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The Singapore Summit: A US Pivot Toward Ending the Korean War?

Members of the Korean diaspora are hoping for a revival of humanitarian relief.

Korean American activists hold a vigil for peace on June 12, 2018, outside the White House in Washington, DC.

The denuclearization agreement signed by Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12 has provoked wildly varying responses from progressive analysts around the world. Antiwar activists such as Christine Ahn are hailing the suspension of the joint US-South Korean military exercises as an important step toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, while anti-nuclear activists such as Rebecca Johnson caution that “peace and nuclear disarmament are not going to happen if North Koreans feel under constant threat from US nuclear weapons, as is the case at present.”

Although skepticism toward the deal, which is short on specifics, is not unwarranted, it is important to acknowledge the significance of this moment as a potential starting point for sustained negotiations. The Singapore summit represented a critical first step toward finally ending the 68-year-old conflict that has torn apart a nation and isolated North Korea from much of the world. Ahead of the summit, Korean Americans were joined by 153 organizations across the United States and around the world, and released a joint statement calling for a formal end to the Korean War and urging Washington’s political leaders to set aside partisan differences and party politics for peace.

The main takeaway from the agreement was a commitment to create a “lasting and robust peace regime” on the Korean Peninsula and support the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace. The agreement omitted mention of “complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement” (CVID) of North Korea’s nuclear program, which had been a US precondition in past negotiations, and included cooperative trust-building actions such as plans for both nations to repatriate the remains of US servicemen in North Korea. President Trump’s decision to suspend the joint military exercises on the peninsula is an additional and significant confidence-building measure that many say will further boost the delicate negotiation process.

Responses in North Korea, South Korea and across the Korean diaspora have also been varied. Many citizen groups in both South Korea and the United States embraced the result of Trump-Kim summit. E. Tammy Kim commented on this groundswell of support in her New Yorker column, relating that she had “yet to meet a single Korean who isn’t willing to express optimism, in some form, about the prospects for peace and reunification.” Daniel Jasper of the American Friends Service Committee shared his insight on the mood in North Korea: “Having recently spoken to ordinary North Koreans, I can see that effective cooperation is inspiring optimism and confidence.”

Jonathan L. Clemens, an American doctor returning from a recent medical mission trip to North Korea, also described a changed atmosphere since the beginning of 2018. He told Truthout during the Korea Peace Network’s visit to Democratic senators’ offices that anti-American posters and banners have disappeared and ordinary people openly express hope and optimism.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of this historic event is that it was set in motion by Koreans themselves: President Moon and Chairman Kim forged the path to the Trump-Kim summit with the Panmunjom Declaration, which was followed by North Korea’s unilateral suspension of intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear tests and the destruction of nuclear test sites.

US and South Korean public opinion was also instrumental in leading up to this historic moment. In a poll of South Koreans and Americans, the nations dovetailed in a number of key areas: 70 percent of Americans and 81 percent of South Koreans were in favor of a Trump-Kim meeting, and people in both countries appear to share a common appraisal of the unique significance — and potential — of recent events. As internationally renowned scholar Noam Chomsky observed in the wake of the Panmunjom Declaration:

The April 27 Declaration of the two Koreas was a historic event which promises a bright future for the people of Korea. It calls for the two Koreas to settle their problems “on their own accord” and lays out a careful schedule to proceed, something quite new. It also calls on the international community (meaning Washington) to support this process … With determination and good will the two Koreas can move forward with the plans outlined in the Declaration. It is the task of the people of the United States to support them in this historic endeavor and to ensure that their own government does not undermine or in any way impede the process. That can succeed. It must succeed, for the welfare of Korea, and all of us.

As we consider the potential of the Trump-Kim agreement, we should not lose sight of the humanitarian cost of the prevailing policies toward North Korea. The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that 60,000 North Korean children are at risk of starvation as a direct result of international sanctions, which the Trump administration has transformed from a more targeted set of regulations to sweeping measures constituting a near-total embargo.

Previous humanitarian exemptions have been rolled back by the Trump administration, which has delayed relief shipments and interfered with ongoing aid programs. Sanctions are not tools of diplomacy, they are weapons of war that disproportionately strike at the weakest and most vulnerable members of society: women, children, the sick and the elderly.

Demonstrators call for diplomacy rather than the escalation of tensions between the US and North Korea during a vigil for peace on June 12, 2018, outside the White House in Washington, DC.
Demonstrators call for diplomacy rather than the escalation of tensions between the US and North Korea during a vigil for peace on June 12, 2018, outside the White House in Washington, DC.

During the Korea Peace Network’s visit to Democratic senators’ offices on June 12, Dr. Clemens noted that several major hospitals in North Korea lacked basic medical supplies as a result of international sanctions.

Another ongoing humanitarian tragedy encompassing both Koreas, as well as the global Korean diaspora, is represented by the thousands of Korean families who continue to be divided by the legacy of the Korean War. Every year, more and more elderly family members who have been separated for decades draw their last breaths without fulfilling their lifelong dreams of being rejoined with their loved ones.

The recent reduction of tensions represents an opportunity to ameliorate the ongoing humanitarian tragedy of this prolonged conflict. An easing of sanctions, a renewal of relief efforts and reinstitution of family reunification events are all meaningful and powerful steps that can be appropriately incorporated within the peace-building process. Actions such as these represent a win-win for the peace process: They will bear immediate fruit by diminishing the decade-long suffering of Koreans on both sides of the border while generating tremendous long-term dividends toward the successful conclusion of a nascent diplomatic process with unparalleled and historical potential.

The alternative is to return to the brink of nuclear war. President Trump faces bipartisan pressure from leading Democrats, neocon hawks and the right-wing media. Moreover, the president is surrounded by a war cabinet staffed by the likes of John Bolton and Harry Harris, both of whom maintain a hawkish position against North Korea. In such an environment, recent achievements can fall apart quickly.