and build the bridges of dialogue and reconciliation.

The dream of denuclearization, permanent peace and reunification remain elusive. But they are not impossible. All is possible when we persevere and keep the faith.

J. Ramos-Horta