The last meeting of the day with KCTU was with the Unification Department. This department is concerned with peace on the Korean Peninsula and other issues related to peace and justice. Their mission is intense, with nuclear war looming on the political horizon. They also want to see a united Korean Peninsula, a topic that is up for much debate (as we previously discussed.) This meeting would be the most difficult for me as it pushed on the boundaries of what agreements I could make on behalf of my organization.
Sungmin Park, chair of the committee, started us off with some history and it was pretty damning. As he outlined all the ways that the United States had royally screwed over both North and South Korea, I admittedly felt the room rising in temperature. He noted that most of the responsibility for the division of the country lies with the United States. He talked about the San Francisco treaty that, in addition to splitting the country in two, pardons the Japanese for all crimes toward Koreans. He also mentioned a national security law that permanently places North Korea as an enemy, limiting the ability for South Koreans to engage them.
There also is the larger, deeper problem of devastation through sanctions in North Korea. For those of us in the West, we see sanctions as the result of threats but (not surprisingly) make no connection between the escalation and our own behavior. In the past year, I actually think this has changed somewhat. One result of 45’s (Donald Trump) presidency has been a removal of the veil on political processes that actually have gone on long before he ever took office. The main difference has been, in my opinion, that 45 is without diplomatic language that can obscure the violent truth of our foreign policy. A magnificent dullard and brute, he lays his intentions clear with every speech and doesn’t hide his violence with smooth talk. Now, with such a villain in office, NK looks more reasonable by comparison. It’s easier for people to see that the aggressor can be (and often truly is) us. With that veil removed, it’s easier to see things like the difference between Kim-Jong and his people. But also, it’s easier to see why war games can be provocative when the US president is a notorious provocateur. SK, it could be said, has been waiting for us to recognize this for some time and was wondering when we’d join the conversation rationally.
The conversation turned to a back-and-forth with some Q and A. I was asked about 45, specifically whether he was under the influence of neoconservatives. I then had the heartbreaking task of describing the cabal of super-villains our president had assembled to a group of people who probably really didn’t want to know just how bizarre and problematic our Executive Branch had become. I let them know that neoconservatives, while certainly present in the House and Senate, weren’t the ones mainly advising the president. I did my best to illustrate the strange dark alliance made between “men’s rights” true believers, hardened white supremacists, paper tigers, and hucksters that struggle to get the attention of a thin-skinned man in a role he is unprepared for. Just thinking about that conversation even now makes me sad.
We then began talking about North Korea, specifically the lack of involvement of the American labor movement in conversations between trade union organizations. It was again expressed that our opinions about North Korea seemed strange given that as a labor movement we had so few interactions with them. I was encouraged to let labor leadership in the US know that the best course of action could be to engage NK labor in conversation somehow. I asked a question that had been on my mind for some time: how do they know that the NK unions they are meeting with are legitimate? How can we be sure we’re not just meeting with a labor organization made up of nothing but spies?
The committee chair replied that KCTU has had this relationship with North Korea because they worked at it. They’d been in communication since 1999 and had spent time together enough for him to recognize that the people he was meeting with were workers. If they were workers, he said, then we should respect them as our comrades and talk to them. I asked how this was possible and he told me that their meetings are (amazingly) centered around a soccer match. When possible, the North Koreans and South Koreans get together and play a game and around that discussions are had. I was happy to hear this, particularly as pressure was again placed on us to come to the proverbial table as Americans and talk to the North Korean labor movement. It was there that I did something I was, up until that point, not thinking would be possible.
I agreed to work hard to make a conversation happen between our labor movements, specifically to get American labor to the next soccer game as long as we can nail down details. There were audible gasps and a look of astonishment on some faces. I cautioned that these details were going to take work and that I really hadn’t committed to more than talking, but I think folks knew better by that point. I’d basically started us down a long road toward American, South Korean, and North Korean trade unionists being in the same room together.
We’ll do Day 5 somewhat differently. It’ll be a kind of wrap-up.