Last week marked the beginning of yet another “war game” on the Korean Peninsula led by the United States, a bi-annual Superbowl demonstration of military hardware that always inflames the DPRK, commonly known as North Korea, and sets off high alerts, nuclear tests and provides fodder to the Kim regime to further amp up its own military hardware. Despite knowing the likely reaction of the DPRK, we fail to stop our own behavior in this tug of war and continue to engage in an addictive cycle of muscle flexing and militarism. To prepare for true change in Korea, such as peace and nonproliferation, we must break this cycle of addiction.
Just as mistrust, dishonesty and a lack of empathy form the addictive personality, trust building, honesty and deep listening are essential elements of healthy peace building. Albert Einstein said, “Peace can never be achieved by force. It can only come through understanding.” I have in several trips to the DPRK sought to follow the advice of attorney Atticus Finich in To Kill a Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider something from his point of view … ’til’ you climb inside his skin and walk around in it.” Yet our failed policy in Korea is more akin to “how to skin a cat,” or at least get under their skin, rather than seek understanding.
The DPRK regularly takes note of our nearly 30,000 U.S. troops in dozens of bases and posts in South Korea, a country the size of Indiana, our own massive nuclear stockpile and our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan in violation of international law. Living under a 67-year-old temporary cease-fire, they incessantly repeat the stories from the Korean War, a civil war that became a Cold War battleground that leveled their nation with carpet bombing, killing one in four Koreans. They react as an addict, or at least a victim of PTSD, engaging in impulsive and repetitive behavior, with mood swings, anger and isolation.
On the other side, the United States also demonstrates addictive behavior, often blaming rather than taking responsibility for peace, or acting untrustworthy. We expressly violated the 1953 armistice agreement by not removing our troops after the war, failing to negotiate a peace treaty and introducing over 600 nuclear weapons into Korea. In 1994 we promised light water reactors to replace their nuclear program, dragged our feet on formalizing relations and in 2002 threatened the DPRK with nuclear pre-emption. Few talk about our increased militarization of Korea with the THAAD missile defense program, the 2017 $133 billion in expanded bases or our support for the largest navel installation in the world in South Korea on Jeju Island, ironically dubbed “the island of peace.” We’ve not walked the talk of what we expect from them.
For too long the “forgotten war” has remained the forgotten peace. It is time for a new policy that builds relationship and replaces a temporary cease-fire armistice with a peace treaty, rather than marches us toward war. Old thinking, with its senseless cycle of militarism and gamesmanship, will not bring new solutions. We must support the will of the Korean people and South Korea’s new President Moon Jae-in, in calling for dialogue and peace. As a human rights lawyer Moon knows that peace is the ultimate human right.
The mirror in Korea provides us an opportunity to finally get it right and to redefine our role in the world. The DPRK has consistently said, even as recently as July 4, that it would bargain nuclear weapons for a durable peace. The path to break our addiction to these war exercises and this standoff is through techniques from mediation and conflict resolution, including ways to move from reaction to relationship, listening deeply, agreeing to forgive without forgetting and applying strong and courageous practices of nonresistance. There is no military solution.
By rediscovering the nobleness of peacemaking we can let go of the rope, get to the meeting with the DPRK, share truths and state without shame: “My name is America … and I’m an addict.”
Eric Sirotkin’s 12-step model for peace in Korea comes from four trips to North Korea and is featured in his recent book “Witness: A Lawyer’s Journey from Litigation to Liberation.”