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We need Diplomacy, not War, on the Korean Peninsula

November 30, 2010

As indicated by Joe’s November 24 blog post, the foreign policy focus of FCNL and much of the world shifted to the Korean peninsula as a result of last week’s events.  Personally, I suddenly found myself shifted back in time to the 2001-2005 period when I was living in Indonesia and deeply involved in development and relief work across the East and Southeast Asia region.  During that time, I made to two trips to North Korea — each of about two-weeks duration.  Following my second trip to North Korea, I visited South Korea for the first time.

My most enduring memories from my visits to the Korean peninsula are of the Korean people and their hospitality.  With them in mind, my FCNL colleagues and I extend condolences and sympathies to the families, friends and extended communities of those who lost their lives and were injured in the tragic escalation of violence in the  November 23 Yeonpyeong island incident.  We are holding in the Light the people who are suffering from emotional trauma as a result of the rapidly-rising tensions between the Republic of Korea and the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea.

My first view of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) was from the North Korean side during a trip to the city of Kaesong.  Following that visit, I traveled to South Korea (via Beijing, China) for the first time.  There are many images that endure in my memory from the two sides of the border.  Most of them are contrasting: hugely different standards of living; widely divergent agricultural practices and health care systems; and strikingly different states of infrastructure, levels of environmental degradation, and the like.  But a significant similarity one finds on both sides of the border is the heavy militarization.

The Korean peninusula could go up in flames very quickly if the 1953 armistice were broken and full-scale warfare resumed.  We have a responsibility to do everything possible to prevent that from happening.

The U.S. is rightly looking to China to help keep the peace.  The Obama administration appears, however, to be ambivalent about the role that China should play.  As reported in today’s New York Times, the Chinese have proposed emergency talks with North Korea.  But the U.S. and South Korea have balked at the idea and continue instead to focus on high-profile military exercises in the Yellow Sea, a maritime area in which both China and North Korea have a significant interest.  The U.S. should follow the lead of the Japanese who, according to a report in The Washington Post, will be sending an envoy to China for North Korea talks.

More objective media reporting will also aid diplomacy and help ease tensions.  The initial U.S. media reports about the military confrontation on and around Yeonpyong island seemed reflexively to take a U.S. and South Korea viewpoint and to ignore the North Korean perspective.  Those reports assumed that North Korea was in the wrong.  To understand the context of the conflict that took place, it is important to hear the North Korean perspective, including the important consideration that North Korea does not accept the Northern Limit Line that was established by the United Nations Command at the conclusion of the 1950-53 Korean War.  Historian Andrew Salmon, writing for the BBC, makes this point and provides a helpful historical perspective on the disputed Yellow Sea maritime area in a November 25 piece.  One may not agree with or fully understand the North Korea perspective, but to ignore it or dismiss it entirely is irresponsible and extremely perilous.

We would do well to listen to the voices of those who are closest to the conflict.  In a November 26 statement from Seoul, the National Council of Churches in Korea reminds us:

As we have so often repeated in the past, these exercises of political and military brinkmanship serve no purpose other than to escalate tensions in Korea and to threaten the peace in the whole Northeast Asian region.  The presence of a great number of nuclear weapons on land and on the surrounding seas makes Korea a tinderbox that threatens the peace of the whole world.

And the Northeast Asia Regional Peacebuilding Institute, a civil society peacebuilding group representing voices from throughout Northeast Asia, issued a statement yesterday which included this point:

We call for dialogue to be resumed, both bilaterally between North and South Korea and between two Koreas and other nations, and multilaterally including forums such as the Six-Party Talks.

In sum, it is time to ease the tensions between North and South Korea through diplomacy and by moving quickly towards a resumption of the “six-party talks” (North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the U.S.) aimed at “denuclearizing” the Korean peninsula and normalizing relations in the post-Cold War era.  Please take a few minutes to write President Obama and/or send a letter to your local paper to convey this message.

One Comment
  1. Kei Fischer permalink
    December 8, 2010 4:10 am

    Thank you for your refreshing perspective on North Korea. I also embarked on a trip to North Korea on a peace delegation with 1o other Korean Americans and Korean Canadians who cared about peace on the Korean peninsula. After visiting the DPRK, I realized how much they wanted peace and reunification. I appreciated your objective viewpoint on hearing the North Korean side as well in the recent Yeonpyeong incident. Sadly, this most recent incident is nothing new in the contentious relationship between the North and South Korea and the U.S. I wholeheartedly agree that the only resolution is peace talks and negotiations.

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