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Karen Spicher is communications coordinator for Northeast Asia Regional Peace Building Institute (NARPI). Jae Young directs the Korea Peacebuilding Institute (KOPI) and provides leadership to NARPI.
If you watched the 2018 Winter Olympics opening ceremony, you witnessed athletes from both Koreas walking together under the Korean Unification Flag. The people of Korea, and the international community, melted the tension and fear that had just peaked a month before. In that moment, it was hard not to ask, “Is this reality? Are we dreaming? If this is possible now, why not at other times?”
To help understand why the conflict surrounding Korea is so difficult, it is important to understand the background of the tensions on the Korean peninsula.
Living in South Korea is like riding a roller coaster. The tensions with the North have peaks, followed by times of rest. If you chart these tensions, you’ll see that the peaks generally coincide with the schedule of U.S. joint military drills with South Korea and Japan.
These drills are just exercises for building up defense, but because of the history between the United States and North Korea, they are perceived by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) as very real threats. The joint military drills are initiated by the United States, not by South Korea or Japan, as a part of the current U.S. military strategy to surround China by maintaining and building a strong presence in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines.
Since the U.S. media tends to portray the North’s actions as aggressions and not reactions, people living in the United States may see North Korea as a crazy communist state that is threatening nuclear war. But looking at history provides some clarity as to why the DPRK refuses to let go of their nuclear weapons.
The Korean War was the impetus for the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program. At the beginning of the Korean War in 1950, the United States announced plans – multiple times – to use nuclear weapons against the DPRK. Two years later, the DPRK developed the Atomic Energy Research Institute.
In July 1953, the Armistice Agreement marked a cease-fire, but nuclear threats from the United States continued. In 1958, the United States secretly placed nuclear weapons in South Korea, which they withdrew in 1991. Even though the United States no longer has nuclear weapons in South Korea, the U.S. military presence is very strong, with 37,500 military personnel stationed here. The more frequently the U.S military holds joint drills with South Korea and Japan, the more tightly the DPRK will hold on to their nuclear weapons.
In addition to the United States, other countries have vested interests in the current separation of North and South Korea, including China and Japan.
The reason the United States can maintain its presence in South Korea is because of the perceived threat from the North. If Korea would become one, there would be no practical need for U.S. military bases here, and the U.S. arms industry could lose significant weapons sales from Korea, as well as Taiwan and Japan.
China might perceive the unification as the creation of a U.S. ally directly on their border. For this reason, China has supported North Korea economically, despite pressure from the international community.
For Japan, a unified Korea could be seen as a neighbor with significant military power, and a possible threat. Additionally, the current government in Japan is pushing hard to revise their Peace Constitution, Article 9, which was enacted after World War II. The government of Japan wants to become a “normal state” with the right to wage war if necessary. Threats from North Korea have helped to advance the cause for the reinterpretation of Article 9.
We believe the only hope for peaceful reunification lies in the improvement of the relationship between North and South Korea. The power that can overcome the many political, geographical and historical barriers comes from deep inside the hearts of the people of Korea. It is a common brotherhood and sisterhood given by God. It is a yearning for reconciliation between brothers and sisters who shed blood and were divided through war. A journey to restore trust with brothers and sisters in the North will not be short or easy. It is much like the journey of reconciliation that Jacob took to meet Esau – a spiritual journey during which Jacob had to wrestle with God.
The first step toward reconciliation is by ceasing military drills, to create space for new possibilities to bring brothers and sisters from the North and South together as friends. In early January 2018, we rejoiced at the news that the United States agreed to delay joint military drills that had been planned with South Korea during the time of the Olympics. Shortly after that decision, the DPRK agreed to send athletes and other delegations to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. The power to take this next step lies in Washington, D.C., so we ask you to promote the message of ceasing military drills in Northeast Asia! The next U.S.-South Korea joint drill is scheduled to begin March 25.
We must choose to trust the long journey of restoring the relationship between the people of North and South Korea. If there are more opportunities for interaction, there will be more information shared. This is what will bring about a power shift in North Korea. A grassroots, nonviolent revolution of people can eventually bring down the dictatorship in the North, which is strengthened by fear and threats from the United States.
Our future of peace and reconciliation on the Korean peninsula is heavily dependent on the situation in Washington, D.C. We are at a crucial moment in which we need our brothers and sisters in the United States to pray for us and to talk to national leaders. Tell them we need dialogue, not threats. We must put down our weapons, not pick them up. Right now we can see a small ray of hope, and with your support and the support of friends all over the world, that hope can grow.
Let’s make the dream of the 2018 Winter Olympics become our reality.
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