[The following opinion piece was written by Charles Burton, Department of Political Science, Brock University, in June of 2000 and appeared in CanKor Report #02.]
Earlier this month it was announced that Lloyd Axworthy will be meeting with the Foreign Minister of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Paek Nam Sun at the ASEAN Regional Forum meetings this week. This meeting should lead to Canada’s diplomatic recognition of the North Korean regime and start the process to eventual full diplomatic relations.
Kim Jong Il’s government of North Korea has little to recommend it. There is no democracy or political freedom of any kind in the DPRK. The national economy has suffered from negative growth for several years. Things are very bad there. How bad it really is is hard to reckon due to the unreliability of information about this country. However some statistics estimate that due to starvation, malnutrition and disease, the population of the North has dropped over 5% in recent years. Moreover, North Korea is without question the most politically repressive regime in the world today. There are a very high number of political prisoners in the North. We know that torture and brutality is the norm in North Korean prisons. Plainly put, human rights do not exist in the DPRK. On top of all this, the DPRK has an advanced missile program with nuclear potential. Kim Jong Il’s regime is sufficiently unpredictable that the world has cause for concern that North Korea might actually deploy its weaponry of mass destruction if push comes to shove.
Nevertheless Canadian recognition of the DPRK is the right thing to do. We should not simply shun the DPRK because it has a very bad government with a menacing military capability. There are after all millions of ordinary people living there under appalling conditions. Under the circumstances there is probably little that Canada can do to help them, but standing idly by in the face of a humanitarian tragedy of the proportions of that in North Korea is not the Canadian way. History will judge us badly if we continue to ignore the reality that the Kim Jong Il regime is the regime that our Government must engage if Canada is to do the right thing by the people of North Korea.
Canada already gives food aid to North Korea through multilateral agencies such as the World Food Programme, and NGOs such as the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. North Korea is highly dependent on such aid, much of it donated by the United States through UN agencies. However what North Korea needs more than handouts is technical assistance to reconstruct its devastated economy. For this reason we need to establish diplomatic relations with the DPRK so our Canadian International Development Agency can be present there. We need to send Canadian agricultural specialists and economists into North Korea to assess the situation and propose measures to effect recovery of the DPRK’s rural and industrial sectors. North Koreans should be brought out to Canada for training. If our experience in the early days of recognition of the People’s Republic of China is any guide, these people will return to the DPRK from their Canadian experience as agents of change.
Diplomatic relations will allow Canada to have regular engagement with the North Korean government and military. We should seek opportunities for trade. Hopefully such political, military and economic engagement by Canada and the other like-minded nations now broaching closer engagement with the DPRK, will bring North Korea ’round to the possibility of gradual re-integration into the global community. Italy and Australia have recently recognized the DPRK and others are expected to follow shortly, so Canada will not be alone in this.
The process is not likely to go smoothly. Aside from its staggering disregard for the welfare of its own people, the North Korean regime has a well-established record of reneging on political commitments and defaulting on loan payments. North Korea’s political doctrine of *juche* promotes national self-reliance with a corollary of extreme suspicion of the intentions of outsiders. Naturally, the DPRK regime hopes that Canadian aid will strengthen its hold on power and not weaken it. Nevertheless, Canada has an obligation to engage in a prudent policy of political and economic engagement of the North for strategic and humanitarian reasons. The realities of North Korea’s potentially volatile offensive military capacity and the desperate need of its population for fundamental human security makes Canada’s choice plain.