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M. Breen: Address to World Summit 2022, Session IV

Address to World Summit
February 11-13, 2022


It is a great honor to be here.

Peace, reconciliation and the eventual reunification of the rival Koreas is clearly desirable. If you have seen the satellite photo of the Korean Peninsula where lights are blazing in South Korea and blazing in China, you would have also seen that there is pitch black in between with a few spots of light representing Pyongyang and one or two other places that look like lights on the rocks in a lighthouse in the sea. Peace, reunification will turn those lights on. It would also end the terrible suffering of the North Koreans and would heal the broken identity of all Koreans.

If anyone tells you it is not a good idea, then here are a few thoughts in response. As Chairman Ganesh Prasad Timilsina from Kathmandu said, it would be good for regional peace and prosperity indeed. Moreover, peace and reunification on the Korean Peninsula will have a global impact because we expect a reunified Korea in some way to make the world a better place.

What is to be done? Charlie Hurt very humbly said he is not sure.

Kyra Phillips made one or two points, and I tend to fall in the same camp, but I am also not sure. Nevertheless, I would like to give you some thoughts.

First, reunification should not be our vision. It should be our strategy, or one of the strategies, to achieve the vision. Rolling up the barbed wire along the DMZ (demilitarized zone) may happen rapidly, like the fall of the Berlin Wall, or it may happen in slow motion, like the European Union’s coming together slowly. But reunification itself will be a process leading to an end.

What is that end? To figure that out, we need to ask, what kind of state do reunified Koreans, the Korean people, want to live in? What are its most important nonnegotiable characteristics? Aside from the political explanations, peaceful and cooperative reunification has not happened here for 70 years for one simple reason. The absence of shared values. The things that are most important in North Korea, which underlie the functioning of their political, economic and social institutions, are the values of race-based nationalism and devotion to a strong leader.

South Korea, on the other hand, is a modern democracy. Its people value freedom—freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of thought, freedom of assembly. They value free and fair elections, equality, fairness, justice, and all that we associate with democracy. So, our vision for a reunified Korea must be developed with these democratic values in mind. What we want is a democratic, free market, reunified Korea set in the context of a democratic, free market, Northeast Asia.

We want China to become a democracy as well. Nothing less, frankly, is acceptable.

What is the strategy? What are the strategies to get us there? The North Korean leadership fears absorption by the South, or perhaps it is motivated by a desire or a delusion that it can still take over the South. It may have both thoughts in its mind at the same time, but I assure you it has no interest in reconciliation.

Kyra Phillips talked about this earlier. North Korea’s strategy for as long as it is weaker than South Korea, which it is, is to blow hot and cold, to take one step forward and one step back, all the time building its weaponry. It does not make any difference who the president is in the United States or who the president is in South Korea. That is the situation we are dealing with in North Korea. Given this impasse, and mindful of our vision, our side must use every opportunity to nudge North Korea and China as well in that direction of democracy.

Second, we are over-obsessed with the North Korean leader. Let’s face it, he is not going to have an accident and fall off his horse, have a near-death experience with his grandfather, and then wake up in the hospital as a liberal Democrat or conservative Republican, whichever you prefer. He might, but I do not think we should count on that. Beyond the diplomatic courtesies—I am not saying be unpleasant or rude to North Korea—the approach to reunification right now should not be to curry favor with Kim Jong-un or try to manipulate him. We should be thinking, how can we bypass him?

As the politics is stuck, I recommend that we focus on the emotional underpinnings and that we look for ways to build trust. That means addressing two things: one, North Korean fears and, two, building bonds.

What are these fears that must be addressed? Consider this. Many of you here are Koreans. I think a lot of you overseas folk are familiar with Korea, but I do not know if you know this. We have had democracy here since 1987. Of the first five democratically elected presidents in South Korea, two were jailed after their terms. Each term is a single term of five years. Two were jailed. Two avoided prosecution, but their children were jailed.

One committed suicide to forestall a corruption investigation. The sixth president was impeached and given a 30-year jail sentence and was pardoned a few weeks ago after five years. We have a vicious political culture here, and we have a floppy system of justice that bends under pressure. I am serious. Let’s wait and see what happens to President Moon Jae-in. I am not predicting anything, but wait and see what happens to President Moon.

If you are observing all of this from north of the border—Kim Jong-un and the North Korean elite are looking at this—and then here we, the UPF, say, oh, we want to talk about reunification, Kim Jong-un is going to say, you are kidding me, right? You think I am going to unify with these people? No. So I recommend in addressing this by UPF proposing that South Korea pass a law committing future governments to no retribution.

We should also champion a post-reunification truth and reconciliation process for justice and for healing. Moreover, we should try and ensure that a future reunified Korean government does not backslide on such a commitment.

Now, I have to be honest. I think the Koreans here will agree with me. Koreans are not very good at doing this. They tried a few years ago to deal with alleged collaboration with Japanese imperialism and atrocities committed under dictatorships, and they failed. They will need help.  There is a role here for our friends in Cambodia and in South Africa and other countries that have experience of how to do this.

Another point regarding the focus on the emotion is building ties. Right now, North and South Korea are not families. They are not brothers and sisters. They are enemies. If North Korea takes over tomorrow, I bet you—certainly me, my friend Jaco over here who lived in Korea for a long time, and all the Koreans here with our families—will be on the ferry to Japan immediately. They are not going to be very nice to us. The first step is to move from being enemies to becoming neighbors. This emotional process can be approached and has been approached. I am overstating this just to make this point. It has been approached through culture and sports and other forms of engagement.

The South Korean government, which controls things very much, needs to lighten up and let activists and artists be freer in their dealings and in their expression with the North. There was a law passed recently that has not been tested yet, but it makes it a crime to criticize North Korea, which is an odd thing in South Korea. But you need to have some measure of freedom here. I think we need to let modern culture—not just K-pop and Korean movies, but also international culture— influence the people of North Korea, just as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and others influenced the Soviet communists a generation ago. There is a role here for international society.

Finally, we need to be bold. Last week in preparation for this meeting, I read the autobiography of Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the co-founder of UPF. It had been sitting on my shelf for about 10 years, and I had not read it. And so, I thought, I am going to read this. And I recommend it.

It is a very good, very moving read. But in it, he describes how he asked the political scientist Morton Kaplan, around 1984 or 1985, to put together a conference that would declare the end of Soviet communism. Now, Prof. Kaplan wanted to moderate this a bit to make it softer. But Rev. Moon was insistent on this. And I suppose as the conference was his idea and he was paying for it, he got his way. Prof. Kaplan went out and declared the end of communism a bit early.

Everybody probably looked at that and thought, that is a bit odd. Rev. Moon says in his autobiography that he had a kind of an instinct that it was coming to an end. Seventy years was enough time for communism to be undone and worn out from within by its untruths and by its failings. But he could have been wrong on that. His argument was very interesting, and it was this: a declaration itself has its own energy to bring forth its message. For example, you probably had this experience. If you are down and depressed and things are not working for you, and you are making one mistake after another, the solution is not to say, I am a hopeless loser. It is much better to declare, I am better than this, and I will be great. The change begins there and then.

It is in that sense that declarations function. They are not objective truths. They are ways to redirect energy, if you like. Well, it has been over 70 years that the two Koreas have been divided, and I am talking to you as somebody who in 1990 predicted reunification in 1992. So, I am a very bad prophet.

The North Korean system may not have run out of steam yet because I do not think the North Koreans are really communists. They are not intellectual Marxist Leninists, and they are very stubborn people, but I think their system will run out of steam in time. A further recommendation for UPF is to consider making a bold declaration to move things along in this way.

I leave you with one final thought. I recommend that you hold your next world summit in Pyongyang and make the declaration there.

Thank you.



To go to the World Summit 2022 Schedule page, click here.