North Korea: dialogue with a bankrupt state

Jun 15, 2003
From State Sun, Jun. 15, 2003 North Korea: dialogue with a bankrupt state By JOE WILSON Guest columnist I've dedicated much of my life to promoting democracy throughout the world, so that others could know the freedom and liberty we enjoy in America. I have traveled to the Communist-era capitals of Bulgaria, East Germany and the Soviet Union, yet none of those visits prepared me for the anomalies I witnessed in Pyongyang, North Korea. From May 30 through June 1, I was honored to be part of a historic congressional delegation to that last reclusive Communist state. Congressman Curt Weldon, R-Pa., led the bipartisan delegation, joined by congressmen Solomon Ortiz and Sylvestre Reyes, D-Texas, Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Jeff Miller, R-Fla. From the beginning, our North Korean hosts worked hard to be confident, but there were several indications of a fragile economy. Most buildings we visited were without electricity; the highways and parking lots were virtually empty, and the "international airport" seemed to only have one flight in and out every week. In fact, I saw almost no signs of healthy commerce within North Korea. This is cause for great concern, for without a healthy economy, there is a great temptation for the Communist government to proliferate its nuclear weapons among terrorist groups, selling to the highest bidder. Now is the time to defuse this situation diplomatically, before such events take place. We visited many sites, including a school for gifted resident students, and the young people were extraordinary, despite classrooms with no electricity. The national film studio was heroic in size but was a reminder of how this closed society only allows domestic films with heavy-handed propaganda. The Sunday Protestant church service we attended was moving, but it is chilling that this was the only one in a nation of 22 million people. Throughout the city we saw countless billboards, murals and statues showing adulation for the Communist leaders and outright hatred and slander against America and South Korea. During my visit, I never saw a single newspaper sold, read or carried. This lack of media reveals the most totalitarian dictatorship ever devised, especially in what we know as the Information Age. Radios only receive government stations; televisions only receive North Korean stations; movies are government-developed, and the public has no access to fax machines, Internet connections or cell phones. The Foreign Ministry square is adorned with portraits of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. There we met with Foreign Minister Paek Nam Soon and Vice Minister for American Affairs Kuin Gye Gwan. In their legislative palace we met with Choi Tae Bok, speaker of the Supreme People's Assembly. We informed these high-ranking Communist officials that we wish to solve our problems peacefully and diplomatically. Yet I believe our visit was only possible because of the recent U.S. show of strength. President Bush has praised our troops for getting the attention of the world with successes in Afghanistan and Iraq. As delegation co-chairman Rep. Ortiz said, the world has either "seen the light or felt the heat." Efforts were made to blame President Bush for current poor relations with the North, but our delegation unanimously disagreed. In fact, Democrats Ortiz, Reyes and Engle pointed out the disagreements arose over North Korea's violations of agreements and treaties along with its conduct of test-firing missiles and developing nuclear weapons. I personally cautioned the North Koreans that 9/11, as correctly perceived by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, has caused a new world psychology of great concern over weapons of mass destruction. I explained it would be mutually beneficial for the North and the United States to reach an agreement to preserve the North's defense needs, but do away with nuclear weapons. Their response was civil to my position, but it is clear to me the crisis must be resolved with China, South Korea, Japan, Russia and the United States, not America alone. Contrasting with the staid Pyongyang was our next stop -- the vibrant South Korean capital of Seoul. Instead of empty streets, we traveled a metropolis of skyscrapers by helicopter to overcome the boulevards jammed with luxury cars and SUVs. President Roh, who was effusive in thanking the delegation for "its courage and making a difference promoting dialogue," greeted us there. Along with Foreign Minister Yoon Young Kwan, South Korea issued statements commending the delegation. As I reflect on the trip, I am saddened for the North Korean people. We saw the best the Communist nation had to offer, which was no electricity, no cars, no newspapers and only propaganda for entertainment. One can only imagine what living conditions outside of Pyongyang truly are, as we have received reports of people living in caves, eating the bark off trees to survive. North Korea is at a tipping point, struggling to hold up a crumbling society that was neglected in the pursuit of nuclear weapons. I support the efforts of President Bush to seek a peaceful solution with North Korea that will eliminate the nuclear threat and save innocent North Korean civilians from tragedy.