Building Bridges: Is There Hope For North Korea?

David Alton (Author), Rob Chidley (Contributor)
Publisher: Lion Books, UK, 2013
ISBN-10: 0745955983
ISBN-13: 978-0745955988
242 pages
RRP: £9.99

God help the victims of the victims! The Korean Peninsula is the proverbial meat in the sandwich between Japan, China and Russia and, for centuries, has been invaded by China or Japan. In the power struggle between these two countries, each striving for the control and domination of Korea, people have suffered unspeakable cruelty and millions of violent deaths. With frightening frequency and regularity, new refinements of torture, enslavement and horror have been imposed on Koreans, both by foreign powers and by their own Government. Inevitably, such appalling disregard for human life has spilled over onto foreigners, but time and time again, it has been the Korean people themselves who have experienced the bulk of the effects of the ongoing violent and ruthless search for power. The outside world has heard the stories of the few escapees, both foreign and national, from a succession of brutal regimes, but by far the greatest majority have suffered unknown to the outside world, with few, if any, supporters of their cause or defenders of their rights to live in freedom, peace and justice.

Building Bridges: Is There Hope For North Korea? is an eye-opener of a book. For those who, like me, knew little or nothing of Korea’s history, Lord David Alton presents a heart-stopping scenario of the country which he has befriended for the past ten years. People who are familiar with Korea’s story will be reinforced in their hopes that, one day, there will be peace, reconciliation and mercy.

Between them Alton and Chidley present complicated political scenarios in a way which is readily accessible to non-politicians who have neither time nor the inclination to wade their way through complicated events and negotiations. Perhaps it is the very simplicity of language which makes this book both relevant and engaging to its reader, who will, inevitably, stop and think, “I had no idea that all this was happening”. The concise overview of centuries of Korean history leads, in a unique and very readable manner, to a dawning realisation of some of the reasons why North Korea became so closed-in on itself, excluding the influence of the outside world: its people have suffered so much that, rather than look to the outside world for support, it needs to sort out its problems for itself. Sadly, the lust for power dominates today’s leadership of North Korea, so that, unseen by the rest of the world, gratuitous cruelty and enslavement continue.

Yet Building Bridges: Is There Hope For North Korea? is in no way intended to be a catalogue of evil. It is a very positive book, offering hope whilst at the same time challenging others to look for opportunities of bringing hope. In her Foreword, Baroness Caroline Cox, founder and CEO of the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART) and Vice-Chairman of the All-Party Group on North Korea, writes, “North Korea is perhaps the world’s most closed nation, and one of the world’s most under-reported and misunderstood”. Lord David Steel would find many in agreement with his honesty in the Preface, first admitting that his knowledge of North Korea was minimal before reading this book and then saying that “it bristles with faith and hope that a better life is possible for all who at present suffer in the isolation of North Korea”.

North and South Korea today present a stark contrast to each other: the South is wealthy, democratic, flourishing and a leader in the field of technology, whereas the North is impoverished, a dictatorship, disintegrating and starving.  With a history of mutual aggression and abuse of human rights, Alton describes the so-called ‘Sunshine Policy’ through which, in recent years, South Korea has tried to break down barriers. However he also points out that the annual “regatta” in which South Korea and the United States carry out military exercises does nothing to encourage North Korea to dismantle its nuclear stockpile and regular sabre-rattling.

“Food should never be used as a weapon of war.” Yet time and again, food aid has been linked to dealings with North Korea and the imposition of sanctions. Building Bridges: Is There Hope For North Korea? highlights the way in which the Government in North Korea, where food is in such short supply that 40 percent of its children under the age of 6 are chronically malnourished, threatens military action, conscious that as part of any peace agreement, countries will donate food. As Alton points out, “For the ordinary people of North Korea, the number-one priority is not ending the war, gaining political emancipation, or enjoying religious freedom – it is finding enough food to survive.” Since the death of Kim Jong-il in December 2011... around 20,000 people have starved to death in South Hwanghae Province alone. Tragically this is only a small proportion of the misery experienced by the North Korean people in relation to food.”

Korea is unique in that it was Koreans themselves who introduced Christianity into the country in 1603 after Yi Gwang-jeong, a Korean diplomat, returned from Beijing carrying several theological books written by Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary to China. Catholic missionaries arrived in the country only in 1794. However in the intervening centuries, many thousands of Christians of all denominations have died for their beliefs, often with appalling cruelty. Alton offers a brief but fascinating overview of the history of Christianity in Korea and the great importance of Catholic involvement in the struggle for justice. Sadly, although there appears to be a quiet but growing number of Christians in North Korea, there are also many examples of arrest, torture and execution without trial.

In spite of long years of oppression, Building Bridges: Is There Hope For North Korea? posits that Christians offer a solution to North Korea’s isolation and hunger. If Christians were given freedom to practise their religion, their concern for the poor and marginalised would inevitably draw in food, medicines, education and development.

In this book, Alton offers a wide range of simple, practical, confidence and peace-building strategies for engagement with North Korea, actions which often involve South Korea, China and Japan, but also Western countries. Often all that is needed to break down barriers is a face-to-face encounter.

It is a brave move to suggest ways in which North Korea might be ‘brought in from the cold’. There is a massive need to ‘think outside the box’ and dream realistic dreams. Progress will only happen one step at a time, but even that one step is something. Alton describes some of the moves undertaken by Kim Jong-un since he succeeded his father Kim Jong-il on 28 December 2011. It is a fairly safe guess that most of the readers of Building Bridges: Is There Hope For North Korea? would have been unaware of such developments before finding them mentioned in this book. Even whilst writing this review, Beijing has announced Kim Jong-un’s handwritten letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping, declaring his willingness to rejoin stalled nuclear disarmament talks.

Building Bridges: Is There Hope For North Korea? is an instructive, fascinating and hope-filled book which does not gloss over the grave difficulties ahead of the world and both North and South Korea – but that is exactly how Baroness Shirley Williams described it. “It is a book about hope.”