An unconditional peace treaty with North Korea is the goal of a global women’s campaign | By Martha Vickery (Spring 2021 issue)
A virtual panel presentation and discussion in March, A Feminist Case for Ending the Korean War, marked the launch of a new report by a global women’s campaign to make a peace treaty happen to formally end the Korean War.
The authors of the report, entitled Path to Peace: The Case for a Peace Agreement to End the Korean War, are members of Korea Peace Now, a women-led campaign to push for a permanent and legal end to the war, which was halted more than 70 years ago with an armistice agreement. That agreement, intended to be a temporary fix, has been the status quo since 1953.
Because no peace treaty was signed, diplomatic relations between North Korea and the U.S. have been abnormal at best, and at the brink of war at worst, since that time.
The global campaign goal is to push the Biden administration toward a peaceful resolution by asking peace advocates in many states to get their elected representatives on board for a peace treaty. The report, which outlines the reasons for this approach, will help in that effort.
The report discusses how a peace-first approach will end the constant state of conflict, allowing all parties to move toward denuclearization, improved human rights, and a shift of economic resources back to improving the status of people in the U.S., South Korea, and North Korea, and away from constant preparation for war.
The facilitator for the forum was Madeline Rees, secretary general of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, one of three collaborating organizations of Korea Peace Now. The other two are the global organization Women Cross DMZ and the South Korean coalition organization Korean Women’s Movement for Peace.
Rees said there have been a lot of criticisms about the “naivete of moving to a peace agreement when there are so many unresolve parts and complications to achieving peace in the region.” She dismissed the criticism, saying that the authors have shown that peace is a prerequisite to negotiation, and “you can’t go anywhere without a peace agreement.”
Christine Ahn, executive director of Women Cross DMZ, which started their movement in 2015 by crossing the Demilitarized Zone with 30 global women peace activists, said their coalition wants a peace agreement first because both Democratic and Republican administrations have tried sanctions, threats and various denuclearization agreements, none of which have brought about peace.
The threat of war is real, Ahn said, and it is estimated that “if war broke out in Korea, 25 million people would be affected.”
The new report Path to Peace, addresses some common obstacles and misconceptions about the peace agreement —- what it is, who must sign it, and how it can end the decades-long conflict.
Speaking immediately after the Atlanta shootings of eight people including six Asian American women, Ahn said that “as a feminist peace organization, we see the rise in anti-Asian violence as inexorably tied to rhetoric spread by former President Trump and others, but also part of a long history of violence that is waged through U.S. imperialism in Asian and the Pacific.”
The Biden administration has not revealed its approach to North Korea, she said, but “Secretary of State [Tony] Blinken made remarks in Seoul demanding North Korean unilateral denuclearization. We’ve also seen provocative South Korea-U.S. military exercises held earlier this month [March]. This, of course, prompted warnings from North Korea and a counter-response from U.S. Defense Secretary [Lloyd] Austin, who reminded that U.S. forces are ‘ready to fight tonight.’”
Catherine Killough, advocacy and leadership coordinator for Women Cross DMZ, said Blinken has at least acknowledged that past efforts have failed. “There is an ongoing policy review happening right now,” she said, by the new administration and how it plans to approach North Korea.
Killough said she would not want to see “a complete dismissal of the better instincts of Trump administration,” namely the leader-to-leader engagement that resulted in positive press and hope that peace could be achieved. “But I do want to put out some optimism that some senior officials in Biden’s cabinet who have acknowledged the need to avoid repeating the Obama administration’s indecision. We will wait to see if those lessons learned will factor into the policy review.”
The Path to Peace report advocates a completely different tactic than the U.S. has taken toward North Korea in the past. A peace agreement would be “a confidence-building tool, and it should come at the beginning of talks, not the end, and would give us the foundation to discuss thorny issues, such as arms control and human rights,” Ahn said.
Henri Feron, a senior fellow of the Center for International Policy, gave the background of the peace-first approach from an international law perspective. In international law, Feron said “use of force between states is heavily restricted in peacetime, and much less so in wartime.”
The peace treaty would be relatively simple as a legal document, Feron said, because “most peace steps, like borders and prisoners of war have already been addressed in the armistice. The peace agreement could be concluded tomorrow.”
A peace agreement is unique, Feron said, in that it “ends war by definition.” Other types of non-aggression pacts or armistice agreements can leave people confused about the former enemy nation’s intent, “like the hatchet is only buried halfway. You need to bury hatchet all the way to restore trust; you need a binding and final settlement of the war.” The treaty must include the two Koreas and the U.S., he said, as they are the parties most at risk of war.
Killough explained the effect a peace agreement would have on nuclear disarmament in the region. She showed a New York Times front page from 1950 with a headline announcing that President Harry Truman said he would “use atom bombs in Korea if necessary.” The U.S. began to introduce tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea in 1958, and for next three decades, U.S. deployed hundreds more, as many as 950 warheads at one point.
In contrast to the 30 or 40 nuclear weapons North Korea is estimated to have today, the U.S. maintains more than 6,000 nuclear weapons. “There is no denying that the U.S. is a nuclear threat to North Korea,” Killough said.
There is an argument and that a peace treaty would force the international community to recognize North Korea as a nuclear state. However, the two things are unrelated, she said. A peace-first approach rather than a treaty in exchange for denuclearization deal would normalize diplomacy “and normal relations would move us closer to any nuclear deal,” she said.
Hyun Lee, the U.S. national organizer for Women Cross DMZ, said she commonly hears questions on what will happen to the U.S.-South Korea alliance if a peace agreement happens, and she said peace advocates are convinced there will be no effect. If the people of the U.S. and South Korea decide to modify or cancel the alliance, she said, that is a different type of diplomatic decision.
A peace treaty is more likely to result in a stronger alliance, since the situation of constant war has put a strain on the alliance many times, she said. Pressures include who should pay for the military in South Korea and the fact that the military alliance would pull the U.S. into any war that breaks out in South Korea. With a peace treaty, she said “the two countries can move from a military alliance to a different kind of partnership that is about promoting peace on the peninsula and broader region.”
Youngmi Cho, executive director of the South Korean coalition the Korean Women’s Movement for Peace, talked about women’s crucial stake in resolving the Korean War, particularly because women are more impacted by the social and economic conditions of war. Women are responsible for food, shelter and child-rearing during war. Women were sexually enslaved by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. During the Korean War, the U.S. and South Korean governments collaborated on the camptowns that provided sex workers to the U.S. military.
As a result of the state of constant war, Cho said, “South Korea and North Korea both became highly militarized societies, which is correlated with higher gender inequality, and greater violence against women. Wartime [economies] direct re-sources away from health care, child care, and other things that disproportionately impact women.”
History shows, Cho said, that when women and civil groups participate in peace negotiations, a more durable peace is the result. Their organization recommends that any negotiating group for a peace treaty include at least 30 percent women.
Ahn said the optimal peace agreement would be binding, with no preconditions set on making peace. It will put an end to wartime rights to use force, with all parties pursuing a stable peace. The process for making peace should also require the participation of women and civil groups, which will ensure the greatest chance of success for a lasting peace.
According to Ahn, the coming months are crucial for the treaty, since President Jae In Moon of South Korea has only one more year until he leaves office. Both Moon and Biden have a majority in the national assembly/Congress, which gives a short window of opportunity to get South Korea and the U.S. moving together for a peace deal in 2021.
Korea Peace Now has a website with news, updates and a copy of the Path to Peace report at: koreapeacenow.org
Martha Vickery is a long-time professional journalist and long-time amateur Korea watcher, co-founder of Korean Quarterly, and editor since its founding in 1997. She has raised three now-adult children, two of whom are adopted from Korea, with the help of the Korean American community in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area.