Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.
The most poignant part of Hyeonseo Lee's TEDTalk was her mention of the Good Samaritan who assisted with the release of her family from a prison in Laos. Many of us would like to see ourselves as this man. We hear the harrowing tales of North Korean refugees and we want to help. Yet our ability to comprehend the dynamics in the Korean peninsula is limited by the fact that we are half a world away.
Motivated by this spirit of curiosity, I took a 15-hour flight from Dallas to Seoul earlier this month. After spending five nights in Seoul and a day touring the DMZ, my major takeaway is that North Korea is an impenetrable fortress that everyone wants to look at, but no one cares to touch. Pyongyang has alienated most of the global community with its focus on military supremacy, at the expense of the lives of it citizens. The result is tragic: the life expectancy of a North Korean is 11 years younger than that of a South Korean.
Yet the South Koreans don't seem particularly concerned about Kim Jong-Un. I toured the DMZ on June 12, 2013, right after North Korea pulled out of its much anticipated talks with the South. The tour guide didn't even know the talks had been cancelled. Activity at border control seemed normal; recent high school graduates with guns strapped to their backs were still running the show. Better yet, busloads of children were touring the DMZ, much like I would see later in the week when school children visited the Samsung d'light Center in Gangnam. Another day, another field trip.
By all intents and purposes, the South Koreans should be afraid. Just a few months ago, North Korea conducted another underground military explosion. They've launched rockets into space. There have been inspections of the DPRK's nuclear facilities by teams of internationally renowned scientists. So why isn't South Korean concerned?
Some argue that by nuking Seoul, which is only 35 miles from the border, the North Koreans would be ostensibly nuking themselves. And the idea that Pyongyang would bomb a super power is unlikely because the blowback could literally destroy the country. These concepts may be right. But I think the South Koreans aren't afraid because the threat is so, well, over-blown.
First of all, it seems highly improbable that a country with a GDP of $40 billion has the resources to put together a nuclear program. In contrast, Iran, a country which denies that its nuclear research is for military use, has a GDP of $1.02 trillion. The United States has a GDP of $ 15.94 trillion.
And despite all the site visits and explosions, no one can confirm that North Korea can miniaturize a nuclear weapon, mount it on a missile, and accurately exterminate a target. For all we know, their most recent underground experiment wasn't a nuclear test, but a gigantic explosion of nothing more threatening than gunpowder. Because that is exactly what a country known for spreading inflammatory propaganda would do.
And they've been doing it for years. Consider the North Korean village of Kijong-dong. It was built decades ago in the northern portion of the DMZ. No one lives there. The buildings don't have windows. But Pyongyang decided that funding the construction of this fake village was an issue of national security. Of course North Koreans live within miles from the border, yet have no desire to defect! And people likeHyeonseo Lee are being assassinated for doing just that.
It's also weird to think that a country which invested in a military strategy dating back to medieval times would be so quick to develop nukes. North Korea has tunneled underneath the DMZ in failed attempts to invade the South with a surprise attack of ground forces. Yes, North Korean soldiers were going to come streaming out of a hole in the ground to invade Seoul. Remnants of four tunnels have been found. There may be more.
Whether you believe the hype or not, there's no doubt that North Korea's focus on military strength rather than economic development has put the country on a tenuously sustainable path. Maybe that's why North Korea has offered to have high-level talks with the United States. More often than not, these talks are a means for Pyongyang to demand an economic reward for any concessions they might make with regard to their nuclear program. Not surprisingly, we're not jumping at the chance.
But we are committed to supporting our ally in Seoul. There were American soldiers on my flight. I saw them in my hotel. The American military presence is strong in South Korea. The simplest, most peaceful option for stability in the Korean peninsula would be for Pyongyang to tone down the rhetoric, commit to de-nuclearization, and provide the transparency necessary to accept aid from the international community.
After all, we just want to help.
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