Is change coming to the Korean Peninsula? A case for cautious optimism
Of all the issues in the world, I’ve been personally invested in few the way I’ve been invested in North Korea.
I can’t exactly tell you where that interest began, but I can tell you where that led me. It led to me working with Liberty in North Korea years ago, touring the country to promote awareness of the hunger, oppression, and human rights abuses happening within the country. It led to me making friends with North Koreans who’d escaped the country. It led to me visiting the DMZ four years ago- a surreal experience.
All that leads me to a point where I will celebrate like no other when change comes to North Korea. When the war between North and South officially comes to an end. When the prison camps close, the farms replenish, and the people return.
When last week’s headlines and photos started to come out, they hit me with both surprise and hope.
Korean leaders meet together to discuss peace.
Kim Jong Un announces plans to halt nuclear testing.
A photo of the two leaders kneeling down to plant a freaking tree.
Where’d all this come from? Weren’t we all just in the middle of threatening to blow each other up? Don’t get me wrong, I much prefer this, but that was quite a shift.
I allowed myself to sit with the excitement for a minute and then asked myself if this was it. Was this the moment that I’ve been hoping for, for such a long time? Was this maybe the beginning of change?
I checked in with my Korean friends to see how they were responding to the surprising turn of events. There were a lot of mixed sentiments. For many, the headlines were both emotionally stirring and too good to be true. The summit between the two countries was worthy of both tears of joy and looks of skepticism. Many people noted they were full of both hope and doubt.
Being close to the issue taught me two things that I never would have learned from news articles or expert analysis.
1) This is a family issue.
A few months ago, I got to host a friend who works with resettling North Korean refugees in Seoul. He brought up an interesting point I don’t always hear- in Korea, the divide between the two countries can feel like a family affair.
Part of the summit’s agreements include something that hasn’t happened in years- an opportunity for family members who haven’t seen each other in decades to reunite at the border. These are now elderly Koreans whose families were never the same after war. The sight of these reunions–and the hint of something more–definitely merits an emotional response.
2) There’s always a lot of political theatre.
One thing I’ve noticed is that North Korea’s big actions and announcements tend to draw pretty different reactions from the South Korean public than the American public.
Whenever North Korea announces a nuclear threat, the American media has done a good job to ramp up the drama. People respond accordingly. There have probably been three or four times in the last two years where nuclear concerns hit a high point, and somehow it feels new and unprecedented each time. I suspect that’s the reaction Kim Jong Un was hoping for.
Generally speaking, South Koreans are a lot less fazed. That’s in spite of being technically at war with the North for over sixty years. I often suspect that their proximity to the issue has led to feeling like at some point, you just have to go on with life.
People tend to be less reactive, because most of them know we’ve been down this road before. People can remember the last time an outbreak of conflict between the two countries felt imminent, and people can also remember the last time progress towards peace seemed to be in order- only to no avail.
There’s one big reason I don’t see this as the big moment I’ve been waiting for- as of right now, it has no clear implications for the North Korean people who suffer most.
The North Korea I hope for is one without prison camps, without mass hunger, and without rampant surveillance. It’s one where people are free to gather, travel, exchange different ideas, and to communicate without fear.
The discussions surrounding the inter-Korean summit address none of those changes. The crisis at the heart and center of North Korea- the human rights crisis- is entirely missing from the agenda.
That’s not a massive surprise. This summit is largely a negotiation surrounding conflict resolution. That rarely goes the way it’s supposed to when one party leads off by stating what the other one is doing wrong. Early conversations are more about outlining proactive steps to ensure further dialogue can happen.
All that to say, this isn’t the big moment I’ve been waiting for.
At worst, this summit will be yet another smokescreen that distracts the world’s attention from the plight of the North Korean people. At best, however, this could change the landscape enough to bring that moment a giant step forward.
I’m choosing the route of cautious optimism.
There’s a good chance that the big moment I’ve been waiting for isn’t a single moment. What if it comes through gradual steps of North Korea becoming more and more open? What if every step away from isolation brings just enough improvement to make their old systems less appealing? Sustainable change never really happens overnight.
If that’s the case, then moments like the ongoing summit are valuable as they move us in the right direction. This one might not be “the big moment,” but it just might be an early step.
If nothing else, the sudden shift towards cooperation reminds us that things are not as permanent as they feel. In the world of North Korea, that’s really good news.