Full Comment on Women Across the DMZ March

As observers of current events on the Korean peninsula will be aware, a group of peace activists is presently in North Korea and will be crossing the DMZ tomorrow, from Kaesong, into the South. Their efforts have been the focus of much conversation.  I was asked to share my views with the Christian Science Monitor, which yesterday published a short extract from the following remarks.

1. Do you see this event having any potential to spark meaningful movement toward peace/or reunification as the organizers claim, and why?

It is very difficult today to look at North and South Korea (and East Asia) as a whole and expect Korean unification in our lifetimes, or a measurable reduction in tensions. One thing that this group of women seems to possess is a very strong sense of the deep-rootedness of the problem: They don’t see the ongoing Korean War entirely as a conflict generated or perpetuated by North Korea alone (‘provocations’ can of course also be American, or South Korean).

If more Americans could understand the pressures North Korea was operating under, the organizers seem to argue, they might pressure the US government (as well as Japan, Canada, and EU countries) to lift sanctions and for South Korea to ratchet down military deterrence. Naturally this is built upon the so far entirely counterfactual assumption that given more breathing room, the North Korean state would demonstrate an ability to reorient its economy — indeed, its whole society — away from the “military-first” principle enunciated by Kim Jong-il and refrain from constructing yet another nationwide round of statues which serve as loci for a personality cult.

Fortunately it is not the responsibility of the peace group to explain in full detail the kind of more vigorously-interlinked societies that North or South Korea ought to become, nor is it incumbent upon them to put forth a fully detailed and feasible new security blueprint for the region. They are simply pointing out that the current situation is more or less insane, which it is, and that we are still living with unresolved issues dating back to the birth of the Cold War in Asia, which we are.
2. There has been a lot of criticism of the motives and prior statements of some attendees. Most recently, North Korean media has apparently quoted a participant saying that she was “touched” by Kim Il-sung’s life story and another saying that Kim had dedicated ” his entire life to the freedom and emancipation of North Koreans.” What do you say to those who say the march participants are playing into the regime’s hands?

I believe that these statements were published in a bottom corner of page 6 of the Rodong Sinmun, which is about where they belong in terms of newsworthiness. Last August a group of Japanese wrestlers toured the same site; some of them were still wearing their Mexican wrestling masks, which did not seem to be taken as an affront. I don’t think this is a big deal at all.

Tearful apologies for the heavy wartime bombing of North Korea by the US Air Force, on the other hand, would probably get more meaningful coverage in DPRK media, and would fit more neatly into North Korea’s own media framework. And North Korea has skill and experience in handling this sort of event and perspective; I’m thinking here of their hosting of the American activist Anna Louise Strong in 1946, or the British peace campaigner Monica Felton in 1951. (Both women were denounced in their home countries; Felton’s case was openly discussed as possibly treasonous in Parliament.)

I am certainly interested in what North Korean citizens have to say about their experiences during the Korean War, and curious to see how the state mobilizes those individual war memories. Ultimately a North Korean researcher is going to need to go the US National Archives and have a look at some fraction of the abundant DPRK government documents American troops hoovered up during the autumn of of 1950, or to watch the aerial footage from US planes bombing and strafing North Korean civilians. This was a nasty part of the Korean War, consuming tens of thousands of lives, and the fact that Kim Il-sung lit the fuse on the Ongjin peninsula in June 1950 does not make consideration of the air war and the scraping off the map of North Korean cities (not to mention the nuclear threats) thereafter a particularly simple matter for our consideration and moral calculus.

Rutgers University history professor Suzy Kim is on the trip and someone I look to for data from North Korean archives (currently held in College Park, Maryland) and productive interpretive clashes over that data. Dr. Kim is very fluent with the history and the historical debates; I hope she is able to make contact with North Korean academics and historians, as such discussions are as valuable for both sides as they are rare.

Image credit: Coleen Baik in Pyongyang, 22 May 2015. 

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