By Daniel Jasper, American Friends Service Committee
As the situation on the Korean Peninsula escalates, the Trump Administration has unveiled a policy of ‘maximum pressure and engagement’ towards the D.P.R.K. (North Korea). The policy was announced amidst a particularly fragile time as U.S.-ROK military exercises are ongoing, D.P.R.K. continues to conduct missile tests, the U.S. and South Korea have moved ahead with the deployment of the highly controversial Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, and two U.S. aircraft carriers are scheduled to move towards the peninsula. Yet the use of military force against the D.P.R.K. would be unthinkable. Military action against the D.P.R.K. could trigger a full-scale war, possibly including a direct confrontation between the U.S. and China. China, too, has flexed its muscle in recent weeks sending 150,000 troops to its border with North Korea.
What’s clear about the administration’s new policy is its design to increase pressure. However, what is not clear is what methods of engagement the administration has in mind to de-escalate the situation and move towards diplomacy.
We are left with the question – what options are there for Washington to engage Pyongyang?
While debate centers on what the conditions for talks should be or what economic pressure point the U.S. should press next, a critically important aspect of this conflict, one that could be used as a means for de-escalating tensions, remains unaddressed: a focus on human needs.
‘Human needs’ isn’t only about humanitarian relief for the North Koreans. There are pressing bilateral issues in the realm of human needs that concern both Americans and North Koreans.
Following the Korean War, millions of Korean families were separated, and around 100,000 of those divided families came to the United States. Today, approximately 3,000 of those family members are still alive and remain in the U.S. Sadly, they have not been allowed to participate in the family reunions between North and South Korea.
In a similar vein, the families of over 5,000 U.S. servicemen who fought in the Korean War continue to hold out hope that one day the U.S. and the D.P.R.K. will resume operations to retrieve the remains of their loved ones. Joint operations to locate and return the remains of U.S. servicemen were successful in the past and offered much needed closure to hundreds of families. The effort also gave some stability to relations between the two countries as Americans and North Koreans searched together to literally pick up the pieces and reconcile the wounds of war.
Urgent headlines and alarming analyses will give you the impression that time is running out and relations between the U.S. and the D.P.R.K. are reaching a breaking point. But reaching the heights of brinkmanship, though not desirable, is not necessarily new between these two countries.
Time, however, is, without a doubt, running out for these families that cling to hope that they will one day be reunited with their loved ones – living or dead.
The families of U.S. servicemen and Korean American families represent a very human link between the U.S. and the D.P.R.K.. Yet, there are few calls for them to be reunited – for the sake of their own humanity, and for the sake of bringing the situation back down to earth in a conflict dominated by satellite photos, speculation, paranoia and missiles launches.
These are not just feel good exercises. These are true diplomatic tools that can and should be exercised for the sake of the families and global security. Congress has included categorical carveouts for operations to retrieve the remains of U.S. servicemen in the latest round of sanctions – meaning that operations can continue at any moment. Further, family reunifications may fall under existing exemptions guidelines as well – leaving the door open to make these issues a priority in bilateral discussions.
As far as public knowledge goes, the new administration has not attempted to address these issues with Pyongyang, and they remain both urgent and powerful diplomatic tools waiting to be utilized. These human needs could very well be the missing link between current tensions and meaningful dialogue.
Daniel Jasper is the Public education and Advocacy Coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee’s work in Asia. AFSC is a Quaker organization that promotes lasting peace with justice, as a practical expression of faith in action. AFSC has been working in North Korea since the 1980s.
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