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It is right and Christian to build bridges with North Korea

David Alton’s inspiring attempts to open up the ‘hermit kingdom’ is an example of Christian diplomacy at its best

By on Thursday, 19 January 2012

Sitting in the car yesterday afternoon I heard on the car radio that Associated Press is to open its first full western news bureau in North Korea. The news agency had already opened a video bureau in North Korea in 2006. Now, after a year of discussions, its photographers and reporters will be able to work in Pyongyang on a regular basis. The President of Associated Press, Tom Curley, said that the Pyongyang office would follow the same standards as its other bureaus around the world; “We pledge to do our best to reflect accurately the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as well as what they do and say,” he stated. AP’s bureau chief in Seoul, Andrei Lankov, commented:“It’s not impossible that very soon North Korea will start changing.”

It’s not impossible, though sceptics would add that it’s rather unlikely. Why do I mention this item of news? Because of an inspiring article I read recently in the Herald by Lord David Alton of Liverpool, who chairs the British-North Korea All Party Group in Parliament. This was established seven years ago “as a process of constructive, critical engagement” and it resulted in the report “Building Bridges Not Walls.” Lord Alton writes that this positive approach is getting results; he visited the country last October “to participate in North Korea’s first international conference at its first public-private university: the one year-old Pyongyang University of Science and Technology – ‘international’ and ‘private’ in a country that says it doesn’t do international or private.” Perhaps Associated Press’s own initiative was influenced by Alton’s imaginative and hope-filled earlier one?

Christopher Hitchens, who died recently, was definitely not inspired by North Korea. Indeed, he wrote an article for Slate in 2010 entitled “A Nation of Racist Dwarfs” which brilliantly and mercilessly mocked the country. He described it as giving birth to “a sort of new species: starving and stunted dwarves, living in the dark, kept in perpetual ignorance and fear, brainwashed into the hatred of others, regimented and coerced and inculcated with a death cult.” You can also watch a YouTube clip of Hitchens making the case for North Korea being worse than 1984, where you can hear the audience laughing and clapping at his entertaining performance.

Of course North Korea is an easy target for the likes of Hitchens. Doubtless what he described is true; I have read other journalists stating the same thing though not so wittily or cleverly. Hitchens believed that “peace and disarmament negotiations with [North Korea] are a waste of time”. After all, the country had zero redeeming features, didn’t it? Perhaps if you are an atheist as Hitchens was, you are more likely to despair of the place and to pick up on the more hellish aspects of its society. Perhaps it takes a Christian vision like Lord Alton’s to want to build bridges with these fellow human beings from a far country rather than a wall of eloquent yet excoriating words.

  • ms Catholic state

    God Bless North Korea.  They have, and continue to, suffer so much….. God will not forget that, even if we do.  Often great graces eventually come from great suffering.  Lord Alton is right to have faith in that nation.

  • Anonymous

    Won’t such a bureau risk being looked upon as a means of undermining the regime ? There is something very creepy about destabilising a regime through use of the news media; we would not like it if we were on the receiving end, so North Korea is unlikely to be keen on such an outcome. The opening of such a bureau seems just a little underhand, particularly given Mr. Lankov’s words. “Critical engagement” is one thing, but destabilisation by another name is something else.

    Still, it will be interesting to see what happens under North Korea’s new management.

  • LocutusOP

    Nothing wrong with a wait-and-see approach.

    In any case I’ll agree with Mrs. Phillips…Dialogue is always better than angry hypocritical condemnation.

  • Bart_0117

    As a South Korean myself, I think it is important to try and open more diplomatic channels and other means of communication with North Korea. Lately, there had been a big scandal about defamatory (and therefore, sensible) leaflets in circulation criticising the hereditary rule of the Kim family. It was supposedly printed and supplied by a defector from North Korea to China. I think already at the grassroot level, North Koreans are largely disillusioned. The best thing for us outside to do is to give them the courage and hope that their voice will be heard one day, that this regime of terror and woeful disregard of human dignity will indeed come to an end.

  • Anonymous

    “AP’s bureau chief in Seoul, Andrei Lankov” is a factually incorrect statement. Lankov is an associate professor at Kookmin University, Seoul. AP’s bureau chief is Jean Lee.