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Greetings to our global audience, and thank you for your interest in the important issues on the Korean peninsula today.
I would like to thank Ambassador Ahn Ho-Young, Dr. Henry Wang, Dr. William Parker, and, my very good friend Dr. Edwin Feulner, founder of the Heritage Foundation, for bringing your key leadership voices to this very important forum.
Likewise, I sincerely appreciate and commend all the activist leaders participating today with Action for Korea United, Alliance for Korea United USA, AKU Japan, and other networks from around the world.
Today we commemorate the 75th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from colonial occupation. Japan’s surrender ending World War II concluded a painful chapter in Korean history and should have opened the way to the realization of the Sam Il Independence Movement’s dream for a “united, independent, and free” Korea.
Tragically that dream was buried under ideological division and the subsequent Korean War. Efforts to resolve that division proved fruitless as the two Koreas remained locked within the geopolitical framework of the Cold War. Even today, more than 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that framework continues to adversely influence thinking about the future of the Korean peninsula.
That may be about to change. The global pandemic is disrupting not only the social and working lives of individuals and communities but also relationships between nations. Governments are stretched to meet their domestic challenges. Vulnerabilities in the global economy and supply chain have been exposed. There will likely be significant political as well as economic ramifications forcing re-evaluations of old models, while at the same time opening up new opportunities.
As the source of the pandemic, China has incurred serious criticism and mistrust. It was slow to acknowledge the dangerous outbreak and give timely warning to other nations. It was very secretive with its data about the origin and spread of the virus. Yet China is assertively promoting a different narrative, touting its pandemic aid to other nations in attempts to position itself as a global leader.
China’s recent actions show what type of global leader it will be. Along with its aggressive moves in the South China Sea, China is strengthening its grip on Hong Kong through the new Security Act. This has triggered an outcry among Western nations at this brazen attempt to subordinate the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong citizens to strict state security control.
Meanwhile, China continues to subject the Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang to the most comprehensive system of surveillance and control the world has ever seen, likewise sparking worldwide protest. An extensive network of re-education camps erases Uighur culture and religion and replaces it with Chinese Communist state ideology. There is no freedom of religion in China.
This points to a core issue of our time that will shape the future of human societies, including the prospects for Korean unification and the character of a unified Korea. Ladies and gentlemen, religious freedom is the foundational human right, essential to human nature and pursuit of moral, purposeful life. Freedom of speech and all other rights flow from it. Every person has the right to follow their conscience and seek truth, free from the dictates of any human institution or government.
True freedom and true human rights are gifts from God. Because we are made in the image of God we are, to use the language of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, “endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights.” These do not originate from, nor can be taken away by, any state or human institution.
The uniqueness of the United States has been to infuse society with Judeo-Christian principles and moral values with civilizational impact. As a result, it has been a source of inspiration and hope to peoples everywhere seeking freedom and the opportunities it brings. Even when it has fallen short in practice, its founding ideals have served as a moral compass to judge American realities and guide the way forward. This is precisely what President Abraham Lincoln did in his Gettysburg Address, drawing on America’s founding ideals to lead the nation through the tumultuous Civil War and end slavery.
States such as China and Russia are a marked contrast. Their fundamental ideologies deny that human rights and freedoms are “endowed by the Creator” and are “unalienable,” opening the possibility for human abuse. As a result, although China has adopted some aspects of a market system, it maintains strict state control under its communist party and determines what rights and freedoms its subjects will be allowed. It does not recognize the intrinsic nature of those rights, without which there can be no enduring basis for liberty.
It is essential that a unified Korea recognizes the transcendent source of rights and freedoms for its citizens, as is reflected in its deep spiritual heritage. Emerging from division as a new nation, it must be rooted in a firm foundation of universal spiritual principles and moral values. These form the essential bedrock for true liberty. Hongik Ingan – living for the greater benefit of all humanity—is the founding aspiration of the Korean people, and fulfilling it is their providential destiny mandated by God. Connected with other principles that call for the raising up of a virtuous citizenry, it represents the original ethic and moral compass of the Korean nation and Korean identity.
This uniquely Korean expression of universal principles was the guiding ideal for the independence movement of 1919, in a way that echoed the role of the Declaration of Independence in the American experience. It remains profoundly relevant to Korea’s challenges today. It forms the basis of what I call the Korean Dream and have explained in my book of that name.
It describes a vision for a unified Korea with origins long before the sufferings under colonial rule and the division of 1945. As a result, I believe it has the power to unite the factions of left and right in the South, and ultimately Koreans in both North and South, on the basis of a shared historic identity and a common, noble national vision and purpose.
The Korean Dream vision of unification would not only fulfill the long-held aspiration of our ancestors but would also open up a new chapter of greater prosperity and peace for the peninsula. It would bring together the existing synergistic elements of both Koreas for the benefit of all. The South has a highly developed economy that is starting to plateau and is in dire need of new avenues for growth. The North provides those opportunities through its untapped natural resources, extensive need for new industries and infrastructure, an expanded labor pool, and in the long run, a larger combined domestic market.
Although South Korea is acclaimed as a high-tech economic marvel, it has serious limitations. Its chaebol system of crony capitalism stifles competition, while its government-run banking system only greases the wheels of those same conglomerates, limiting access to capital for small and medium-sized firms. This severely limits entrepreneurship, the main driver of innovation and job growth.
As a result, frustrated, highly educated, and tech-savvy youth lack opportunities for gainful employment, as well as upward mobility and a pathway to realize their dreams. South Korea has the highest rate of unemployment among college graduates of any developed nation. This is a huge waste of talent as well as socially unsettling.
I have long advocated opening up the Korean economy to greater competition and direct foreign investment. One of the most important steps to accomplish this is to privatize Korean banking in order to make it more market-oriented in providing credit to small and midsize companies. Such reforms would yield immediate benefits for the South, as more Koreans engage in entrepreneurial activities and capital creation.
With these changes, Seoul could become the new business and financial center of Northeast Asia. The recent crackdown of freedoms in Hong Kong makes Seoul a natural alternative due to its strategic location, stable democratic government, stellar infrastructure, innovative hi-tech sector, and relatively open markets. With the financial and banking reforms I have advocated, it could become a hub in the Pacific Rim as New York and London are in the Atlantic sphere, making it one of the most dynamic cities in the world.
Most importantly, the Korean Dream vision provides a new opportunity for Koreans to take charge of our own destiny and create a new nation, rising above the existing framework of division. Unlike during the twentieth century, today it is realistic to assume that a global consensus can be built around the principle of “Korean self-determination.” It means that we, as Koreans, have a unique chance to realize the Hong-ik Ingan ideal of building a model nation if we could only dare to dream together. If we don’t align our national aspirations for all Koreans, this opportunity could be lost.
The mystery surrounding the health of Kim Jong Un could portend another tumultuous transition of power in the North. With no obvious candidates in the Kim family, its future leadership could be more unpredictable than in the past. Instability during a transition could lead to Chinese intervention in North Korean affairs. Does the North really want to tie their future to an increasingly assertive China whose policies are generating growing opposition in the world? Are they ready to slide back to the status of a tributary state as Korea was under the Chinese Empire?
South Korea needs to address these same issues. Given China’s statist ideology and recent actions, the Moon administration needs to rethink its current move towards China and away from its traditional alliance with the United States and Japan. The South’s best guarantee against the ever-present Chinese threat is its tripartite partnership and its intermediary role between China and the democracies of the first world. If the South manages its growing geopolitical position wisely during this period of transition in Northeast Asia, it could benefit the Korean people greatly.
Although the Moon-Kim and subsequent Trump-Kim summits of 2018 and 2019 have proved fruitless, they did expose faulty assumptions about how to achieve denuclearization and peace. At the time, I noted that Moon’s engagement with the North was nothing more than a new variation of the failed “Sunshine Policy” of his ideological predecessors and I predicted that it would fail. I also strongly warned the United States against engaging in bilateral talks with the North on the narrow issue of denuclearization since Kim would never abandon his nuclear program. It was no surprise, then, that both initiatives failed and set the stage for worsening relationships with the North.
The sobering conclusion is that inter-government initiatives, driven by narrow interests and short-term goals have reached a dead end and there is no prospect of further progress. A new more comprehensive and long-term solution is necessary that will by-pass entrenched positions of the past. It is important to understand that both North and South Korea profess that a united peninsula is their long-term goal, although they have diametrically opposed views of both the process and outcomes of unification. However, both do agree on the principle of “Korean self-determination.”
These underlying assumptions should be considered in developing a larger strategic solution to the problems of denuclearization and peace. Unification should be the starting point in any serious discussion in finding a permanent solution to the aforementioned problems. Without it, the underlying interests and forces on the peninsula and the region would not be addressed, raising the likelihood that any piecemeal solution will fail.
I have always urged the United States to develop a strategic vision for Northeast Asia in which Korean unification and reconstruction are addressed like the Marshall Plan for Europe and MacArthur’s efforts for Japan after World War II. From a strategic perspective, the US should recognize the need for principled unification as the long-term permanent solution to denuclearization and regional peace.
A Korean-led process for unification should become the foreign policy goal of the United States on the peninsula. It should be backed by its commitment to support the process both economically and geopolitically. US leadership and example would stimulate the international community to support this initiative. This will ensure that a new Korean nation shares the principles and values of western democracies while maintaining its unique historical-cultural context to the rest of Asia.
Ladies and gentlemen, where governments have failed, the torch should pass to civil society movements of the Korean people themselves at home and abroad; that coalesces their popular will and also builds strong international support for their cause. The Korean Dream approach is already inspiring such a movement that is forging a global consensus for principled unification.
This monumental effort is being carried out by a “people power” movement that draws together the collective strengths of civil society organizations, activists, and ordinary citizens. In 2012, I promoted the founding of Action for Korea United (AKU), a comprehensive coalition of such civil society organizations working to advance unification based upon the Korean Dream.
AKU educates citizen leaders, empowers activists, and leverages the power of music and culture to build awareness and support among youth and the broader public. Among its groundbreaking initiatives are programs that engage South Koreans to discuss what sort of nation a unified Korea should be in order to build consensus on the issue. It also promotes an information campaign to the North where Korea’s history and identity and, most of all, the Korean Dream principles and values are shared with the North Korean elites.
The AKU movement is spreading globally, with important efforts underway in the US, Japan, UK, and elsewhere. Alliance for Korea United USA is building significant momentum for the unification cause, drawing on the legacy of strong Korean American support for the Korean independence movement. In Japan, AKU is addressing key human rights issues as it works to build support for Korean unification within this very important historic nation.
These initiatives are significant since I have always believed that unification must be Korean-led. Other powers cannot be allowed to dictate the fate of the Korean people as they have done throughout the twentieth century. Koreans, today, must take charge of our own destiny.
Now is the time for Koreans in the South, North, and diaspora to step away from the Cold War framework, with all its complex entanglements; and to adopt a new vision of unity and prosperity rooted in our founding and revive in the movement for independence. The Korean Dream brings into focus for a new generation the aspirations of our ancestors to create a new nation that is truly “united, independent, and free.” Through it, they can heed our forefather’s call and fulfill our national destiny. It is a vision that can inspire every Korean with pride and determination to work for its achievement, finally ending the history of division and opening a new era of peace and opportunity for our people and the entire human family.
On this 75th anniversary of Liberation Day, let us reflect on the hopes of our ancestors in 1945 and make a solemn pledge to ourselves, our families and our countrymen to seize the opportunity of this moment and realize their dream of Hong-ik Ingan by creating a model nation that can truly “serve all of humanity.”
Ladies and gentlemen, may God bless you and your families. Thank you very much.