Tensions in Korea and the Need to Pursue Peace

We’ve asked our staff to help us unpack the complex justice issues that we’re working on. Using our General Synod pronouncements as the basis for these reflections, we hope to provide insights into the issues you care about that are rooted in our shared faith, and can inform your advocacy efforts. This month, Derek Duncan, Associate for Global Advocacy and Education for our UCC/DOC Global Ministries reflects on rising tension on the Korean Peninsula.

Tensions in Korea and the Need to Pursue Peace

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula remain high. In March the U.S. and South Korea conducted their annual live-fire battle exercises, while North Korea undertook new nuclear and missile tests that extended the reach of potential strikes against U.S. allies in the region.  Both sides have accused the other of acting provocatively while claiming their actions are a warranted defense against the other. While the threats have waned in recent weeks, conflict could still erupt, whether accidentally or intentionally, and we should not ignore this volatile situation.

A spotlight was cast on the drama as new Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Northeast Asia in April to reassert America’s commitment to defend South Korea, Japan, and itself if necessary against any attack by North Korea. Pyongyang’s new young leader, Kim Jong-un, seemed to weigh his options—wanting to demonstrate both his bravura and North Korea’s growing arms capacity, but hesitating to cross any line that would ensure U.S. retaliation.

However, as a result of this escalation, on March 30 Pyongyang declared it was in “a state of war” with South Korea. It cut off the direct phone line connecting North and South Korea, pulled its workers out of the Kaesong Industrial Complex operated by the two countries, and declared it would no longer recognize the 1953 Armistice Agreement ending the Korean War.  South Korea’s new conservative President Park Geun-hye, Northeast Asia’s first woman Head of State, used the opportunity to bolster her hard-line policy against North Korea, pulling South Korea out of the Kaesong collaboration, repudiating hopes for renewed reunification efforts, and authorizing first-strikes against North Korea at the military’s discretion.

“The primary danger,” says Council of Foreign relations Korea expert Scott Snyder, “is really related to the potential for miscalculation between the two sides, and in this kind of atmosphere of tensions, that miscalculation could have deadly consequences.” The tremendous stress and risk of nuclear conflict falls heavy on the people of North and South Korea. As our ecumenical partner, the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea, stated in an April 8 statement: “We… earnestly pray to be free from the threat of war, urge the resumption of dialogue and negotiation to achieve the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and the establishment of a peace regime without preconditions from the parties concerned.”

An Unresolved Peace: Sixty Years of Armistice

This year marks the 60th Anniversary of the signing of the Armistice Agreement that established the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea along the 38th parallel. The Korean War ended in 1953, but a formal peace treaty was never signed.  The armistice was designed to be temporary, to “insure a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved.”  The armistice has been tested over the years, most notably in 1958 by the initial introduction by the U.S. of nuclear-armed weapons onto South Korean territory, but more recently by North Korea’s continued development of nuclear and long-range missile technologies and the annual U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises, and now this Spring with North Korea’s announcement that it would no longer abide by the armistice.

Former President Jimmy Carter has declared that a “settlement on the Korean Peninsula is crucial to peace and stability in Asia, and it is long overdue.” Creating a peace process is essential to end the escalation of nuclear and conventional arms on the Peninsula. Denuclearization and peace were parallel goals during the Six-Party talks earlier this decade, but in the absence of credible negotiations toward peace that would include borders, troop redeployments, and normalization of relations between North Korea and the U.S., and between North and South Korea, the progress toward denuclearization faltered.  A renewed promise of a peace treaty would be an incentive to North Korea to cease what it sees as a defensive nuclear program necessitated by the “hostile policy” of the U.S. Moreover, a commitment to obtain peace would provide a framework for dialogue and building trust rather than exchanging threats that are hard to back away from and amassing ever-more dangerous weapons in the region.

Seek Peace, and Pursue It

Unfortunately the Obama Administration adheres  to a hard-line strategy of isolating North Korea and further militarizing the Peninsula. North Korea is one of the focal points in the broader U.S. policy of “pivoting” or “rebalancing” military and strategic attention away from the Middle East and to the Pacific. Designed to ensure U.S. hegemony in Northeast Asia against China’s rising influence, this shift uses the threat of North Korea to advance U.S. military operations as close to China as possible, including on a new strategic naval base the U.S. is building with South Korea on pristine Jeju Island.

So long as the threat posed by North Korea serves larger U.S. policy objectives, there is little interest in exploring creative diplomatic options or recognizing the value of a peace treaty in resolving the nuclear impasse.  Rather than seek opportunities for dialogue that might include leveraging China’s increasing impatience with North Korea, or encouraging increased social and economic engagement between South and North Korea that might highlight the appeal of normalized relations and eventual reconciliation, the U.S. is too accustomed to the routines of belligerence.

Later in May an Ecumenical Korea Peace Conference will be held in Atlanta, GA to push the U.S. to move from armistice to just peace on the Korean Peninsula.  Framed around the words of the Psalmist “Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it” (34:14), the organizers believe that if we want peace as our goal, but we must actively pursue options to achieve it.

The UCC 24th General Synod (2003) passed a resolution “Advocating Peace and Reconciliation in the Korean Peninsula” that called on the church to stand in solidarity with the Korean people and advocate “that the United States pursue policies that will end tension, decrease armaments and weapons of mass destruction, and seek the peace and security of all the people of Korea.” The U.S. can take several concrete steps to seek peace over war. The U.S. should help find a way to restore the direct phone connection between the North and South, and resume operations in the Kaesong Industrial Complex as initial steps toward building confidence and eventually resuming dialogue and cooperation agreements between the North and South. The U.S. must be willing to take risks that demonstrate peace rather than hostility, starting with a decision to end its annual war games with South Korea. Finally the U.S. must be creative with its diplomacy, engaging China and other Six-Party states in initiating a peace process that would promise after sixty years to finally achieve a peace treaty on the Korean Peninsula.


For information on Global Ministries partners and advocacy regarding Korea, you can contact me at duncand@ucc.org.

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Categories: Column Getting to the Root of It

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