Lee Hee-Ho – the 93-year old widow of South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung, most known for his “sunshine policy” of engagement – has just returned from North Korea, where she sought to revive inter-Korean dialogue. Although many were quick to disparage her visit by highlighting that she didn’t meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, the symbolic importance of her trip cannot be overstated.
Lee represents a generation of Koreans who grew up in an undivided Korea. As she departed Seoul, Lee said, “I am going to Pyongyang with hopes that Koreans can … heal the wounds and pain of the past 70 years of division.”
Like my own late parents, Lee and millions of Koreans eagerly awaited Korea’s liberation from Japanese occupation, only to see their ancient country divided and then reoccupied by Cold War powers.
On August 10, 1945, as Japan’s surrender appeared imminent, two young American officers, using a National Geographic map, drew a line across Korea’s 38th parallel. Without consulting any Koreans, or any Korea experts, they proposed US troops occupy south of the line, and that Soviets control territory north of it.
This arbitrary division, intended to be temporary, led to the creation of two Koreas: the Republic of Korea in the south and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north. Korea became the front line of the Cold War, precipitating the 1950 Korean War. After the death of nearly 4 million people, including one in five North Koreans, the war ended with an Armistice Agreement signed by the United States on behalf of the United Nations Command, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on behalf of China. Although the signatories promised to return within months to hammer out a peace settlement, they failed to do so, and as such, North Korea and the United States remain in a state of war.
The Armistice Agreement further sealed the 38th parallel through the creation of the two-mile wide De-Militarized Zone as a buffer between the two Koreas. It has become the most militarized border in the world, aggressively guarded by armed soldiers and strewn with landmines, which just last week exploded and shattered the legs of two South Korean soldiers patrolling the zone. It is the De-Militarized Zone that keeps millions of families separated from one another and the Korean people divided.
By taking the rare direct flight from Seoul to Pyongyang, Lee has crossed the forbidden line. Her crossing of this seemingly impermeable border draws attention to both the tragedy and absurdity of this division, which keeps the Korean people physically separated, not seeing and not knowing. Until the De-Militarized Zone is physically dismantled, (it was, after all, erected by soldiers 62 years ago) and until government leaders are willing to engage in dialogue, it is crucial that citizens engage in goodwill gestures and express the overwhelming desire of the people for reconciliation.
Like Lee, I crossed the De-Militarized Zone last May with 29 women peacemakers from 15 countries – many from nations whose governments fought in the Korean War – to bring global attention to the unresolved war. We met North Korean women to share our experiences as women mobilizing for peace. With heavy hearts, we listened to elderly North Korean women recount how they survived unrelenting US bombing campaigns.
Their stories are well-documented by US archives, such as the Senate testimony of US Major Emmett O’Donnell Jr., who explained one year into the war, “Everything is destroyed. There is nothing standing worthy of the name.” The brutality of the Korean War may be erased from the world’s memory, but it is still very much alive in the minds of North Koreans and is used by the regime to justify its nuclear weapons as defensive.
After the North Korean women shared their pain and trauma, we brought out sections of a quilt that we had prepared – North Korean women, South Korean women, international women and Korean women diaspora. Through joy and laughter, all the women gathered together to participate in a ceremonial sewing back together of Korea. Completely unplanned, the North Korean women broke out into song, and together, all of us sang the tongil (reunification) song that is sung on both sides of the De-Militarized Zone. It was a magical moment where human empathy and caring transcended all else. This was only made possible by our being there, face to face, women to women, human to human.
Many critics, however, argue that any engagement with North Korea only legitimates the repressive regime and that more isolation with tougher sanctions will force regime collapse. That has been Washington’s rationale since the 1990s, when it predicted that the Kim dynasty would crumble during the famine when up to a million people died. To the contrary, life is improving for North Koreans. According to the South Korean Central Bank, North Korea’s economy grew at a faster pace than the Eurozone, with more cars, building construction, market stalls, cellphones, and even taxis visible.
What we do know with certainty, however, is that isolation has led to three nuclear weapons tests by Pyongyang, dangerous brinkmanship among all sides and the real possibility of war. In 2012, former US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said Washington was “within an inch of war” with North Korea. With over 10 million living in Seoul and just 35 miles from the De-Militarized Zone, a military outbreak would be catastrophic. In 1994, when President Clinton considered a strike on Pyongyang’s nuclear reactors, the US military estimated – long before North Korea possessed nuclear weapons – that the first 24 hours of war would result in hundreds of thousands of casualties.
The way to avert war, according to a 2011 US Army War College paper, is to “reach agreement on ending the armistice from the Korean War … and giv[e] a formal security guarantee to North Korea tied to nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction.” Even Seok-Hyun Hong, CEO of Joongang-Ilbo, the largest media group in South Korea, calls for de-linking denuclearization with regime change: “When Pyongyang is certain we are not seeking regime change, it will be sincere about discussing its nuclear program.”
Engagement has worked, and this is perhaps the most significant aspect of Lee’s trip. She is the living relic of her husband’s legacy of engagement, and the fruit that can be born from dialogue and cooperation. In 2000, Kim Dae-Jung and former North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il signed the June 15 Declaration that outlined a path for Korean reunification. After waiting an entire lifetime, hundreds of siblings were able to embrace one another and thousands of Korean scholars, athletes, educators and others met in civil society exchanges. The joint declaration established the Kaesong Industrial Zone, so billions of dollars have benefitted North Korean workers and South Korean companies.
As a Korean American whose parents were born in an undivided Korea, I care deeply about whether my adopted country – which drew the line in Korea, led the Korean War and signed the Armistice Agreement, and to this day militarily enforces the division – takes the just course of action to bring the Korean War to a final resolution. In July, three US Congressmen and veterans of the Korean War took Washington a step closer by introducing a bipartisan resolution, HR 384, calling for an end to the Korean War.
As President Obama argued for diplomacy over war with Cuba and Iran, decades of isolation and sanctions have not worked. The same principle of engagement should be applied to North Korea. China and Russia now have relationships with both North and South Korea; the United States and Japan are way mired in the past.
Not only is war with a nuclear power not an option, the current policy of isolating North Korea grossly adversely impacts family reunification, economic productivity and regional security. On the 70th anniversary of Korea’s tragic division, let’s give diplomacy a chance.