Women Must Be Central to Negotiating the US-Korea Peace Process

When the meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Un ended abruptly in Hanoi two weeks ago, my heart sank. As a Korean-American, I have been working for nearly two decades to end the Korean War, which has kept Koreans living under the constant threat of war and devastated three generations of Korean families. I had traveled to Hanoi with a delegation of women peacebuilders to celebrate what many Korea experts anticipated — that the two leaders would declare an end to the Korean War.

Instead, talks collapsed and now the Trump administration has returned to its rhetoric of “maximum pressure,” specifically arguing that there will be no progress on peace and lifting of sanctions without North Korea’s denuclearization. While it is important to understand why the talks failed, it is even more important to outline the constructive steps that the United States and North Korea must take to formally end the Korean War and negotiate a peace agreement — as they were supposed to do within three months of signing of the Armistice agreement in 1953. The United States has an unprecedented opportunity to bring closure to Koreans and Americans wanting a decisive end to this nearly 70-year war. To ensure that this opportunity isn’t squandered, a delegation of South Korean women parliamentarians and civil society activists is traveling to Washington, D.C., this week to meet with members of the U.S. Congress to press for the conclusion of the Korean War. The success of this effort hinges on one overlooked factor: women’s inclusion in the Korea peace process.

Why Talks Collapsed in Hanoi

Instead of declaring an end to the nearly 70-year Korean War, the two sides cut their meeting short and left without any concrete commitments. In a brief press conference before departing Hanoi, Trump explained that the fault line was over sanctions: “Basically, they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, and we couldn’t do that,” he said. “They were willing to denuke a large portion of the areas that we wanted, but we couldn’t give up all of the sanctions for that.” He added, “But sometimes you have to walk, and this was just one of those times.”

At a midnight press briefing, however, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho countered that the North Koreans had not demanded the lifting of all sanctions, but only a “partial removal” of U.N. sanctions (five out of 11) imposed after 2016, which have been harming the country’s economy and civilian population. In exchange, the North Koreans agreed to “permanently and completely dismantle all the nuclear material production facilities in the Yongbyon area, including plutonium and uranium, in the presence of U.S. experts.” The North Koreans were also prepared to permanently halt nuclear and long-range missile tests.

According to The New York Times, on February 27, over dinner at the Metropole Hotel, “Mr. Kim had resisted what Mr. Trump presented as a grand bargain: North Korea would trade all its nuclear weapons, material and facilities for an end to the American-led sanctions squeezing its economy.” Former U.S. State Department official Leon Sigal reported that many issues had been resolved in the lead-up to the summit in Hanoi, including the end-of-war declaration, establishment of liaison offices in Washington and Pyongyang, and scaling back U.S.-South Korea war drills. But given what was happening in Washington on February 28 — the Michael Cohen hearing — Trump needed a bigger deal, hence the “grand bargain.”

In addition to the Cohen hearing, Trump faced overwhelming opposition across bipartisan lines to any deal with Kim. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, echoed the popular liberal refrain, “No deal is better than a bad deal, and the president was right to walk.”

But the sure bet to scuttle any deal was the presence of National Security Advisor John Bolton, who had expanded the definition of denuclearization at the last minute. “If North Korea commits to complete denuclearization — including its ballistic-missile program and its chemical- and biological-weapons programs, the prospect of economic progress is there,” Bolton said on CBS. In an editorial for The Nation, veteran Korea journalist Tim Shorrock said Democratic hawks also helped derail the Hanoi Summit. “This gambit — which vastly expanded the working US definition of ‘denuclearization’ — was bound to fail,” he wrote. “First, the demand on chemical and biological weapons (which Schumer and the Democrats had backed in their 2018 letter) was added at the last minute by Bolton.”

Conservative Korea expert Harry Kazianis theorizes that Trump intended for the talks to fail in order to win domestic points. “Trump, knowing that Democrats would hold their hearing on the Michael Cohen saga during the first day of the summit in Hanoi, may have gambled that he could take advantage of his 48 hours on the world stage in a bigly way…. He may have assumed that he could look tough and show up the Democrats, either by making history and getting a mega-deal with Kim or walking out.”

The mainstream media, meanwhile, are obsessing over activity at North Korea’s Sohae Satellite Launching Site. But many experts have noted that it would make no sense for North Korea to launch anything given their hopes for sanctions relief by the next high-level meeting. Nonetheless, the reports have given credence to the narrative that North Korea can’t be trusted and that engagement and trust-building are useless exercises. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

Eyes on the Prize: Peace Deal

Given that the United States and North Korea have been at war with each other for nearly 70 years, it’s no surprise that both sides view each other through the prism of war. Thankfully, some truly progressive members of Congress have recognized the need for a peace agreement to achieve breakthroughs in denuclearization. Right before the Hanoi summit, 22 congressional representatives introduced a resolution calling for an end to the Korean War and demanding the president establish a peace process toward the signing of a peace agreement. More than a symbolic gesture, this resolution could have actual weight.

Led by Reps. Ro Khanna, Barbara Lee and Andy Kim, the first Korean American Democratic congressman, the resolution is largely being sponsored by congresswomen with significant influence, including Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-chair Pramila Jayapal and freshman superstar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Another co-sponsor of the resolution is Jan Schakowsky of Chicago, a champion on women, peace and security who played a major role during the Iran deal to mobilize votes across partisan lines. Thanks to these congresswomen, the resolution also calls on the Trump administration to implement the Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2017.

As Trump and Kim proved, peace in Korea cannot be determined by two men (or for that matter a table of men including Pompeo and Bolton). Furthermore, progress by North and South Korea to transform nearly seven decades of war and hostility is now being held hostage by Washington, which has been blocking at every turn steps the two Koreas want to take to improve relations, from linking the inter-Korean railroad to reopening the Kaesong joint industrial zone and Mount Kumkang tourism resort.

That’s why a delegation of South Korean women parliamentarians is traveling to Washington, D.C., to dialogue with members of the U.S. Congress, to both inform them of the historic peace that is taking place between the two Koreas and to ask for their solidarity and support as the most important U.S. ally in the region that would be most impacted and devastated were military conflict to break out. The South Korean National Assembly members will begin discussions with their counterparts in Congress on how the U.S.-South Korean alliance between women lawmakers — both with laws on women, peace and security — can meaningfully contribute to the Korea peace process.

Ahead of the summit in Hanoi, over 250 women from 43 countries — including Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker and Jane Fonda — sent a letter calling on Trump and Kim to end the Korean War and establish an inclusive peace process toward the signing of a peace agreement that includes civil society, especially women’s organizations. My delegation of women peacebuilders also sent a letter to Stephen Biegun, U.S. special representative for North Korea, and Ri Yong Pil, the North Korean ambassador to the UN, requesting a meeting on the sidelines of the official summit to discuss how women could support the Korea peace process. And this week, four major peace organizations — Women Cross DMZ, Nobel Women’s Initiative, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and the Korean Women’s Movement for Peace — are launching a global campaign, Korea Peace Now! Women Mobilizing to End the War, to see through a peace agreement.

Why Women

Crucial to advancing a peace agreement will be the meaningful inclusion of women at all levels of the peace process. From Liberia to Northern Ireland, women have been instrumental in the signing of peace agreements. In order to reach a comprehensive and lasting peace agreement, women’s groups must be at the drafting and negotiating table. Research shows that the participation of civil society groups, including women’s organizations, makes a peace agreement 64 percent less likely to fail. And when women participate in peace processes, the resulting agreements are 35 percent more likely to last at least 15 years. The evidence is so strong that since 2000 UN Security Council Resolution 1325 has called for women’s equal participation and meaningful involvement in peace processes. As of December 2018, 79 countries — including the United States and South Korea — have adopted national action plans for the implementation of UNSCR 1325 on Women, Peace and Security.

Women peacemakers march in Paju, South Korea, after crossing the demilitarized zone (DMZ) on May 24, 2015, for the International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament.
As Trump and Kim proved, peace in Korea cannot be determined by two men — or, for that matter, a table of men.

The crucial role of women has become so normalized that even President Trump signed into law the Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2017, which had overwhelming bipartisan support. Ed Royce, the former Republican chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs noted, “The benefits of women’s participation — and the risks of their exclusion — in all aspects of governance and peacemaking are too great to ignore.”

Clearly, the time is now for Korean, U.S. and international women to meaningfully contribute to the official Korea peace processes. Women hold top foreign ministry posts in South Korea, North Korea and China, and key stakeholder nations, such as Canada, Sweden and Norway, which all participated in the Korean War. We now have the greatest number of women ever elected into Congress, including several women of color with a progressive vision for U.S. foreign policy. Coupled with the growing power of women globally — signified by women’s marches and the #MeToo movement — these shifts provide U.S. women with an unprecedented opportunity to end the U.S.’s oldest war. As Gloria Steinem and I wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post, “The women elected to Congress brought with them commitment to such popular issues as Medicare-for-all, free college tuition and confronting climate change. Yet these goals will remain dreams as long as funding is constrained by the $700 billion a year the United States spends on the military. Thus, ending the Korean conflict is crucial not only to Koreans, but to Americans as well.”

It’s time to end the Korean War. To ensure the United States signs a peace agreement, we need the power and mobilization of women to end the U.S.’s oldest war.