Sunday, November 4, 2018

Peacebuilding on the Korean Peninsula: What Should Be Done and What Can Be Done

2018 Parliament of the World's Religions, Toronto
November 3rd (Saterday), 2018

Peacebuilding on the Korean Peninsula: 
What Should Be Done and What Can Be Done

By Ven. Pomnyun Sunim (

Guiding Zen Master, Jungto Society 
Chairman, The Peace Foundation

In 1995, when I visited the region in China that borders North Korea, I witnessed the devastating famine in North Korea. Starting off with a campaign urging for humanitarian aid to North Korea, I have since been providing humanitarian aid within North Korea, support for North Korean refugees in China, and help to North Korean defectors to settle in South Korea. While carrying out these activities, I have learned that the underlying issues cannot be fundamentally resolved without first resolving the security issues of North Korea. Also, since the Korean peninsula is still under armistice, I believe that there must never be another war on the Korean Peninsula, and a permanent peace should be established. This would also contribute to global peace including peace in the Northeast Asia region. As a result, I have been involved in various activities aimed at establishing peace on the Korean peninsula and promoting the improvement of inter-Korea and North Korea-U.S. relations. 

Currently, I am carrying out activities related to North Korea through three social organizations – Good Friends, the Peace Foundation, and Join Together Society (JTS). Initially, Good Friends helped North Korean refugees who crossed the border into China to escape the great famine. The organization also investigated the situation of death from starvation in North Korea by interviewing the refugees in order to inform the international community. From 2004 to 2012, it published "North Korea Today," a weekly newsletter that provided the latest news about North Korea's internal affairs. During the severe food shortage crisis in 2008, it was published every day. The English translation of North Korea Today was a must-read for North Korea watchers including scholars, policy makers, and press around the world and was posted on the United Nations web page (Relief Web). Also, Good Friends has reported on recent developments in North Korea through annual briefings to the U.S. Congress, the U.S. State Department, think tanks, NGOs, academics, and other organizations in Washington, D.C. and has urged for humanitarian aid and human rights improvement.
The Peace Foundation carries out policy research, organizes symposiums, and conducts civic education to contribute to peace on the Korean peninsula. It founded the grassroots organization “The Righteous People for Korean Unification” which works to raise awareness and form public opinion within South Korean society about peace on the Korean peninsula and the reunification of the two Koreas. In terms of international activities for peace on the Korean peninsula, I have visited Washington D.C. every year for the last 20 years to hold lectures for and have meetings with government officials, members of Congress, academics, and NGOs. Lastly, I have been providing humanitarian aid to North Korea through JTS, an international relief organization, especially to orphanages, nursing homes, and facilities for the disabled in North Korea.

With the increasing tension between North Korea and the U.S. last year, people in Korea were anxious that a war would break out. The Peace Foundation and its affiliated groups organized multiple peace rallies in numerous cities in and outside of South Korea to oppose wars and urge for peace. The largest rally among them was held on December 23rd, 2017 in Gwanghwamun Plaza in the middle of Seoul, where 15,000 citizens gathered to voice their opposition to war and to demand peace. Also in 2018, we began an online White House petition urging for peace on the Korean peninsula and the signing of a peace agreement, which received more than 100,000 signatures within 26 days.

With the experience I have gained so far, I would like to tell you about the current situation in relation to North Korea and the path we need to take.

[Current Situation]

When the Korean war broke out in 1950, a great number of people lost their lives or their assets. Sixty-five years have passed since the armistice was signed in 1953, but the war has yet to end. As a result, the Korean peninsula has alternated between the rising and easing of tensions for the past 70 years. Last year, the tensions between North Korea and the U.S. escalated almost to the point of a breakout of war. The US President threatened to erase North Korea from the map, and in turn, Chairman Kim Jong-un of North Korea threatened to strike the United States and turn it into a sea of fire. However, there has been a drastic change this year. After a successful inter-Korea summit meeting in the spring, a North Korea-U.S. summit meeting was held for the first time on June 12th, 2018. Currently however, we are back to another standstill.

The reason for the current standstill is the conflict between the demands of North Korea and those of the U.S. North Korea is demanding that the U.S. halt its hostile policies and instead guarantee the security of North Korea. The U.S. is demanding the complete denuclearization of North Korea. This year, North Korea has opened up the possibility that it may become completely denuclearized if the U.S. discontinues its hostile policies towards North Korea. This is a departure from North Korea’s previous insistence on maintaining nuclear weapons for national security. In response, President Trump decisively agreed to hold a summit meeting with Chairman Kim Jong-un. He also stated that the U.S. will work towards abolishing its hostile policy towards North Korea and will ensure its security. However, North Korea and the U.S. are at a standstill on who will take the next step. North Korea actually has taken the first step by destroying its nuclear testing site and disassembling its long-range missile launchers. Now, it is asking the U.S. to sign a peace treaty. However, from the U.S. perspective, the measures taken so far by North Korea seem more like only half of a step rather than a full step towards denuclearization. Therefore, the U.S. is demanding North Korea to provide a full report on how much nuclear weaponry it currently possesses to demonstrate that it truly is willing to denuclearize. However, North Korea is demanding that since it has already taken the first step, the U.S. should also take a step forward in order to build trust and to move to the next stage. The two countries have agreed on the overall goal but are in conflict over the specific details.

The people of South Korea want peace. In addition to countless deaths and great economic loss caused by the Korean War, the problem of families separated during the war has yet to be resolved. We witnessed the heartbreaking stories of families recently reunited after 70 years. With past problems still unsolved, we would suffer unimaginable pain if a new war breaks out and the same tragedies reoccur. A permanent peace must be established on the Korean peninsula. To make this possible, we need to see progress in the talks between North Korea and the U.S. It is a matter of survival for those of us living on the Korean peninsula.

[North Korea’s Stance on Nuclear Weapons and National Security]

North Korea is very fearful of the military alliance between South Korea and the U.S. People may think that North Korea can form a military alliance with China or Russia.  However, North Korea has long believed in self-reliant national defense, saying that they protect themselves with their own national defense and they do not rely on others. Thus, North Korea is insisting that it had no choice but to develop nuclear weapons to ensure its security because it is not able to protect itself against the threat of the South Korea-U.S. military alliance with conventional weapons.

North Korea has two methods for opting to becomes completely denuclearized. One is for the U.S. to abolish its hostile policies towards North Korea. The other is to be protected by the nuclear umbrella of China and Russia. Currently, however, North Korea does not want to receive help from China or Russia. Therefore, it is difficult for North Korea to become completely denuclearized before the U.S. takes any action. North Korea does want to develop its economy. As soon as the U.S. ends its hostile policies towards North Korea, North Korea is willing to take steps to denuclearize and revive its economy. However, North Korea is not seeking to revive its economy at the cost of its national security.

[Things That Can Be Done for Denuclearization]

During the late 90’s, North Korea experienced the catastrophic tragedy of 3 million people dying from starvation. Despite suffering such a tragedy, North Koreans are determined to protect their country. When the international community imposes sanctions, North Koreans do suffer. However, it is a grave mistake to think that North Korea will surrender because it is painful. Imposing sanctions may make North Korea suffer, but it won’t bring policy changes. At this point, we need to think about what our goal is. Is the goal of imposing economic sanctions to make the people of North Korea suffer or is it to change North Korea’s policy on nuclear development? If our goal is to make North Korea become denuclearized, simply imposing sanctions will not work. This is why we need to have talks with North Korea, and we should lead the way for North Korea to take the route of denuclearization while ensuring its security to a certain extent. From that perspective, I welcome the decision of President Trump. The majority of the people in the U.S. may think, “Can’t we make even a small country like North Korea surrender?” However, if you use force, North Korea will never surrender. So we must have an alternative option if we want to denuclearize North Korea.

We can keep making North Korea suffer by imposing sanctions, but this will only cause the country to develop more nuclear weapons. This will put the neighboring countries in more danger. On the other hand, we can choose to decrease the danger by helping North Korea to change. So how can we reduce the danger?

First of all, we must stop the expansion of nuclear weapons. We must prevent North Korea from producing more nuclear matter, from developing the nuclear weapons technology, from sending nuclear experts to another country, and from developing long-range missiles that can reach the United States. I think these are the issues that we must resolve first. To this end, we must guarantee the protection of North Korea. I think we will be able to accomplish this within 1-2 years. However, complete denuclearization is not a simple matter for North Korea in its current situation. Ensuring security is not something that can be guaranteed with words. Also, a country cannot become developed in a year or two. If we are able to strictly inspect and supervise the nuclear material in North Korea, we can prevent the danger it presents to the world. In addition, the disposal of nuclear substances is a matter that requires more time. 

If we approach the North Korean nuclear issue in this manner, we may be able to resolve it. Expecting North Korea to denuclearize right away is unrealistic. Talks have just begun between North Korea and the U.S. If we go to war and win, we can obtain everything we want, but the risk and cost are too big. If we want to resolve the problems through talks, we can not demand 100% of what we want. We must also make some concessions. That is the only way to resolve the issues through talks. Also, I believe that we should resolve these issues over an extended period of time. However, any danger must be stopped right away. And, I believe that is quite possible.

[The Role of South Korea]

The situation of North Korea is somewhat different from that of Iraq or Libya because South Korea is between North Korea and the United States. I believe that if the South Korean government could assure the security of North Korea, it may give faith to North Korea that the U.S. will not attack North Korea. The South Korean government does not want a war regardless of the chances of winning or losing because war itself poses a tremendous risk. Therefore, South Korea should play a role in assuring North Korea. However, North Korea does not completely trust South Korea because it does not think that South Korea has any decision-making power over the matter of its security. Only if the U.S., as well as South Korea, takes a more defined stance in opposing war will North Korea be more assured of its security. In other words, if both parties, not just South Korea or just the U.S., guarantee the security of North Korea, the assurance would be more credible than those given to Libya or Iraq in the past.

[The Goal of North Korea]

Some people question whether the goal of the North Korean government is to maintain the current political system or to enhance the standard of living of its people. According to North Korea, the first goal is ensuring the national security and the second is securing the happiness of its people. North Korea has already achieved the first goal because it has developed nuclear weapons. As for the second goal, North Korea wants to develop its economy to improve the standard of living of its people. If the security of the regime is guaranteed by the U.S. to some degree – in other words, if the hostile policy of the U.S. is abandoned – North Korea is willing to give up its nuclear weapons and opt for developing its economy. However, for North Korea the economic issues cannot precede the security issues. North Korea will try to tackle its economic issues only after the security issues have been resolved. Within North Korea, some reform measures have already been implemented to some extent. Individual farming and small businesses are permitted in moderation. Over 500 markets are operated legally throughout the country, so there has been little fluctuation in the price of rice for the last five years. The exchange rate has also been stable. Before, most of the daily necessities were imported from China, but now, 70% of them are produced domestically. Also, although an international calling service is unavailable, there are over five million cell phones in service in North Korea. If we take our smartphones to North Korea and obtain permission to use it, we can make calls to South Korea. South Korea used to exchange faxes with North Korea via China, but a direct service to North Korea is now possible. Since reform measures have been implemented within North Korea, once the national security issue is resolved, North Korea will be ready to open its doors to the international community. Such internal changes are gradually taking place.

[What the Citizens Can Do]

North Korea’s national security must be secured to resolve the North Korean issue. This is a job for the government. What citizens can do is to pressure the government to do this job. However, the security issue between North Korea and the U.S. does not typically become a topic of discussion during the elections in either the U.S. or South Korea. I believe what citizens can do is to form public opinion on the need to provide humanitarian aid to North Korea and improve human rights issues in North Korea or to hold peace rallies against wars. Although the majority of Americans object to the other policies of President Trump, I hope that they can support his intentions of holding talks for peace with North Korea. Many of those in the U.S. Congress, American think tanks, and officials in the Trump administration are against such talks. Only a few officials close to President Donald Trump seem to be working toward holding the talks. When we say that someone is a bad person, not everything about him is actually bad. He will also have some good points. There seems to be many people in the U.S. who want the North Korea-U.S. talks to fail. I for one wish the talks would be successful. 

[Sanctions Against North Korea]

Currently, humanitarian aid to North Korea is not banned, but the strict economic sanctions against North Korea are greatly deterring humanitarian aid. NGOs are having difficulty raising funds, have many restrictions in travelling to North Korea for relief activities, and experience many limitations in sending goods to North Korea. The World Food Program (WFP) and UN organizations have been able to receive only 30% of their target donation amount. The most urgent issue at hand is the danger of anti-tuberculosis drugs currently being supplied to North Korea being cut off.  If a patient with tuberculosis stops taking medicine, he will develop a tolerance against the medication, so the cost of treatment will increase by a hundred fold. These medications should be provided even during a war. The places in North Korea that need urgent help right now are coal mining towns. Since coal export has virtually stopped in North Korea, coal miners are not able to receive food rations, so there are unofficial reports of people dying of starvation. Those who operate small manufacturing factories are in danger of halting production either because they are not able to import raw materials from China or are unable to sell their goods.

People in North Korea say that in order to effect changes in North Korea, the market economy should be expanded, but the economic sanctions are shrinking the economy and the market forces in North Korea. I believe that the humanitarian crisis in North Korea is not well known in the outside world. North Korea is very reluctant to reveal this situation. This is because North Korea needs to make a major deal with the United States, and if the fact that North Koreans are experiencing severe hardship due to the sanctions is revealed, North Korea is afraid that the U.S. will only strengthen economic sanctions rather than provide help. The U.S. is not against humanitarian aid but is passive about it for the fear that humanitarian aid to North Korea may weaken the effect of economic sanctions. I think that these political stances are only making the North Korean people suffer even more. I believe that under any circumstances humanitarian aid to North Korea should be quickly resumed and expanded.


Sixty-five years have passed since the ceasefire of the Korean War. We need to accept that it is time for the Korean War to end. We cannot take a step forward if we keep talking about the wounds of the past. Rather than going back to the past, we need to take a step forward towards the future. There will be many challenges, but we can overcome them one by one. Please remember that there are twenty-three million people living in North Korea. When we think of North Korea, we only focus on things like nuclear weapons, missiles, and the dictatorship. However, there are over 20 million people like us living there. They are suffering extreme hardship due to North Korea’s conflict with other countries. Specifically, their lives are threatened, and they are experiencing severe human rights violations. They too have the right to lead happy lives. Unfortunately, however, they are not able to change their situation on their own. I believe we should give them hope for a better life by establishing peace on the Korean peninsula.

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