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  • John Park

An Interview with Mr. David Roden, Honorary Consulate of South Korea in Detroit

Transcribed by: Kate Dolgenos

John: So you are the honorary consulate for South Korea in Detroit and I just wanted to ask, how did that happen? Like, how did you become…

Mr. Roden: There’s a story…it’s an interesting story. I’ve been involved with Korea since I initially went there as a US Peace Corps volunteer in June of 1977. And I stayed there for two years. I lived in two cities, actually three cities, because I went to Jinju first and then I went to Busan, I lived out near Haeundae, and after that I lived in Dongdaeshin-dong. So Korea was going through a tremendous transformation at that time. In 1977, there were very massive industries coming up, like the shipbuilding industry. Hyundai was making a small car called Pony at the time, with involvement from the Japanese – like Mitsubishi. So Korea was at the industrial take off stage between 1977 and 1979. Politically, it was the rule of Park Chung-hee so there was not a lot of political freedom. I would see student demonstrations from time to time and tear gas coming out, especially around colleges. Opposition parties hadn’t fully participated in the political process. It was a very interesting time to be in Korea. I continued to have an interest throughout my life in Korea. I moved to Michigan in 1990. Along the way, I would participate in Korean community events, and then I was approached by a fellow by the name of Tack-Yong Kim, and he’s a newspaper man and he has a magazine called the Michigan Korean Weekly.

John: I know him! He’s actually written about us before.

Mr. Roden: That’s good, he should. He initially approached me – because they had a prior honorary consul who had the position for 15 years but I think he was an attorney and he did some immigration work but by the time I took on the role it wasn’t so much inbound immigration. There were a lot of Koreans who immigrated to the US in the 60s to avoid political repression under the Park Chung-Hee regime. They were a different mindset, a different generation. They came in – they needed more immigration attorney work. And my role was different, but at the same time as an honorary consul the first and foremost responsibility is the protection of Korean nationals if an incident or circumstances come up. I’m not gonna talk about that but there have been situations, involving human trafficking for example. Most of the time, I spend time officiating at or promoting events of Korean culture. I don’t do much on the business side because the Korean companies have become far more sophisticated and they have other organizations that can help with the business side, but I maintain interest in it. In the consular role I try to educate the American community about Korean culture through involvement with the Freer House and promoting knowledge about Korean ceramics, and now I’ve moved on to the Friends of Asian art at the DIA (Detroit Institute of Art). They have a new Asian wing and they’ve acquired some beautiful Korean pieces. So I’m trying to support and broaden the knowledge of Korea – not only for the Korean community, but the community at large, and not only older, but also modern Korean artists. The consular work does not really involve anything to do with what interests me about North Korea, because North Korea is the last vestige of society where people are still imprisoned in a cold war mentality and they look around the world and even Cuba is opening up with relations with the US. Of course there’s terrible turmoil in Syria and many other places but despite all of those things North Korea continues to exist in this vacuum. And that’s a real problem and if they continue…

John: It’s like they’re in a time bubble. And in terms of reunification that time difference is going to be very hard to negotiate culturally.

Mr. Roden: My experience suggests that when things fall apart, they fall apart quickly. It’s not a gradual descent. If you look at the economic crisis in Korea in 1997, when the IMF had to intervene, one day everything was good and the next day it all went to hell in a handbasket. The same thing happened in 2008 in the US. One company failed and the entire system was brought to its knees. And you look at these other regimes that have collapsed -they’re always ugly when they collapse. So when I look at North Korea, the thing that worries me the most is that when it starts to implode, there may be an attempt to cover up the existence of the prison camps. And they may kill all those people and pretend it never did exist. My biggest fear is that in the end, it could be that. I don’t know what we can do except educate people about the existence of these camps. There’s been progress made at the UN in terms of acknowledging the existence of these camps, but the regime has gone to its third generation now and it’s really a bizarre place. I don’t know how to chip away at that. I know it’s not easy. I say it’s not easy because what are the vested interests here? If you look at the neighborhood, Russia has its own game. Russia and Japan fought over Korea in 1904. Russia wanted a railroad and a port. Japan looked at Russia as a threat and Korea became stuck. Strategically, the Russians have a card in the game. Japan has a nasty history with Korea, but the issue today is that the Japanese don’t want to see a unified Korea because it would provide a competitor in the region. Japan’s population is aging out and North Korea would have a more youthful population, and minerals and coal and other things. A unified Korea would be an economic competitor in the region to Japan. Japan’s interest is self-preservation. At the end of they day, they’re not an advocate for unification in anyway. China doesn’t want a US ally on the border. The US could offer to remove its troops to make China feel like there aren’t troops on their border. We tried that in 1953 and they didn’t like it; they won’t like it now. China doesn’t want to see a unified Korea without extracting a cost and they don’t want refugees across the border. They give just enough to the Kim regime so it can continue its existence. The North Korean elite doesn’t want unification unless they’re gonna come out with something. They’re afraid they’ll be killed or executed. South Korea doesn’t know if they can afford it. As aging goes on, the South Korean population is less and less interested in unification. They see it’s expensive and they don’t have the blood ties and the societies are moving apart. What is the US’s role in the region? To provide security. That’s an open question today. The US has historically kept the peace since 1945. China is a rising power. The question is, how much commitment would the US have to the region in the event of a Chinese attack on Japan or a Chinese incursion of some kind that caused North Korea to do something? I’m not sure – I’m not privy to that information, but my suspicions are that the US will have an increasing budget deficit and interest rates will rise and there will be less money to maintain buses in Japan and Korea and elsewhere, and more importantly a large naval presence that will be a counterbalance to the Chinese. I see a window where if we can move towards unification now, we’re better off. If we wait too long, that issue will be harder to deal with if the US loses more power in the region. If you believe even 50% of what you hear from the books about North Korean prisons, it is beyond description, the level of barbarity. The Japanese were extremely brutal with the Koreans. There’s been so many disgusting stories of what happened to the Korean women who were under the control of the Japanese. This is all documented and it’s terrible. On the other hand, how can the Korean people treat their own people in such a terrible manner? All of this political, ideological difference…it’s really terrible. And so, how do we help those people? What can we do ? I don’t have an answer to this question other than we have to educate using NGOs and the UN has to take more decisive action with that. But the most influential player here is China. However, North Korea has these missiles they keep building up and they have nuclear capability, so China is careful to avoid something. It’s hard to imagine how to fix the situation. So Mr. Kim has a kind of leverage because of the possession of the weapons, and if he does lash out, he’d lash to Japan, not to China or South Korea, even though there’s a US military base in South Korea. It’s a question of how, as a world that we have today and we know the depravities, how do we educate people? That’s what intrigued me about what you’ve been doing. Here you are, a young man living in the state of Michigan, and I think your project is fantastic. The more you do to promote that, the better off the people will be. We haven’t even talked about the other projects. I understand that North Korean people face discrimination in South Korea. They don’t have an easy path to matriculate into society. I even heard some stories that people get nostalgia about returning to the North, which would be ridiculous – you’d be killed unless they could turn you into a propaganda implement. That shows your mind was so conditioned, and that’s true of many communist societies. You don’t have to do anything and you get something in return. But in a capitalist society, there’s very little guaranteed provided to you. South Korea’s a very competitive society.

John: A common misconception is that North Korean people are just oppressed, but we really forget how conditioned they really are and how effective the propaganda they have is.

Mr. Roden: No question, it’s state of the art, their ability to do what they do. It’s a state of the art that they have there. If you look at history, there were Jewish concentration camp guards during the Nazis. Jews knew what their fate would be and they continued to lord it over the Jews. If you look at the story of the guard with Shin Dong-Hyuk, he got the information from Shin and he tried to pretend he uncovered it to get some benefit. We can pause at this point because I’ve meandered through and I’ve just gone off here…

John: What are the possible ways the regime could fall?

Mr. Roden: It’s a very intriguing question and to try to map out scenarios for how that could happen. I’m sure the RAND Corporation and other think tanks and in Korea they’re looking for scenarios there. I’m sure these political think tanks would be looking at.

John: Rand?

Mr. Roden: Yeah, R-A-N-D. They recently did a piece on US-China fighting and it was a provocative piece. Why would the US and China fight? It would have to be because something happened to Korea or Japan or Taiwan. We forget about Taiwan as a part of this equation. There are nightmare scenarios – they loose nukes. That could happen if China decided to make a direct move on Taiwan and the North Korean regime thought that if China was making a move, the regime would too. I don’t think they’re that crazy – it’s all about regime preservation. But the guy does execute people around him with frequency. Within the system, it might be totally normal behavior, but you have to wonder. You know what happens in the camps – killing for preservation purposes. The ideal scenario would be if over time, the people of North Korea would get a reality check and then look at rising up, potentially. Remember, they have no weapons. The Jews tried it in the Warsaw Uprising and you can control skilled soldiers with weapons, but an unarmed populace is harder. Unless people want to completely overrun the soldiers and take bullets until they run out, it’ll create a bad situation. The ideal scenario would be the establishment of relations between China, South Korea, Russia, the US and Japan – the six-party talks didn’t amount to anything – to talk about the bad guy in the neighborhood.

A unified Korea is nice. But every country has vested interests, so it’s hard to see an easy scenario. Over time, education, awareness – that would have an impact. But look at Cuba – we’re opening up relations there, but that regime is so entrenched and the mechanisms of control and how things function has to get upended. When I said things could happen the fast – who would have thought the Berlin wall would fall in quick succession in 1989? Everything got spun out. You look at other situations of regime change where they happen quickly. North Korea is an anomaly. I’m not a scholar about this and the information I have is from reading and talking to people. I have no idea what the State Dept is thinking in terms of regime change. We were trying to influence a regime change in Libya. Are they better off than they were? Probably not. Same with Egypt. I don’t know if a general emerges, cuts off Kim’s head and makes his own dynasty.

John: So it would just be a different regime..

Mr. Roden: It gets back to what’s the willingness of the parties in the neighborhood. I would be surprised if it happened independently. We have very little knowledge of what goes on and no network. In these other countries, we had networks, but it’s a different scenario. What we can do is try to help the North Koreans. One project I’m becoming involved with is the Bell Foundation – have you heard of it?

John: No

Mr. Roden: What he’s trying to do is prevent the development of tuberculosis in North Korea. If not treated, it modifies – I forget the medical term – but it changes to the point where it can contaminate other countries and be resistant to drugs. It’s a bad petri dish for tuberculosis. And the founder of the foundation goes to North Korea. The issue there is to help directly where help can be given. One thing you can do is help North Korean citizens, not the military. Originally, Eugene Bell was delivering food, which is stolen by the military. That happens all over, not just in the military. That’s typical. My next step is, I learned about the organization from a friend and I’m trying to promote that. Obviously, the work you’re doing is commendable.

John: Thank you.

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