Europe and the Middle East—The July 2021 International Leadership Conference started with a session titled “Track 1.5 Diplomacy Initiatives with North Korea.”
The eight sessions of the ILC were held online from July 27 to 29, 2021, under the title “Toward the Peaceful Reunification of the Korean Peninsula: Best Practices in Track II Diplomacy.”
The first session on the morning of July 27 had a total of 230 participants for the “live” broadcast, with an additional 363 viewers on Facebook.
Track 1.5 dialogues are conversations that include a mix of government officials—participating in an unofficial capacity—and non-governmental experts. Neither Track 1.5 nor Track II discussions carry the official weight of traditional diplomacy, yet they offer a private, open environment for individuals to build trust, hold conversations and discuss solutions in a way that their official counterparts sometimes cannot. Trusted figures often can glean better insights and nuances and provide non-official communication channels that can prove useful in a crisis.
The panelists, Hon. Glyn Ford and Dr. Antonio Betancourt, offered their own experiences of Track 1.5 diplomacy with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK – North Korea), in the context of parliamentary as well as non-governmental initiatives.
Mr. Jacques Marion, the co-chair of UPF for Europe and the Middle East (EUME), opened the three-day webinar, welcoming the participants to this first session.
In his opening remarks, Dr. Katsumi Otsuka, co-chair of UPF EUME, mentioned that the Korean War often is spoken of as the “Third World War.” In this context he provided an introduction to the lives of the UPF founders, Rev. Dr. Sun Myung Moon (Father Moon) and his wife, Dr. Hak Ja Han Moon (Mother Moon), who both were born in North Korea came to South Korea as refugees.
Dr. Otsuka said, “The UPF founders are both victims of the World War and communist revolution, and this motivated their work for world peace and reunification of the Korean Peninsula.”
He underlined a milestone in their lives when in December 1991 they visited Pyongyang to carry out peace talks with Supreme Leader Kim Il Sung. Now, 30 years later, Mother Moon has a strong hope to visit North Korea again to commemorate that first visit.
Dr. Otsuka drew the listeners’ attention to the fact that July 27 was the anniversary of the Korean Armistice Agreement signed by North Korean, Chinese and United States representatives in 1953. He added that the time has come for the world to cooperate for the peaceful reunification of Korea.
Finally, he described some UPF activities, in particular the Peace Road Initiative and the Korea-Japan Undersea Tunnel Project, which are contributing to overcoming hostile relations while fostering dialogue.
The moderator for this first session was Humphrey Hawksley, an author, commentator, and former BBC foreign correspondent. He introduced both speakers and offered some comments on the importance of Track 1.5 dialogues. As he put it, they comprise conversations that include a mix of government officials participating unofficially and non-governmental experts, while offering a private, open environment for dialogue, trust, and brainstorming.
Hon. Glyn Ford is a former UK member of the European Parliament (1984-2009) and the founder of the non-governmental organization Track2Asia as well as the private company Polint. He is also the author of the book Talking with North Korea: Ending the Nuclear Standoff (2018).
He spoke about a process of Track 1.5 diplomacy in which he took part and how it affected him. Over a period of more than 20 years, he has had the opportunity to enter North Korea about 50 times. He made his first trip there in 1997 on an unofficial basis when he was a member of the European Parliament, after being approached by DPRK diplomats from a UNESCO delegation. At that time, North Koreans were seeking food aid from the European Union. Upon his return, the European Parliament drafted a resolution that eventually led to North Korea allowing an official EU delegation to visit North Korea. Subsequently substantial EU food aid was delivered to the DPRK (“a total of 500 million Euros in humanitarian assistance to the DPRK during the decade up to 2010,” as Hon. Ford wrote on p.112 of his book Talking with North Korea).
In 2010, after being asked to set up a political dialogue, Hon. Ford gathered a group of senior politicians from the EU to travel to Pyongyang regularly to hold discussions with the head of the international department of the Workers’ Party of Korea.
Hon. Ford spoke about his appreciation of the Korean situation, particularly that of Pyongyang and North Korea, as a result of his experiences there. North Koreans are not interested in early unification, he said, because it would mean assimilation, which they do not want. He drew a comparison to the East German model of reunification, which happened as a result of a collapsed state, which is not the case of North Korea. The North Koreans want the United States to “get off their back” and allow them to grow and to develop their economy.
North Korea’s nuclear program “is driven by weakness, not by strength,” he said, stating that North Korea has lost the arms race. He added that “the only way to actually guarantee regime survival, from their perspective, has been the development of weapons of mass destruction.” He pointed out that any solution to this conflict will be a long-term process which requires that trust be built step by step on both sides, with the involvement of the international community.
Humphrey Hawksley introduced Dr. Antonio Betancourt by recounting their first meeting in Beijing in 1994, at a time when tensions were high between the United States and North Korea. Dr. Betancourt—the former secretary general of the Summit Council for World Peace (a grouping of current and former heads of state established by the UPF founders) and the former director of the UPF Office for Peace and Security—had cut short their first encounter with an immediate invitation to go with him to join an influential group that was seeking to “avert a war” on the Korean Peninsula.
Dr. Betancourt continued the story, adding the context that DPRK President Kim Jong Il had passed a message to the Moon family, through Dr. Betancourt, that they should leave Seoul because war was imminent. The US threat to sanction remittances from DPRK sympathizers in Japan, approximately $600 million to $700 million annually, was seen as a casus belli in Pyongyang. Dr. Betancourt used his influence to encourage former U.S. President Jimmy Carter to visit Pyongyang, despite the Clinton administration’s opposition. He also pushed for the television news network CNN to accompany him, despite the DPRK’s initial reluctance, to be able to report the results of talks directly and transparently. Through this effort, tensions were reduced between the United States and the DPRK.
Dr. Betancourt went on to speak about the meeting that Father and Mother Moon had with the DPRK’s founding president, Kim Il Sung, in 1991. In the late 1940s, Father Moon was tortured during a campaign to remove religious leaders from communist North Korea. He then was incarcerated, notably in the Hungnam communist labor camp. Nevertheless, Sun Myung Moon was freed and could travel to the South, thanks to the intervention of the UN troops under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur—whose staff officers included Alexander Haig, who later became supreme allied commander of NATO and U.S. secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan. Father Moon became a leading proponent of Victory over Communism internationally and a well-known campaigner for South Korea to be aware of the threat of the DPRK.
In 1991, Father Moon asked Dr. Betancourt to convey a message of rapprochement to President Kim Il Sung. His goal was for their reconciliation to facilitate cooperation for the good of all Korean people, leading to the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula. Father Moon advised Dr. Betancourt: “You don’t achieve anything by demonizing your adversaries; you have to give them the respect that you, in your bias, do not think they deserve. In the end this will bring results. You may be able to make your adversary into a partner.”
Visiting several DPRK Embassies did not bring any constructive results. Dr. Betancourt realized that another approach was needed, given the DPRK policy at the time toward Father Moon. The chairman of the Summit Council for World Peace, former Costa Rican President Rodrigo Carazo, suggested contacting Cuban President Fidel Castro, who had friendly relations with President Kim Il Sung and could encourage a bold move for reconciliation. This approach worked, and visas were issued in April 1991.
On arrival in Pyongyang, Dr. Betancourt was subjected to a three-day grilling by his North Korean hosts. Unsurprisingly, as a dual citizen of Colombia and the United States (both of which were members of the UN Forces fighting North Korea in the Korean War) and an envoy of Father Moon, he was a persona non grata and treated very suspiciously. After three days, however, he felt that his hosts were beginning to understand that this visit for rapprochement was genuine. When this mood changed, he began to speak of how Father and Mother Moon’s support could benefit North Korea.
First, he agreed to work to raise the level of the discussion of DPRK issues in Washington, D.C. This was achieved with the support of the Summit Council for World Peace network and the influential Admiral William J. Crowe. Second, he offered to bring to Pyongyang Dr. Robert Lee from the World Bank, who had advised China on reforms that had led to a successful restructuring of the Chinese economy.
A number of other ideas were discussed that later formed a 10-point communique following the visit of Father and Mother Moon to North Korea in December 1991. The Potonggang Hotel and a peace center were built in Pyongyang. A car assembly/manufacturing plant “costing hundreds of millions of dollars” was built in the city of Nampo, which recently was donated to North Korea. All were run, without profit, for the sake of North Korea.
This turned out to be the first of 16 visits to the DPRK by Dr. Betancourt, who developed a close relationship with President Kim. In his final days President Kim proposed that research be made into Juche thought and the teachings of Father Moon that were founded in what is now North Korea. The purpose of this project was to better understand the manifest historical destiny of the region. President Kim’s demise forestalled this effort.
Dr. Betancourt became one of the few Westerners invited to attend President Kim’s funeral. Together with Col. Bo Hi Pak, one of Father Moon’s assistants, he presented Father and Mother Moon’s condolences to President Kim Jong Il at the funeral.
During the webinar’s question-and-answer session, numerous interesting questions were brought forward on topics such as the impact of COVID-19 in relation to the famine in North Korea; the possibility of a peace treaty; language differences between North and South Korea; Russia’s role in the conflict; Donald Trump’s peace initiative with North Korea; and whether the dream of reunification is still alive in the people’s minds.
Finally, asked about the future of the Korean Peninsula, Dr. Betancourt evoked Reverend Moon’s calls for adopting a heart of love toward one’s enemies. Hoping that the world’s attention can return to that part of the world once the pandemic is over, Dr. Betancourt added that the issue will be solved only if big nations have an (economic) interest in doing so.
Hon. Ford emphasized the need for any solution to satisfy both China and the United States. When dealing with North Korea, he said, it is very important to adopt a bipartisan approach which is long-term and guarantees stability beyond government changes both in South Korea and the United States.