Diplomacy with North Korea: Waging Peace

(Photo: AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File.)

The inscription on the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC reads:

“Our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.”

The world today is much more interconnected than at the start of the Korean War nearly 70 years ago. Technology is transforming our ability to communicate in real time and to be seen, even in the most isolated corners of the world. We also live in a more interdependent world. In 2017, more US exports were sold in South Korea than the United Kingdom, India or France. There is also more awareness about Korean culture and history, thanks in part to the 1.7 million Korean Americans who contribute to the social fabric of this country as educators, elected officials and advocates. Even the closed totalitarian country of North Korea is on the map: videos about everyday North Korean people can be found on YouTube, and countless books and documentaries illuminate Koreans who live north of the 38th parallel. But this familiarity cannot be taken for granted, especially after the failure of the latest Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi. Absent a strong narrative, in coordination with nongovernmental voices and voters, the American public may lose faith in diplomacy and open the space for a potential preventive war with North Korea.

Public Opinion is on Our Side…As of Now

Recent polls show that the American public supports direct talks with North Korea. Most understand that diplomacy is hard and requires patience to build trust on both sides. The two summits between the US and North Korea have shed light on the complex national security and geopolitical challenge of stopping and reversing North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities.

Should a war break out on the Korean Peninsula, it would result in millions of casualties and devastating destruction. The US Congressional Research Service estimated up to 300,000 dead within the first days of fighting, putting at least 100,000 American citizens living in South Korea in harm’s way. Japan, China and Russia could also get involved, raising the casualty count to millions and dwarfing the damage caused by the Korean War, given North Korea’s capacity to use nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. It is no wonder that an overwhelming majority of Americans supports the current talks with North Korea, with the hope that they will help prevent war.

Breakdown in Hanoi Talks

The recent breakdown at the Hanoi Summit shows the difficulty of reaching a diplomatic solution to North Korea. There are many reasons why the latest negotiations may have ended without an agreement on a road map toward denuclearization, improved bilateral relations or an end-of-war declaration. For instance, President Trump stated that Michael Cohen’s testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform was a distraction to the high-stakes diplomacy in Vietnam. Some argue that US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo simply did not have enough time to prepare for the summit. It is also possible that National Security Advisor John Bolton convinced Trump at the last minute to propose a deal he knew Kim Jong Un would not accept: a complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization in exchange for full sanctions relief.

The Hanoi Summit outcome plays, unfortunately, into a counter-narrative that questions the efficacy of diplomacy with Kim Jong Un’s regime. That narrative posits that North Korea will only respond to military threats because it is an irrational actor led by a leader who is unmoored from reality; it also argues that removing certain sanctions or reducing military readiness by cutting combined US-ROK exercises will weaken our ability to preserve peace and security in East Asia. Most of all, according to this view, North Korea cannot be trusted because they have been duplicitous in previous negotiations. Intelligence and military experts tend to make these arguments, focusing on all the negative rather than positive outcomes of diplomacy and portraying those advocating for talks as naïve and Pollyannaish. They also cherry-pick their facts to ignore evidence that runs contrary to their views, such as the history of the US reneging on commitments it has made in previous agreements with North Korea. When these one-sided views go unchallenged, it creates a firewall against Trump’s efforts at diplomacy with North Korea and sows distrust in the diplomatic process.

Indeed, our media plays a role in reinforcing a one-sided narrative as well, calling the same experts with intelligence or military backgrounds to be on major cable network shows rather than seeking more diverse perspectives. The same can be said for congressional hearings; the same former government officials and representatives from think tanks are given the floor, depriving the public of understanding North Korea beyond the nuclear weapons issue. Indeed, what is often neglected in these discussions is that North Korea is more than an issue of nuclear dismantlement or an arms control dilemma. It is a human rights issue with real-life, immediate consequences for 75 million Koreans living on the peninsula and all those who are affected by the Korean War’s tragic legacy of division.

Where Do We Go from Here?

The Hanoi Summit revealed that despite overwhelming public support for diplomacy, the threat of war with a nuclear-armed North Korea remains. There are three ways that community-based organizations and the broader public can mobilize to address this problem:

Leverage multimedia platforms to educate the public about North Korea

North Korea is now deeply etched in the public consciousness, but public opinion can be swayed without consistent efforts. Those who support continued dialogue and non-military solutions to the North Korean threat must frame the issue in a non-technical way that is easily understandable: most Americans are not nuclear physicists or sanctions experts and are easily daunted by the technical complexity of these issues. For instance, well-produced videos featuring high-profile spokespeople are a powerful tool to reach large audiences and break down complex ideas. A viral video by represent.us featuring Jennifer Lawrence explaining the need for domestic political reform is a good example of how to leverage videos and multimedia platforms to raise awareness on a complex subject at the national level. Actors such as John Cho, whose father lived in what is now North Korea, can put a human face to the North Korea problem beyond the security context—that there are 25 million North Koreans who are have suffered extraordinary impoverishment, depredations and human rights abuses, and of whom, many would be killed in a full-scale conflict on the peninsula.

Hear from civic leaders and NGOs working on North Korea

Like all ethnic groups, the 1.7 million Korean Americans residing in the US are not a monolith. Yet when we began speaking out on the importance of diplomacy with North Korea, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Because we are a small minority in the United States, organizations such as the Council of Korean Americans have welcomed collaboration with non-Korean American groups to educate the public, whether it is the Coalition of Families of Korean & Cold War POW/MIAs, the George W. Bush Center, the American Jewish Committee and major universities. Nonprofit organizations and advocacy groups can serve as an important bridge between the public and the policymaking process, particularly in the Korean American community where community-building and political activism are relatively nascent compared to other ethnic groups.

Better coordination is also key in amplifying nongovernmental voices; for example, veterans groups such as Common Defense can argue better than anyone else that the US Department of Defense’s warning about a bloody, protracted war with North Korea must be taken seriously. Even a ground invasion by US armed forces wouldn’t be enough to locate North Korea’s nuclear weapons, according to the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, and risks triggering Chinese intervention. Korean Americans and others who want a political solution to North Korea’s nuclear threat should educate and lobby Congress in partnership with like-minded organizations, especially with the veterans community, target members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to advocate for continued diplomatic engagement with North Korea, and oppose talk of war with the nuclear-armed state.

Bring Congress back to the table

Bringing peace to the last bastion of the Cold War is not an easy task, and we need Congress to be at the table. As the sole branch of government with the constitutional power to declare war, Congress plays a major role in shaping the public debate on national issues. Unfortunately, this authority has eroded over the years, allowing foreign wars to commence without congressional approval or public pushback. As Professor Mary Dudziak of Emory University stated, the Korean War “was the first large overseas U.S. conflict without a declaration of war, setting a precedent for the unilateral presidential power exercised today.” Congress should raise the bar for what would be needed for the Trump administration to unilaterally wage a preventive war with North Korea, such as passing a sense of Congress resolution or even a binding resolution that establishes barriers to such action.


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “the potential destructiveness of modern weapons” convinced him that “the choice today is no longer between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.”

For those of us involved in community organizing who support diplomacy between the United States and North Korea, the abrupt ending to the Hanoi Summit was a disappointment because so much is on the line. Rather than feel defeated, however, we should double down on our message for President Trump to wage peace and maintain talks with Kim Jong Un rather than revert to a more confrontational approach based on renewed military threats.

The fact that Korean American civic leaders are being sought out for our views on US-DPRK relations is both a challenge and an opportunity. To us, North Korea has always been more than a nuclear weapons issue. It is about a nation divided, our painful history, and the urgency we feel toward ending the nearly seven decades of war on the Korean Peninsula which grows each passing day. Diplomacy gives us the best chance of knowing what North Korea is committed to doing, and we should be serious in pursuing it until all other options are exhausted.

Jessica Lee is a Senior Director at the Council of Korean Americans, a national nonpartisan organization of Korean American leaders. Opinions expressed here are her personal views.

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38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea