Korea is the land of unfinished business. The fate of a Mississauga pastor imprisoned in North Korea is part of this story. So is the furor over North Korea’s claim to have tested a hydrogen bomb.
So, indeed, is Japan’s agreement to compensate South Korean women used by its army as sex slaves during the Second World War.
They are all elements of a history that has never been resolved.
A Toronto city councilor named Raymond Cho understands this. I will get back to him later.
The first thing to remember about Korea is that it is still, technically, at war with itself.
The 1950-53 war that pitted North Korea and China against a U.S.-led United Nations coalition (including Canada) has never officially ended.
There is an armistice signed by North Korea and the U.S. But there is no peace treaty. When North Korea sabre-rattles, or when South Korea responds in kind, each believes it is responding rationally to the provocations of an implacable enemy.
Neither side is blameless in this. The U.S. never did agree to the political talks required by the armistice. For its part, North Korea has behaved in a manner that beggars belief — at one point randomly abducting Japanese citizens to fill its need for language instructors, at another trying to assassinate the entire South Korean cabinet.
Still, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions can be understood only in the context of this unresolved war.
To Pyongyang, the fate of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi provide a stark warning: leaders who relinquish nuclear weapons in order to placate the U.S. leave themselves open to being deposed by the U.S.
North Korea’s nuclear tests also help explain the decision by leaders in Seoul and Tokyo to try to close the books on another unresolved issue — Japan’s use of sex slaves during the Second World War.
Hundreds of women and girls in occupied Korea, China and the Philippines were forced to act as so-called comfort women for Japanese soldiers. For decades, the treatment of these women has been a point of tension between Japan and its neighbours.
Last month, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reversed himself and agreed to pay $8.3 million (U.S.) in compensation to South Korea’s 46 surviving former comfort women. According to press reports, he and South Korean President Park Geun-hye were under pressure from the U.S. to mend fences in order to better face a nuclear-armed North Korea.
Ordinary South Koreans, it seems are less thrilled. Polls show that slightly more than half think the comfort-women settlement is insufficient.
Finally, the Mississauga pastor. Hyeon Soo Lim, 60, heads the Light Korean Presbyterian Church. He has travelled often to North Korea on humanitarian missions. This year’s trip was different. He was arrested, charged and convicted of engaging in anti-state activities.
He has been sentenced to life at hard labour.
Why would the regime of Kim Jong-un suddenly imprison an elderly Korean-Canadian minister? The most logical explanation is that the North Korean dictator wants something from Ottawa.
During the early 2000s, Canada and many other Western nations were open to North Korea. Ottawa and Pyongyang established diplomatic relations in 2001. There was talk of a North Korean embassy in Canada’s capital.
Then came Pyongyang’s 2003 decision to withdraw from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Relations chilled. In 2010, Canada announced it would severely limit contacts with the Communist regime. In 2011, Ottawa banned virtually all trade with North Korea.
Which brings me back to Raymond Cho. The Korean-born Scarborough councillor has arranged for what he calls a candlelight vigil in Toronto City Hall at 4 p.m. this Saturday. His aim is to support Lim, question the comfort-women deal, and oppose nuclear proliferation.
Cho has no magic solution for the unresolved issues of his homeland. But he says Canada can help by trying to re-engage with North Korea.
This, he says, could benefit the jailed pastor. It could also benefit Koreans generally.
“If we keep isolating North Korea, the people who will suffer are average North Koreans,” he says.