Lho: Helping North Korea Escape From a 'Self-Imposed Hell'

Located in Seoul, the War Memorial of Korea was opened in 1994 on the former site of Korean Army headquarters. (Wilson Loo/Flickr)

There is an old Korean saying that even rivers and mountains change in the space of a decade. And much has changed in the past six decades since the bloody, three-year long conflagration left the Korean peninsula in ashes, having proved little beyond the fact that another such war must be prevented at all costs.

From the devastation and crushing poverty of the postwar years, Korea now stands shoulder to shoulder with its fellow members of the G20. We have gone from being a destitute aid recipient seemingly without a future to a nation that today gratefully provides international development assistance to less fortunate countries around the globe. As we look to the second decade of the 21st century, we anticipate becoming an even more responsible stakeholder in a more peaceful and prosperous world.

But sadly, much also remains unchanged on the Korean peninsula. Even after the rest of the world has long since moved on from the end of the Cold War, North Korea under the late Kim Jong Il refused to discard its malignant world-view centered on hostility toward everything we in South Korea stand for and, by reflection, the civilized world as we know it. North Korea's misguided pursuit of nuclear weapons, for example, and more generally its exaggerated spending on its military, is but one symptom of its abnormal universe. Against the backdrop of a collapsed economy and a population once again at the brink of starvation, all that North Korea could do was issue belligerent threats against its imagined enemies.

The reality, of course, is that Pyongyang's imagined enemies are actually the ones who most wish to help the North escape from its self-imposed hell. It defies imagination that Pyongyang can continue its self-destructive policies for much longer. North Korea's long-suffering people are increasingly more aware that there is an alternative universe free of fear, incarceration, fruitless labor and unending sacrifice in the name of loyalty to a failed dream of unification under Pyongyang's (read: the Kim dynasty's) terms.

Without aid from Seoul and the international community at large, North Korea will face a very bleak future. And we, in spite of Pyongyang's misadventure, must find a way to help prevent this looming humanitarian disaster. The war, after all, was ultimately about which political system — the communist North or the democratic South — offered the best pathway out of the national misery we encountered upon liberation in 1945. There can be no doubt that Seoul chose the correct path, though it took a very long time to illustrate this to the world and now, I suspect, even to Pyongyang.

The Republic of Korea remains firmly committed to its policy of peaceful engagement with North Korea, even as we must work to redouble our deterrence against potential further military provocations by the North. Let us hope that the new North Korean leadership will now choose wisdom over belligerence, and return to serious and material dialogue with Seoul that can set the stage for a more peaceful, prosperous and cooperative future for the whole Korean people.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Kyongsoo Lho
Dr. Kyongsoo Lho is Co-Chairman of the Asia Society Korea Center and a Professor of International Politics at Seoul National University.