Historic Korea Summits Could Pave Way for Peace

Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in at Panmunjeom summit Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in at Panmunjeom summit

This article appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of the Massachusetts Peace Action newsletter.

The prospects for peace and reconciliation on the Korean peninsula are brighter than they have been for more than 70 years. After more than a century of violence against Koreans—springing from colonialism, occupation, the uniquely brutal Korean War, and the tense Cold War—the world may finally see nuclear tensions on the peninsula start to abate. This is an entirely new historic moment, propelled by the people of the Republic of Korea (South Korea). We in the US who want peace should let them take the lead.

In late 2016, a popular uprising known as the Candlelight Struggle called for the resignation of corrupt, conservative president Park Geun-hye, daughter of the right-wing dictator Park Chung-hee. The protests went on for many weeks. About a third of the population—16 million Koreans—came to a single protest in Seoul. Park, who is now in prison, was removed from office. Citizens of South Korea wanted a change in the status quo, and that included a desire for peace with their cousins in the DPRK (North Korea). In came new president Moon Jae-in, a former student activist and human rights lawyer, running for office on a platform that centered reconciliation with North Korea.

Moon’s diplomatic efforts have been heroic. In the midst of a serious escalation driven by President Trump, Moon used the PyeongChang Olympics as an opportunity to disrupt the drive to war. After the summit meeting between Moon and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, during which they signed the Panmunjeom Declaration for Peace, Moon’s approval rating hit 85.7% among South Koreans. A stunning 88.4% of South Koreans approve of that declaration, which declares “that there will be no more war on the Korean Peninsula and thus a new era of peace has begun.”

Trump and the US had almost nothing to do with this new détente. In fact, Trump had been doing everything he could to escalate tensions. Nevertheless, President Moon wisely heaped credit and praise on Trump. It certainly appears that Moon’s smart diplomacy—getting Trump personally invested by playing to his ego—has paid off.

Whatever the reason, Trump met with Kim Jong Un on June 12, and they signed a declaration expressing the shared intention of building a new relationship, denuclearization of the peninsula, and return of the remains of US war dead. This was clearly a step away from tensions and toward a formal Peace Treaty to finally end the Korean War. For anyone who doesn’t want war, possibly nuclear war, with North Korea, this is good news.

So how have Democrats and corporate media analysts responded? By attacking Trump from the right. They’ve exaggerated the threat from North Korea, downplayed the significance of talks, and utterly dismissed Korean aspirations, agency and autonomy.

Seven Senate Democrats, led by Chuck Schumer and Dianne Feinstein, demanded that North Korea submit to permanent “anytime, anywhere” inspections. This is something no government on Earth would accept. Thankfully, some Democrats have pushed back against this stance, including Rep. Ro Khanna who called the demands “unreasonable” and said, “the opportunity to make peace with North Korea must take priority over partisan attacks against the president.” Unfortunately, Khanna is in the minority.

I was one of three members of Mass. Peace Action who were in Washington DC for Korea Peace Network Advocacy Day, the day after the Singapore summit; we met with the staffers of Massachusetts representatives in an attempt to persuade  them to act more like Khanna than Schumer. It’s an uphill fight.

Ostensible liberals have complained that US and North Korean flags were seen next to each other (of course they were, it’s a summit), that Trump called the huge US military exercises in Korea “provocative” (they are), that Trump offered to remove troops from Korea (he should), and that he offered a “security guarantee” (he should) to not attack without getting a formal guarantee from DPRK to continue their suspension of missile and nuclear bomb testing. (Does anyone doubt that if DPRK tested another missile, the US would re-escalate within hours?) We’ve been told that this is all just a repeat of every other dead deal, that every past US-DPRK agreement has failed so we shouldn’t flirt with hope this time. (Did past agreements occur with a supportive South Korean president at the helm? Did the DPRK report the details of past agreements to its citizens through its tightly-controlled media, including specifically stating an intention of “denuclearization”?  In past years, did the DPRK cancel its anti-US rallies, replace anti-US propaganda posters with posters about economic development, and show on its television news an exchange of salutes between a US president and the DPRK’s top general? No. This is a new moment.)

Democrats introduced an amendment to prevent Trump from unilaterally removing US troops from Korea. Democrats hyped and exaggerated the threat from DPRK, calling them a “threat to South Korea, to Japan, to our allies in the region, to the United States of America, to the entire world.” North Korea has about the same GDP as Dayton, Ohio, and its military budget is about the size of the NYPD budget. The idea that it could, or even intends to, launch an attack against anyone at all is ludicrous; during the height of tensions, the US Pacific Command estimated the chances of a first strike by North Korea at 0.01%.

Of course the DPRK’s nuclear weapons give them an outsized destructive power, but that’s their point: former CIA director of East Asia Operations Joseph DeTrani explains, “Having worked with them, they see their nuclear weapons as a nuclear deterrent. They see the US objective in the region as regime change, and they’re talking about survival. And they feel, with these nuclear weapons no one’s going to mess with them.” In other words, the Democratic Party leadership is now to the right of the CIA: DeTrani (who is not a Trump partisan, judging by his pointed criticisms of the Iran Deal withdrawal) also said: “The historic June 12th summit in Singapore between President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un has moved us closer to a peaceful resolution of issues with North Korea. Compared to where we were eight months ago, when the possibility of stumbling into kinetic conflict on the Korean Peninsula was real, we are now in a much better place.”

But even this framing is US-centric. South Koreans overwhelmingly support moves towards peace. If they are really our allies, we should listen. Christine Ahn is the Korean-American founder of Women Cross DMZ, a peace organization focused on ending the Korean War, reuniting Korean families, and ensuring women’s leadership in peace building. After Korea Peace Network Advocacy Day in Washington DC, Ahn said, “I was incredibly frustrated by going around the Capitol yesterday talking to the offices of members of Congress and also the quick knee-jerk reaction from liberals and [the] left. People said, ‘How could we support engagement and diplomacy — this amounts to approving Donald Trump.’ … Can we stay focused on how this is an incredible moment for the Korean people? This is about ending a seven-decade war!” The prospects for peace and reconciliation on the Korean peninsula are brighter than they have been for more than 70 years. After more than a century of violence against Koreans—springing from colonialism, occupation, the uniquely brutal Korean War, and the tense Cold War—the world may finally see nuclear tensions on the peninsula start to abate. This is an entirely new historic moment, propelled by the people of the Republic of Korea (South Korea). We in the US who want peace should let them take the lead.

In late 2016, a popular uprising known as the Candlelight Struggle called for the resignation of corrupt, conservative president Park Geun-hye, daughter of the right-wing dictator Park Chung-hee. The protests went on for many weeks. About a third of the population—16 million Koreans—came to a single protest in Seoul. Park, who is now in prison, was removed from office. Citizens of South Korea wanted a change in the status quo, and that included a desire for peace with their cousins in the DPRK (North Korea). In came new president Moon Jae-in, a former student activist and human rights lawyer, running for office on a platform that centered reconciliation with North Korea.

Moon’s diplomatic efforts have been heroic. In the midst of a serious escalation driven by President Trump, Moon used the PyeongChang Olympics as an opportunity to disrupt the drive to war. After the summit meeting between Moon and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, during which they signed the Panmunjeom Declaration for Peace, Moon’s approval rating hit 85.7% among South Koreans. A stunning 88.4% of South Koreans approve of that declaration, which declares “that there will be no more war on the Korean Peninsula and thus a new era of peace has begun.”

Trump and the US had almost nothing to do with this new détente. In fact, Trump had been doing everything he could to escalate tensions. Nevertheless, President Moon wisely heaped credit and praise on Trump. It certainly appears that Moon’s smart diplomacy—getting Trump personally invested by playing to his ego—has paid off.

Whatever the reason, Trump met with Kim Jong Un on June 12, and they signed a declaration expressing the shared intention of building a new relationship, denuclearization of the peninsula, and return of the remains of US war dead. This was clearly a step away from tensions and toward a formal Peace Treaty to finally end the Korean War. For anyone who doesn’t want war, possibly nuclear war, with North Korea, this is good news.

So how have Democrats and corporate media analysts responded? By attacking Trump from the right. They’ve exaggerated the threat from North Korea, downplayed the significance of talks, and utterly dismissed Korean aspirations, agency and autonomy.

 

Rally for peace in Korea at Park Street Station on June 11.

Rally for peace in Korea at Park Street Station on June 11.

Seven Senate Democrats, led by Chuck Schumer and Dianne Feinstein, demanded that North Korea submit to permanent “anytime, anywhere” inspections. This is something no government on Earth would accept. Thankfully, some Democrats have pushed back against this stance, including Rep. Ro Khanna who called the demands “unreasonable” and said, “the opportunity to make peace with North Korea must take priority over partisan attacks against the president.” Unfortunately, Khanna is in the minority.

I was one of three members of Mass. Peace Action who were in Washington DC for Korea Peace Network Advocacy Day, the day after the Singapore summit; we met with the staffers of Massachusetts representatives in an attempt to persuade  them to act more like Khanna than Schumer. It’s an uphill fight.

Ostensible liberals have complained that US and North Korean flags were seen next to each other (of course they were, it’s a summit), that Trump called the huge US military exercises in Korea “provocative” (they are), that Trump offered to remove troops from Korea (he should), and that he offered a “security guarantee” (he should) to not attack without getting a formal guarantee from DPRK to continue their suspension of missile and nuclear bomb testing. (Does anyone doubt that if DPRK tested another missile, the US would re-escalate within hours?) We’ve been told that this is all just a repeat of every other dead deal, that every past US-DPRK agreement has failed so we shouldn’t flirt with hope this time. (Did past agreements occur with a supportive South Korean president at the helm? Did the DPRK report the details of past agreements to its citizens through its tightly-controlled media, including specifically stating an intention of “denuclearization”?  In past years, did the DPRK cancel its anti-US rallies, replace anti-US propaganda posters with posters about economic development, and show on its television news an exchange of salutes between a US president and the DPRK’s top general? No. This is a new moment.)

Democrats introduced an amendment to prevent Trump from unilaterally removing US troops from Korea. Democrats hyped and exaggerated the threat from DPRK, calling them a “threat to South Korea, to Japan, to our allies in the region, to the United States of America, to the entire world.” North Korea has about the same GDP as Dayton, Ohio, and its military budget is about the size of the NYPD budget. The idea that it could, or even intends to, launch an attack against anyone at all is ludicrous; during the height of tensions, the US Pacific Command estimated the chances of a first strike by North Korea at 0.01%.

Keumjoo Armstrong of Peace and Unification Action of Boston, spoke at the Park Street Station stand-out June 30 for peace in Korea. Photo by Shelley Rieman.

Keumjoo Armstrong of Peace and Unification Action of Boston, spoke at the Park Street Station stand-out June 30 for peace in Korea. Photo by Shelley Rieman.

Of course the DPRK’s nuclear weapons give them an outsized destructive power, but that’s their point: former CIA director of East Asia Operations Joseph DeTrani explains, “Having worked with them, they see their nuclear weapons as a nuclear deterrent. They see the US objective in the region as regime change, and they’re talking about survival. And they feel, with these nuclear weapons no one’s going to mess with them.” In other words, the Democratic Party leadership is now to the right of the CIA: DeTrani (who is not a Trump partisan, judging by his pointed criticisms of the Iran Deal withdrawal) also said: “The historic June 12th summit in Singapore between President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un has moved us closer to a peaceful resolution of issues with North Korea. Compared to where we were eight months ago, when the possibility of stumbling into kinetic conflict on the Korean Peninsula was real, we are now in a much better place.”

But even this framing is US-centric. South Koreans overwhelmingly support moves towards peace. If they are really our allies, we should listen. Christine Ahn is the Korean-American founder of Women Cross DMZ, a peace organization focused on ending the Korean War, reuniting Korean families, and ensuring women’s leadership in peace building. After Korea Peace Network Advocacy Day in Washington DC, Ahn said, “I was incredibly frustrated by going around the Capitol yesterday talking to the offices of members of Congress and also the quick knee-jerk reaction from liberals and [the] left. People said, ‘How could we support engagement and diplomacy — this amounts to approving Donald Trump.’ … Can we stay focused on how this is an incredible moment for the Korean people? This is about ending a seven-decade war!”