Overcoming Legacies of the Past,
Promoting Reconciliation and Peace
in the Korean Peninsula
and Northeast Asia
Speech by J. Ramos-Horta
1996 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate (1996),
former Prime Minister and President of Timor-Leste*
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am pleased to be again in Korea and in such hopeful times. My last trip here was in November, 2017, and it coincided with the visit of the US President. I was surprised then that I didn’t have same media attention as President Trump did. (lol).
I am a frequent visitor to ROK, having been here countless times over the past two decades and, may I say, I am reasonably familiar with the country and people – your 5,000 year old civilization, history, culture, wars, defeats and victories.
Your achievements over the last 30 years have been extraordinary, rapidly progressing from humiliating impoverishment to the proud ranks of the world’s economic powers, scoring outstanding performance in innovation, science, technology, medicine, arts and diplomacy.
Above all, ROK is one of the world’s most vibrant democracies, with an independent and inquisitive media, an informed and vigilant civil society, and an uncompromising Judiciary, all bedrocks of a true democracy.
Similarly, while you live in peace and prosperity, almost anywhere we turn to, any day of the week, we read about violence and death, immense suffering of the innocent, of children and youth, of countries imploding violently along ethnic and religious lines.
Over many thousands of years, human beings waged wars, sometimes to satisfy basic needs of survival as food, water and land to cultivate food. But often times wars were or are waged with the ambition (and miscalculation) of expanding influence and securing even greater gains, in detriment of others whom they defined as adversaries and enemies.
This vast region, Northeast Asia, home to 1.5 billion people – Korea, China and Japan – with an extraordinarily rich history and culture, has known many destructive wars that killed tens of millions of people. The region boasts the world’s largest combined standing army, facing off each other, in addition to the presence on your soil, in ROK and Japan, of a powerful foreign force ostensibly providing you with a security umbrella, arguably a credible deterrence that has kept the peace in the region since the last Korea War.
Both North and South Korea, and virtually every country in the Asia region also know firsthand the tragic consequences of wars, enduring immense suffering caused by centuries of wars unleashed by tyrants and demagogues.
Timor-Leste, a country of a little more than 1 million people, shares with the Korean people a history of war, occupation and resistance. We survived and prevailed through centuries of colonial rule, occupation by the Japanese Imperial Army, recolonization by Portugal, and occupation by Indonesia, during which close one third of our population perished.
But in victory in 2002 we celebrated our freedom, when we became the first nation and first new democracy of the millennium. We honoured our martyrs and heroes, and began the process of looking after the veterans, widows, orphans and those mutilated by war. We reconciled with our domestic adversaries, those who didn’t think and believe like us; we forgave our enemies without waiting for an apology. For the sake of healing, we rejected an international tribunal to try those who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.
But we are at peace with ourselves. We forgave our “enemies”, reconciled our nation and reconciled with our neighbours. Slowly, steadily we are building a peaceful, inclusive, democratic, pluralistic and fair country for all.
I believe the infinite potential of Korea, China, Japan can be unleashed to further peace and prosperity only when a truth telling and truth finding process is undertaken. There is no denying that Japan was the culprit in this tragic catalogue of wars and occupation.
Japanese leaders must do more to teach the full truth to today’s and future generations about Japanese aggression against Korea and China and other countries in Asia. I am sure the Chinese and Korean peoples would then be able to finally reconcile with Japan.
Japan must take additional steps to overcome and heal wounds created by the Imperial wars of the past; this is the only path to reconcile and summon the extraordinary collective will that has made the three countries prosperous and the envy of the world.
Where there is a failure to courageously and honestly address painful historical legacies, deep suspicions and animosities will remain, and will impede the development of a much more mutually beneficial dynamic partnership amongst the three Northeast Asian economic powerhouses.
I will now attempt to summarise the sincere efforts undertaken by leaders of ROK to attain the much cherished dream of peace and reunification among the large divided Korean Family.
From the moment President Moon Jae-in took office in in May 2017, following highly competitive, free and democratic elections, he sought dialogue with the Northern communist regime to realize the elusive dreams of lasting peace, reconciliation, denuclearization and reunification.
They were the same dreams pursued by the late Presidents Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moohyun, his past political mentors. He courageously reached out to the dictator in the North even as tensions were at boiling point caused by the destabilizing acrimonious exchanges between the North Korean dictator and the US President.
President Moon’s overtures to the North were widely ridiculed and opposed by domestic and American critics. Deeply religious and committed to peace, President Moon was not discouraged by the hostility of the Trump Administration and misgivings conveyed from Tokyo in regards the entreaties between ROK and DPRK.
The mood has changed dramatically, from fear of an imminent war fed by incendiary tweets threatening nuclear annihilation of North Korea by the most powerful country in the world, to one of celebration as a result of the historic Summit in Singapore that ended with a statement of intention to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. The “dotard” and the “Rocket man” became instant “friends.” The world shouldn’t be surprised if we see Trump Towers going up in Pyongyang and the “Apprentice” series carried in the only State TV Channel allowed in DPRK.
President Moon is absolutely correct in doing everything in his power in the remaining years in office to pursue the much cherished dream of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, lasting peace and reunification. This promises to be a long and tortuous process but the seeds of peace President Moon and his two predecessors, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moohyun, have planted will bear fruit if Koreans stand fully behind this peace process, keep the hope and faith, and refuse to give up in the face of the many obstacles ahead.
The peoples of the Korean Peninsula and of the wider region deserve and expect no less from their leaders, who are duty bound to pursue patient dialogue, and explore avenues of cooperation where possible and desirable.
As President Moon negotiates with his North Korean counterpart, I am sure he has not forgotten the peoples of DPRK who for decades have languished under the tyrannical communist dynasty. Hence fundamental human rights and freedom for all peoples in the Korean Peninsula must be part of the peace process.
President Kim Jong-un would send a further message of good faith if he is to decree the end of arbitrary detention, closure of labor camps, torture and summary executions, and release of all political prisoners. If it is true that President Kim Jong-un loves his people as stated by President Trump then surely he should take steps towards opening up North Korea and allow his people more freedom.
He has ample time to initiate and manage a process of incremental change and can go down in history as the architect of gradual evolution from tyranny to a more humane and compassionate political and social regime.
Land and history shape us as a people, mold our personality and attitudes; as human beings, we are compelled to adapt to every circumstance in order to survive and thrive even in the midst of extreme adversity. This process of adaptation shape us, make us who we are. And the Korean people, proud, brave, resilient, extremely hardworking and determined, have transformed this land from extreme poverty into a robust, vibrant world economy, from colonial occupation and military dictatorship into an uncompromising democracy.
Through your long history, going back to the Fourth Century B.C., you fought many wars with different Chinese emperors. In modern times you were invaded and colonized for almost 500 years, endured two major wars and occupation.
As I stand here I bow to the memory of all Koreans who lost their lives in the fight for independence against foreign rulers and for democracy and freedom against dictatorship.
I bow to the memory of the late President Kim Dae Jung, a man of vision, principles and convictions, a fighter for human rights and democracy, a bridge builder with the North.
Kim Dae Jung was a personal friend and friend of my country. In September 1999 working closely with President Bill Clinton and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, he dispatched a Korean peace-keeping battalion to my country, contributing to end the violence there. I commend the Korean armed forces for their professionalism and bravery in the service of the UN in my country.
I am very proud to have nominated KDJ for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999. He was awarded the prize in 2000. I wrote the submission nominating him for the Nobel Peace Prize in a hotel room in Seoul with the help of my friend Han Jung Kim. I attended the great Oslo ceremony on 10th December 2000 as a guest of President KDJ.
In a speech in Berlin’s Old City Hall in July 2017 President Moon said:
“We need to urgently ease the military tension on the Korean Peninsula. We need to rebuild the trust that has collapsed between the South and the North. In this regard, we will seek exchanges and dialogue. North Korea also needs to stop from any more nuclear provocations. We need to establish a military management system to prevent accidental clashes.
“A more fundamental solution is to uproot the North Korean nuclear issue. The North Korean nuclear issue has become much more difficult to deal with than in the past with the advancement of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. A step-by-step and comprehensive approach is required.
“My Government, in cooperation with the international community, will work towards a comprehensive solution of the current issues on the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia, including the complete dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program and establishing a peace regime, easing North Korea’s security and economic concerns, and improving North Korea-US and North Korea-Japan relations.
The fact that he mentions easing the security and economic concerns of the North is vital. The Korean War, US military presence at its borders, NATO orchestration of regime change in Iraq and Libya after the Gadhafi regime gave up its nuclear weapons program, are all roots of North Korean regime’s obsession with acquiring nuclear weapons capability, its sense of vulnerability and fears, and its desire to be taken seriously as a regional military power.
There are no short cuts to peace. The road is fraught with man-made obstacles, stemming from individual or collective experiences, perceptions and fears, often exacerbated by personal ambitions and egos of those at the center.
Hence we can all be assured that there’s not going to be a straight line in the pursuit of durable peace in the Korean Peninsula and beyond. While some first major steps have been taken towards denuclearization and elimination of the threat of war, as President Moon rightly stated “A step-by-step and comprehensive approach is required.”
Let’s hope that all sides deliver on their pledges.
I am not a romantic pacifist who believes that force must never be used. Sometimes, the use of force is necessary, when it is the only option available to prevent genocide. Bosnia, Rwanda, the Killing Fields of Cambodia are just some reminders that non-use of force to prevent genocide and mass atrocities is the moral equivalent to complicity.
However, the preferred option should always be prevention, dialogue and mediation to settle disputes and when these are actively, creatively and patiently exercised in a timely fashion they often produce results.
The 21st century offers all a unique chance to coalesce around common global interests – reverse the nefarious consequences of climate change, manage clean water reserves that are becoming a rare commodity, save our polluted rivers, lakes and seas, replenish the depleted fish stock, eliminate extreme poverty and hunger, deescalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula and South China Sea, between India and Pakistan, India and China, China and US, Russia and the US.
I dream of the time when the three great countries China, Korea and Japan meet at the golden bridge of peace, a bridge decorated with millions of paper cranes, a vision imagined by an innocent victim of the first ever atomic bomb dropped on a people, Sadako. After being diagnosed with leukemia from the atomic radiation, Sadako began to fold origami paper cranes, inspired by the Japanese legend that one who created a thousand origami cranes would be granted a wish. And Sadako’s wish was to live.
*Bio notes: J. Ramos-Horta served as President, Prime Minister, Senior Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence of Timor-Leste (2002-2012), Member of the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Board on Mediation (2017- ), Chair of the High Level Independent Panel On UN Peace Operations (2014-2015).