The Guardian 24 August, 2005

Korea — 60 years of liberation

Great strides towards reunification of the Korean peninsula were made during last week’s celebration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Korea from Japanese colonialist rule.

To mark the occasion, a dele­gation of 182 comprising of government officials from the Demo­cratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), representatives of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) and workers and students enjoyed an action-packed tour of the South. The delegation was lead by Kim Ki Nam, Secretary of the WPK and head of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland.

The delegation was welcomed by South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, who described the visit as "history being made".

After a visit by the delegation to the Seodaemun Prison History Hall — the site of a prison where Japanese soldiers incarcerated and tortured Korean independence fighters — the two sides issued a joint statement condemning Japanese colonial and wartime aggression. The statement called on the Japanese government to "stop distorting the past and pay as a nation compensation for its past invasions and crimes".

"The recent popular movement in Japan to honour war criminals vividly shows that the fears of surrounding nation concerning the rebirth of militarism in Japan are becoming a reality. While lobbying to enter the UN Security Council as a permanent member, Japan appears disinterested in its international obligation to pay compensation".

The statement also called on the Japanese people to reject proposed amendments to Japan’s Constitution which commits the country to pacifism and non-aggression.

In honour of Korean independence fighters and a gesture of goodwill the DPRK delegation also visited Seoul’s National Cemetery, not only the resting place of many independence heroes but also containing a shrine to the 142,000 South Koreans soldiers who were killed during the 1950-53 civil war.

"It was a difficult decision, but it was an obstacle that we eventually had to overcome", commented a senior KWP representative. The South Korean official who organised the visit reaffirmed it as a moment "very important for inter-Korean relations".

A highlight of the tour was a friendly soccer match between the north and south, played in front of a stadium-capacity crowd of 65,000. Whilst the national flags of the north and south were banned from the match, the crowd enthusiastically waved the "reunification flag" — a map of the Korean Peninsula in blue on a white background that premiered at the Sydney Olympics.

The delegation was at times met with small groups demonstrating against the DPRK government. However, these paled in comparison to a demonstration by 12,000 workers and students crying "Let’s achieve independent reunification. Expel US troops", and calling for the toppling of a statue honouring General Douglas McArthur.

The demonstration was addressed by the General Secretary of the Korean Council of Trade Unions, who described the USA as "the principal offender behind civilian massacres, the usurpation of power and the liquidation of democracy around the globe".

There were also numerous official talks between DPRK delegates and South Korean trade unions, student organisations, and agricultural representatives.

The visit showcased the growing ties between the north and south and the success of the South Korean government’s "Sunshine Policy" towards the DPRK, which has been pursued despite strong warnings issued by George Bush and the US government.

A spokesperson for the South Korean Bar Association lamented that the delegation’s visit rendered the National Security Law — which bans promotion of the DPRK and under which numerous South Koreans were imprisoned for decades — as "useless".

The bond between the north and south was also highlighted by the release of two new polls marking the anniversary of liberation.

A Gallup poll surveying the attitudes of 833 South Koreans aged 16-25 found that if war broke out between the DPRK and USA, 65.9 percent of them would support their fellow Koreans, against the 21.8 percent who said they would side with the USA.

Another poll by the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union found that when asked which country South Korean students felt "least friendly towards" 44.9 percent nominated Japan, followed closely the United States on 42.8 percent. A distant third on the list was China at 7.5 percent.

Other major developments

  • Academic consultations are taking place on a project to compile a new "Large Korean Dictionary" in an effort to restore Korean as a single national language. The last 60 years of limited contact between citizens of the north and south has lead to the divergence of word usage and the development new expressions on either side of the border.

  • On August 15, civilian ships from the DPRK passed through South Korean waters for the first time in 52 years, under an agreement signed last week between the north and south. Cargo ships travelling from Nampo, on the DPRK’s south-west coast to Cheongjin in the north-east passed between the mainland and Jeju Island via one of the South’s major shipping lanes. Previously the vessels would have had to circumvent the island — a four-hour detour. The agreement grants reciprocal rights to South Korean vessels and also allows for direct radio communication between vessels from the north and south. As the two DPRK vessels passed through the strait an official message of welcome was broadcast by South Korea’s National Coast Guard.

  • Permanent facilities have been set up by the Red Cross in Pyongyang and seven South Korean cities allowing families separated by the war to hold reunions by video conferencing. The first-ever video link-ups between the two countries were held on August 15.

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