ANDY BROOKS: Keith, I think what is uppermost in our minds is how democratic Korea is tackling the floods which hit the north last year and only just recently...
KEITH BENNETT: Well there is no doubt that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) is facing a difficult situation. The floods last year were the most severe to hit the country in more than 100 years and that was actually the second year of heavy floods.
Unfortunately at the end of July and the beginning of August there were two further periods of torrential rain leading to massive flooding. The first one largely hit the area in the south, near the demarcation line and the city of Kaesong which was spared in 1995. The second flood this year struck the area around the city of Siauiju near the Chinese border in the north which was the scene of substantial flooding last year.
This year's floods came just after I left the country but during the time that I was in Democratic Korea there was very heavy rain and the comrades were not too optimistic about the situation or its effect on the harvest.
Last year's floods did tremendous damage and that would cause difficulties for any country, particularly any developing country which Democratic Korea is. But it's important to note also that the floods did not occur in a vacuum. They compounded other difficulties that the country is facing following the counter-revolutions in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union which deprived Democratic Korea of some 75 per cent of its foreign trade at a stroke.This deprived Korean industry of a lot of the raw materials that it needed.
The Korean comrades, even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, had begun to make some necessary adjust ments to then economic policies in orderio cope with the changing situation. For example , diversifying foreign trade giving greater emphasis both to neighbours in east and south-east Asia which have vibrant economies and to the capitalist world in general, including the encouragement of joint ventures and foreign investment in a special economic and trade zone.
But these correct policies of the Korean party and government have encountered some difficulties in their implementation because, of course, the imperialist powers have by no means given up their hostility to the DPRK - in particular or their desire to finish off all the remaining socialist countries after the 1989 wave of counterrevolutions.
Therefore the friends of Korea obviously regard the floods as a great tragedy. The imperialist countries, behind a facade of humanitarian concern, and even while providing a certain amount of relief aid, also see these difficulties currently facing the DPRK as an opportunity to step up infiltration and where possible tighten the noose on the north.
I was told, for example, that many Japanese companies are keen to invest in the new free trade zone but they face obstruction and various indirect pressures from the Japanese government, which is following the lead of the United States and the south Korean reactionaries.
AB: Is this hostility shown in attempts to block international relief aid?
KB: Certainly the question of international relief aid to the DPRK has been politicised by hostile forces. Some humanitarian assistance has been provided through international bodies like the United Nations' World Food pro gramme and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The United States, Japan and south Korea held back relief aid by anempting to link it with the question of "fourway" talks, which would involve Democratic Korea, south Korea, the United States and People's China -proposed when the American leader Bill Clinton went to south Korea earlier in the year.
The Korean people's position is very clear. They will welcome and feel very grateful for any international humanitarian aid which is granted without strings. But they absolutely and categorically reject any attempt to link the question of assistance witfi attempts to wring political concessions to the detriment of Democratic Korea's national security.
It would be wrong to minimise the difficulties facing the Korean people today. But we must remember this. The Korean people have gone through much harder times during their protracted revolutionary struggle, like the Korean War and the perioa of reconstruction after the armistice was signed in 1953.
So whilst international aid can play a role, the Korean people will rebuild their economy fundamentally on the basis of self-reliance. The political situation in Democratic Korea is perfectly stable and the Party and the people's conviction in socialism remains extremely strong.
When I was in Korea I met the representative of the International Red Cross stationed in Pyongyang who was directly involved in supervising the relief aid in the affected areas. He, incidentally, is the head of the international department of the British Red Cross. He has no political brief forthe government of the DPRK. But when I asked him to comment on some of the more lurid scare stories which have appeared in parts of the western media he said hat, as far as he could see, although the situation was difficult nobody was slipping through the safety net because of the organised distribution networks in the country. Nobody is going without food.
AB: Democratic Korea has many enemies but she also has many friends. How have they responded?
KB: Korea's friends have indeed given a lot of assistance. Immediately after last year's flood the Chinese government sent help. This June there were big celebrations marking the 35th anniversary of the alliance and friendship treaty between People's China and Democratic Korea. A Chinese naval flotilla paid a visit to Korea for the first time and during the course of those festivities the Chinese govemment announced that it would donate a further 100.000 tons of grain to the DPRK.
A similar amount has been given by Syria and other Asian countries have also sent aid with Iran, India, Pakistan and Malaysia being well to the fore. A couple of months ago Cuba sent a substantial amount of medical equipment and goods as well.
AB: You talked about stability in the north but what about the south? We've seen one former south Korean dictator sentenced to death for mutiny and gross corruption and another given 22 years in gaol. We ve seen massive unrest in the universities as well as strikes by industrial workers around the call for re-unification. There seems to be a very big crisis in the south.
KB: I agree with you. And I think if people saw the student protests on television they would have seen their immense heroism and determination in defying the regime -- defiance which enjoyed massive support not only from the students themselves but also among working people and democratic and patriotic people of the south. This is very significant. It shows that imperialism faces two separate but mutually complementary problems on the Korean peninsula.
The first is the existence and the firm adherence to socialism and anti imperialism on the part of the Workers Party of Korea and the government and people of the DPRK. The other is the massive anti-imperialist patriotic movement for national re-unification, democracy and the expulsion of the US occupation forces in the south.
This movement, while it is a broad anti-imperialist one for independence, democracy and re- unification, is also one that stands for an alliance with communism and it is closely linked to the powerful independent trade union movement of south Korea's workers. The progressive movement in south Korea, with the students in the vanguard, has not been deceived or bought over by imperialist slanders and lies against the DPRK and socialism. Nor has it been deceived by attempts of the south Korean government, dominated by the United States andthe comprador capitalists, to repaint the dictatorial military regime in a civilian disguise.
This obviously relates to the trials of the two former dictators Chun Doo Hwnn and Rob Tae Woo. Their trial, as was shown many of the demonstrations outside the courtroom and in peoples' reactions to it, was a response to the peoples' extreme hatred of these corrupt, violent and vicious individuals. They were, for example, responsible for the massacre of thousands of People in the city of Kwangju followmg a popular uprising. Both of them, I might add, were in the last few years feted in Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing Street and the portals of British monopoly capitalism.
The trials and the sentences were obviously a response to the peoples' anger and sense of grievance at the actions of these two men when they were in power. But the trials were a sham. Nobody seriously believes these sentences will be camed out. The trials are also a sham because the current southern president, Kim Young Sam, came to power because of the deal that he cut to divide the opposition with these two generals. Kim Young Sam was formerly a right-wing bourgeois democrat dissident who became the play thing of these two former military dictators to take up office.
He is their creation and their creature. In a sense they can feel justifiably aggrieved at Kirn Young Sam's extreme cynicism at trying to buttress his own position by putting the spotlight solely on his former puppet masters.
The policies that he is following today are the policies laid down and implemented by Chun Doo Hwan and Rob Tae Woo in the first place. The very laws like the "national security law" - - which is used to imprison those with pro-socialist ideas or ideas deemed to be friendly to Democratic Korea -- were framed by these dictators and are now being used with even more zeal than they themselves used.
The important thing, and the student demonstrations clearly showed this, is once again this attempt to dupe the people and finish off the democratic opposition has been completely unsuccessful. All the press reports made the point that this year's protests were bigger and more protracted and more militant than had been seen for a good few years.
AB: There's always been mass struggle in the south. I believe thousands were killed in 1980. But what we saw on our television screens recently -scenes of police brutality against the students at Yonsei must have come as shock to many viewers in this country outside ourreadership who know nothing about south Korea. Is this typical of the south Korean regime?
KB: Absolutely. I think it may be shocking to people in Britain because we are told that well, perhaps things were bad in the past but It s now democratic and there's an economic miracle taking place and so forth. Western propaganda would have us believe that south Korea is a democratic country. That is far from the case. The labour laws, laws on political and democratic rights reveal that south Korea remains a military dictatorship in all but name.
Kim Young Sam has not only failed to repeal any of the past repressive laws but he has used them even more vigorously than had been the case in recent years. The numbers of people arrested, detained and jailed under the "national security law" has actually gone up.
Kim Young Sam has done nothing to remove the "concrete wall" which divides the country down the middle. This 240 kilometre wall runs from sea to sea. It was built by the south Korean regime and it's there to prevent reunification and prevent contact between Koreans across the demarcation line.
He continues the policy of the former dictators of jailing the students and other patriotic people who defy all sorts of difficulfes and travel half way round the world to pay visits to Pyongyang.
AB: You mentioned the Americans' "our power talks". What is the position of Democratic Korea to this proposal?
KB: The important thing to remember is that the Korean War has not formally ended even though the fighting ceased in 1953. In 1953 an armistice was signed which should have been followed by a peace treat/ and indeed elections and Korean re-unification. But Korea remains divided because the United States continues to occupy the south to exploit it and use it as a base against the DPRK and other socialist and anti-imperialist countries in Asia. And so no peace treaty has been signed.
Contrary to the armistice agreement, the United States has introduced new types of weaponry in vast amounts into south Korea including nuclear weapons.
In the face of that situation, and stepped up provocations by the United States and south Korea, the DPRK has proposed to replace the armjstice with a peace treaty. It has also pointed out that because of the repeated violations bv the US-south Korean side the armistice has been rendered redundant and inoperable. It has therefore also proposed, that pending the signing of a formal peace treaty, there should be an interim peace agreement put in place to prevent instability or the outbreak of another war in Korea.
All of these proposals have been turned down by the United States. Instead, Bill Clinton put forward completely out of the blue a proposal for talks between the DPRK, south Korea, the United States and China. It's fair to say that Democratic Korea regards this proposal with the greatest suspicion although it has not rejected it outright.
It seems to me that there are two problems here.
The first problem is that the United States is seeking to involve the south Korean authorities in what should be bilateral matters between the DPRK and the United States, who were tht parties in conflict during the Korean War -- although the Americans were operating under the sideboard of the United Nations.
These were the powers whose representatives signed the armistice agreement. South Korea was not a signatory to the armistice -preement. The DPRK's view is tha Korea Is one nation and the Koreans are one people. The outstanding differences between north and south Koreans are a matter for Koreans themselves and should not be internationalised. This is a separate issue from that of clearing up and re solving the past and still existing hostile relations with the United States which must include the withdtawal of all US troops from Korean soil.
The second problem is that Clinton made his announcement out of the blue. He provided no details or exlanation of what would be involved or the agenda and time-frame of his proposed talks. So the north Korean response was what you would expect from any reasonable person asked to enter into something which has such major implications for them. They asked for clarification. They asked for information.
Up until this point Democratic Korea has received no response at all. to its repeated requests that the US should explain and clarify it's proposals. This lack of response can only increase suspicions regarding its real purpose and intent.
AB: Both north and south Korea are full members of the United Nations now but the British government has still to establish diplomatic relations with the north. What are the obstacles as far as you can see?
KB: Well there are no obstacles on he Pyongyang side. The British government has relaxed it's attitude towards granting visas to north Koreans in recent years. But the government"s continued refusal to establish diplomatic relations with Pyongyang is really a legacy of the cold war period and cannot be justified today. The DPRK entered the UN in 1991 and no foreign government objected. This is a legacy of the cold war and the British government is tailing its foreign policy behind that of the United States.
In fact It's tailing it a considerable way behind the United States because negotiations on opening liaison offices ,Washington and Pyongyang are at an advanced stage. It also has a relationship, I believe, to the deep-seated economic crisis in Britain which has led the government to pathetically touting after south Korean investment on the basis of selling Britain as the low-wage centre of western Europe.
AB: Finally you've been involved in Korean friendship work for many years. What's the best way forward in building friendship with the British people?
KB: First of all I think that any steps towards diplomatic relations, trade or cultural and academic exchanges with Democratic Korea help the friendship and solidarity movement. They should be an object of the friendship and solidarity movement.
I also think that the question of friendship and solidarity with the DPRK has to be posed in terms that people can understand in Britain. On that basis there are indeed many ways that active friendship can be built. The British student movement is a vast untapped resource for solidarity with Korea's The anti-imperialist struggle for Korean re-unification touches a chord with many people of Irish and Cypriot origin in Britam. And, of course, as Korea remains one of the areas where the danger of nuclear war remains high, Korea is an issue which should be taken up by the peace movement.
It's very important that people who genuinely want friendship with the Korean people forge firm links with the broad movements in Britain. This work can be slow and frustrating but there's no alternative to it. Kim Ii Sung took Marxism-Leninism and translated It into language that Korean working people could understand and accept as their own. There's a similar challenge for friends of Korea to translate friendship and solidarity with Korea into the language of the movement of our country.