Protesters against U.S, President Donlad Trump gather during a rally in the Gwanghwamun area of central Seoul on November 7, 2017. (ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)

The Historic Korean Peace Declaration Was Made Possible By Social Movements, Not Trump

A conversation with peace activist Christine Ahn.

BY Sarah Lazare

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"It's a new day, and we're building the movement."

President Donald Trump—who has previously threatened the entire Korean peninsula with nuclear annihilation—now appears to be claiming credit for a historic step towards military de-escalation taken April 27 by North and South Korean heads of state. Following a joint peace declaration by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, Trump was met at an April 28 rally in Michigan with chants of “Nobel! Nobel!” He replied to the crowd: “That’s very nice, thank you… I just want to get the job done.”

According to peace activist Christine Ahn, the “job” of pushing leaders to move towards formally ending the Korean War was, in fact, accomplished by dogged Korean anti-war activists who helped oust former South Korean President Park Geun-hye in 2017 and gave Moon Jae-in a mandate for peace. Ahn says that it was these movements, supported by international activists, that forced the North and South Korean leaders to release a statement that declares the “new era of peace” will include steps towards family reunification, denuclearization and cessation of all hostile acts. 

Ahn is in a position to know. The South Korea-born, Hawaii-based peace activist has been organizing to end the Korean war under the administrations of Trump, Barack Obama and George W. Bush. She founded and coordinates Women Cross DMZ, which describes itself as “a global movement of women mobilizing to end the Korean War, reunite families, and ensure women’s leadership in peace building.”

The 1950-1953 Korean War left up to three-million Koreans dead, wounded or missing, thanks in part to a vicious bombing campaign perpetrated by the United States. While a 1953 agreement put an armistice in place, the war has still not been formally ended. The recent peace declaration is the most meaningful development to date to officially end the conflict.  

Ahn tells In These Times about the significance of Friday’s summit, the peace movements that made the announcement possible and how people in the United States can show solidarity—in contrast to their president.

Sarah Lazare: You have been organizing for years—under Donald Trump as well as Barack Obama—for the world to support a formal end to the Korean War. What is your response to Friday’s summit?

Christine Ahn: It was a watershed moment for Korea. It was extraordinary to see the two leaders take hands, smile at each other and express genuine heartfelt desire for peace between the two Koreas and on the Korean Peninsula. This was backed up by a really impressive joint declaration. They pledge that the conflict between North and South Korea has ended, and they have committed to beginning the process of reunification. Korea and the Korean people are at the center of the process. It was really a beautiful statement. 

The first section outlines various steps they want to take to begin that process. This includes family reunions—the first will be held August 15, the anniversary of Korean liberation from Japanese occupation. They will begin civil society exchanges in June. They're going to have an embassy on the North Korean side that has representatives from both North and South Korea to make sure there is a smooth transition. 

The second section is about reducing military tensions. Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in committed to stopping loudspeakers at the border that emit propaganda. They said they would work to transform the DMZ, the heavily militarized borderland between North and South Korea that has 1.2 million landmines, into a peace park. They said they would transform the western sea border, the sight of many skirmishes, into a maritime peace zone.

The third section is about transforming the armistice agreement into a peace agreement—and trying to get the United States and China to sign a peace agreement. I think this summit is going to be the greatest deterrent against conflict on the Korean Peninsula. It also includes the commitment to denuclearization: a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.

Sarah: Who do you think deserves credit for this agreement? How did this come to be?

Christine: The two Koreas must be credited. The real game-changing moment was the fact that the peace movement overthrew President Park Geun-hye and it led to Candlelight Revolution and ushered in President Moon Jae-in who comes from this movement for democracy and human rights. He is reflecting a mandate from the people of South Korea. He has a popularity rate of 75 to 80 percent, and the clear majority of South Koreans want peace. He’s really reflecting the will of the Korean people. 

The outcome is because the people rose up. I also credit international solidarity, including the work of my organization for being a part of this. If you’d seen the shit I’ve had to go through: being red baited, targeted by a government-led smear campaign against me and Women Cross DMZ. There being a press conference in 2016 where a curious white American lawyer alleged that the peace walk was the work of the North Korean government. We had to go through all of that, but it was the courage of international women who pushed through the message of needing to end the Korean War with a peace treaty at a time of really low inter-Korean relations and a repressed South Korean peace movement under the last 10 years of darkness. 

Sarah: After threatening the Korean Peninsula with nuclear attacks, Trump now appears to be taking partial credit for the peace breakthrough. And Moon Jae-in, who has been known to flatter Trump, suggested to his aides on Monday that the U.S. president deserves the Nobel Peace prize, reportedly stating: “The only thing we need is peace.” What do you make of this?

Christine: Moon Jae-in telling Trump that he should get the Nobel peace prize and the Koreans will have peace says everything about how gracious of a leader he is. If this is what will get Trump to push through his detractors, so let it be! Koreans have their eyes on the bigger prize: the end of the war and the start of a new beginning for the people.

Sarah: How can people in the United States and around the world show solidarity with Korean peace movements right now?

Christine:I felt responsibility as a U.S. citizen knowing the United States is the largest perpetrator in the war and has responsibility to bring closure. [Editor’s note: The U.S. military devastated North Korea during the Korean War. According to military historian Conrad Crane, the U.S. military “at least half obliterated” 18 of North Korea’s 22 major cities.]

Our responsibility as a U.S. peace movement is to support the inter-Korean peace process and to call on our governments, especially those that participate in the Korean war. At least 20 countries—including Canada, the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands—participated in the Korean War. Those countries have a responsibility to help bring formal closure.

It's a new day, and we're building the movement. That's why in May we're partnering with the Nobel Women's Initiative to build this movement and increase mobilization of women across the world to end this war. This was an international conflict, not just a civil war. We are seeing the beginning of a new kind of transnational feminist solidarity.

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Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Intercept, The Nation, and Tom Dispatch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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