By Daniel Jasper | American Friends Service Committee
As a millennial who remembers the build up to the Iraq War, I once again find myself profoundly fearful about the direction of U.S. foreign policy.
I can recall in the months that followed 9/11 the conflation of national trauma with the existential fear of Weapons of Mass Destruction, the warping of human rights to justify military action, and the gradual narrative shift in the media towards the idea that war was inevitable. Looking back, it’s hard not to feel as if the Iraq invasion was a self-fulling prophecy.
The old saying “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes” seems well suited forthe current trajectory of US foreign policy. While the actors, sets, and props have changed, the U.S. is once again in another intensifying drama verging on military action – this time with North Korea.
This should frighten everyone.
In the words of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dunford, another Korean war “would be a loss of life unlike any we have experienced in our lifetimes.”
We should all be outraged that the U.S. is not immediately launching a full-scale diplomatic outreach effort to North Korea to pull us back from the brink of a humanitarian disaster.
To say that trust is low between the U.S. and North Korea is an understatement. As a result, proposals for engagement or diplomatic initiatives are often dismissed as impractical because North Korea isn’t “trustworthy” enough to maintain an agreement. We are told that it is not the time to talk; we must take punitive actions and wait until North Korea changes course before diplomacy can begin.
To suggest that diplomacy cannot begin until a disagreement stops is like suggesting that you shouldn’t take your medicine until your sickness goes away.
In a recent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific, director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project Leon Sigal discussed the U.S.’ failure to uphold obligations under agreements with North Korea. Sigal’s testimony reminds us that both the US and North Korea have valid reasons for not trusting one another and that there are security concerns on both sides.
The conflict in Korea is deeply entrenched, lasting over six decades, and diplomacy will undoubtedly be challenging, cumbersome, and lengthy. But, there is not a single diplomatic impasse that could be so great as to risk a catastrophic second Korean war.
I know diplomacy is possible. I work for the American Friends Service Committee, a 100 year old Quaker organization with the longest continuous work in North Korea of any current U.S. organization. We know the power of people-to-people initatives – like assisting with sustainable farming practices following the famine in North Korea – to maintain positive relationships across the current toxic divide between our two countries. Through diplomacy, we know we can build productive relationships, while a refusal to engage can only push us closer to war.
Unfortunately, this sentiment seems to be completely absent from the U.S. approach. Instead, we have championed an international approach premised on the idea that North Korea is the sole violator and perpetrator of this conflict.
In other words, the U.S. has prioritized making a point over making progress.
Debates about how talks between the U.S. and North Korea could start are a consistent discussion in Washington. While a nuclear agreement and peace treaty require robust examinations, several diplomatic tools are available right now that U.S. policymakers could utilize in order de-escalate tensions and lay the groundwork for dialogue.
The U.S. could restart operations to bring home the remains of over 5,000 U.S. servicemen left in North Korea after the Korean War. Similar operations were successful in the past and they allow military-to-military contact in a cooperative capacity. The U.S. has obligations to bring these servicemen home and their families are still waiting for their return.
Similarly, living Korean and Korean American families remain divided by this conflict, with no means of communication. The U.S. has obligations under the Geneva Conventions to facilitate communication between these families; we should be taking steps to reunite them.
By failing to prioritize humanitarian issues, the U.S. government is not only failing these families, it’s failing to effectively explore and utilize all the diplomatic tools at its disposal.
In the meantime, both the U.S. and North Korea continue to test ICBM’s and stiffen their defense postures – ensuring destruction at the push of a button.
Recent comments by U.S. policymakers only add fuel to the fire. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s comments that “the time for talks is over” do little to inspire confidence that the U.S. is truly committed to securing peace in Northeast Asia. Senator Lindsey Graham’s disturbingly reckless statement that military confrontation is “inevitable if North Korea continues” and that “If thousands die, they’re going to die over there” are reminiscent of Bush’s infamous, and perhaps more frank, comment on Saddam – “F_ Saddam, we’re taking him out.”
Hard as it is to imagine, a military confrontation with North Korea could be even more catastrophic than Iraq. We cannot afford to let this history continue to keep rhyming.
Daniel Jasper is the Public Education and Advocacy Coordinator for Asia at the American Friends Service Committee. His work focuses on bringing lessons learned from AFSC’s programs throughout Asia home to policymakers in Washington. Mr. Jasper’s current work focuses heavily on US-North Korea relations and he is a co-founder and co-chair of the Korea Peace Network.
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