World

Women Peacemakers Say It's Time to End America’s Permanent State of War With North Korea

Challenging climate of brinksmanship and confrontation, women call for lasting peace accord.

Photo Credit: Stephen Wunrow / Korean Quarterly

When Presidential candidate Donald Trump suggested during the first presidential debate that China should invade North Korea, he displayed his remarkable ignorance of the historical relationship between the two countries (China is the nearest thing North Korea has to an ally).

While Hillary Clinton did not touch upon North Korea during the debate, she has repeatedly sought to assure the public of her support for confrontational policies. “As secretary, I championed the United States' pivot to the Asia Pacific—including shifting additional military assets to the theater—in part to confront threats like North Korea and to support our allies,” she said in a statement released in January. “I worked to get not just our allies but also Russia and China on board for the strongest sanctions yet.”

This saber rattling is in keeping with decades of open aggression from the United States, which is still entangled in the Korean War, thanks to the failure of parties to secure a permanent peace deal. Policies of perpetual confrontation extend to the current Obama administration, which has pursued “strategic patience”—a non-negotiation tactic rooted in escalating sanctions and displays of military aggression, as showcased earlier this month when the U.S. Air Force flew B-1 bombers over South Korea.

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While the climate in Washington is defined by brinksmanship and escalation, on the grassroots level, global women peacemakers with the organizations Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and Women Cross DMZ are questioning the prevailing wisdom in Washington—and calling for the U.S., China, and North and South Korea to sit down and work out a real end to the Korean war. They say that, for too long, peace has been left off of the table—and the most-impacted women locked out of the negotiating room. To make their point, they’ve marched across the 2-miles-wide De-Militarized Zone that separates North and South Korea and, more recently, called on United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to close out his term by securing a lasting peace accord.

“People don't realize that we're still at war with North Korea, but we are,” Christine Ahn, a Hawaii-based organizer with Women Cross DMZ and co-founder of the Korea Policy Institute, told AlterNet. “We have a responsibility to end this war.”

'We Were Just Bombing the Heck out of North Korea'

The U.S. mentality of endless confrontation was showcased in June of 2016 when the Department of Defense took to Twitter to boast that, in 1952, the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps "almost destroyed North Korea!"

For context, military historian Conrad Crane wrote in his book American Airpower Strategy in Korea that that the U.S. Air Force “at least half obliterated” 18 of North Korea’s 22 major cities during the war.

Nearly three million Koreans—or ten percent of the population—were “dead, injured or missing by war’s end,” writes Charles K. Armstrong, associate professor of history and director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University. “The majority of those killed were in the North, which had half of the population of the South.”

The American air war “levelled North Korea and killed millions of civilians,” wrote University of Chicago history professor Bruce Cumings, noting America’s “widespread and continuous use of firebombing (mainly with napalm),” as well as “threats to use nuclear and chemical weapons, and the destruction of huge North Korean dams in the final stages of the war.”

Here is how Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, put it in a 1984 interview with the Office of Air Force History: “Over a period of three years or so, we killed off-what- twenty percent of the population of Korea as direct casualties of war, or from starvation and exposure.”

Dean Rusk—who backed the war and would go on to serve as U.S. Secretary of State under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, said an interview conducted in 1985, “we were bombing every brick that was standing on top of another, everything that moved. We had complete air superiority. We were just bombing the heck out of North Korea…”

“There is something so deeply wrong about how Americans celebrate the destruction of an entire people that they know little to nothing about,” said Ahn. “The real ignorance comes from the fact that little to nothing is known about the indiscriminate U.S. bombing campaign on the Korean peninsula, particularly on the north, where 80 percent of cities were leveled.”

‘Nuclear Tests, B-1 Bombers and Threats of Surgical Strikes’

A direct line can be traced from the Korean War to the confrontations of the present-day. In the words of Kozue Akibayashi, international president for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom: “The only so-called communication now taking place among Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington is in the form of nuclear tests, B-1 bombers and threats of surgical strikes. This dangerous situation which threatens everyone in the region necessitates dialogue, especially the voices of women peacemakers.”

On September 9, North Korea launched its fifth and largest nuclear test since 2006, prompting an immediate response from President Barack Obama, who underscored “the unshakable U.S. commitment to take necessary steps to defend our allies in the region, including through our deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery to the [Republic of Korea], and the commitment to provide extended deterrence, guaranteed by the full spectrum of U.S. defense capabilities.”

Obama also pledged to impose “new sanctions,” later declaring in his September 20 address to the United Nations General Assembly that North Korea is a “wasteland.”

But studies indicate that U.S. sanctions are having the most harmful impact on ordinary North Koreans. Researcher Haeyoung Kim wrote a February 2014 article published in the journal Critical Asian Studies: “It is the North Korean people, moreover, not the governing elite, who bear the ultimate costs and suffer under these sanctions, creating undeniable tension when considering the causal relationship between economic sanctions and human rights.”

This point was reiterated in study published in August 2016 by Harvard’s John Park and MIT’s Jim Walsh, who do not oppose sanctions in principle and even offer policy proposals to improve their “effectiveness.” Yet, they conceded that “increased sanctions may have severe and negative consequences for the North Korean civilian, non-elite population—a group whose economic status may be fragile.” Further, the scholars noted that “sanctions intended to deny North Korea access to WMD-related materials have not worked, and that in some ways, the sanctions have had the net effect of actually improving DPRK procurement capabilities.”

According to Ahn, the perpetual state of confrontation is further eroding human rights within North Korea. “Americans seem to care so much about the human rights of the North Korean people, but they aren’t making the linkage with how the unresolved Korean War impacts North Korean people,” she said. “The North Korean government uses the ongoing state of war to justify military defense and national security over human security and political freedoms. North Koreans also suffer due to political isolation and economic sanctions, which impact their human right to food and medicine.” 

Meanwhile, constant war requires large military budgets. South Korea is the 10th biggest military spender in the world, shelling out $36.4 billion—or 2.6 percent of its GDP—on its military 2015, according to the most recent calculations of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The United States is the world's top military spender by far, accounting for 36 percent of all global military expenditures.

An Alternative to 'Dangerous Brinksmanship'

According to Suzy Kim, a professor at Rutgers University, “The dangerous brinkmanship we witness today, from nuclear weapons tests to military exercises, stems from the historic fact that a peace treaty was never signed.” While the U.S., North Korea and China signed a temporary armistice in 1953, they never finalized a permanent peace accord, meaning that a technical state of war continues to this day.

In light of the dismal U.S. political context, over 100 women from 38 countries—including nations that fought in the Korean War—are now turning to the United Nations and calling on Ban to make good on a commitment he made in 2007 to “establish a peace mechanism, through transition from armistice to a permanent peace regimen.” In an open letter, the women write: “We urge you to lead the process of bringing formal closure to the longest standing war before you leave your post in the United Nations.”

“On both sides of the De-Militarized Zone, the absence of a binding peace accord fuels fear, violations of human rights, and economic deprivation caused by diverting resources in preparation for war,” continues the letter, whose signatories include poet and activist Alice Walker and Liberian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee. “Peace is the most powerful deterrent of all.”

The call to Ban is significant, given that he is expected to run for president of South Korea, and campaigners are hoping to get him to go on the record again as a supporter of a peace accord. Ban has not yet responded to the letter, but his spokesperson indicated during a daily press briefing that his office is aware of the statement.

While Ahn is dismayed at the political climate in the United States, she expressed hope that “women, who are disproportionately impacted by war and conflict,” can find a way to bring the Korean war to a close. “Women played a significant role in behind-the-scenes negotiating between the U.S. and Iran,” she said. “In Colombia, women played a role in achieving a peace deal between FARC and the government.”

Maria Butler, global programs director for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, told AlterNet: “I think the gendered reality of conflict and peace and the impacts on women’s lives is very recognized now, and also the role of women peacemakers in calling and bringing forward alternatives has been proven powerful around the world. The conflict of the Koreas shows how important this women’s solidarity is.”

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Sarah Lazare was a former staff writer for AlterNet and Common Dreams. She coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.