Peace and Security for Whom? A Memo from South Korea
Spring has finally arrived on the Korean peninsula after a long, harsh winter. Forsythia, azalea, magnolia, and cherry blossoms are boasting their beautiful colors on campus. As I enter the classroom on the day I plan to show Pray the Devil Back to Hell, students are talking about an “impending war” in Korea.
I ask, “Do you talk with your friends about a potential, imminent war?” Some students nod their heads yes, while others answer no. Everyone is so busy with their own stuff, studying for midterm exams and working while also preparing for job interviews and various tests for graduate school applications, etc.
American students who are on the student exchange program say, “We heard that U.S.embassy will contact us if war breaks out. But, how are they going to contact all of us if anything goes wrong? Will they call each one of us? The Internet will not be available! How are they going to transfer all of us to Japan?”
Concerned Korean students ask if I (assuming that I have U.S. citizenship) will also be leaving Korea if a war breaks out. When I gave them my answer they seem to be satisfied. I see smiles on their faces.
This is not the kind of conversation I anticipated when I started teaching an undergraduate course as a visiting professor at one of the largest and oldest universities in South Korea this spring semester. Half of the students who are taking my class are from North America (one Canadian and eight American students from diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds), a few are from other Asian countries, and the rest are native Korean students.
Since December 2012, renewed tensions between North Korea and South Korea have been building. No doubt these tensions have existed for the past 60 years. Yet, with North Korea’s third nuclear test last year and the recent joint military exercise between South Korea and the United States, the tensions are once again escalating. We hear that this time the North Korean regime is serious in its threat to take military action against its “enemies.” The tensions rising on the Korean peninsula are not just of significance for the two Koreas; for various reasons, they are of concern for such countries as the United States, China, Japan, and even Russia. To make matters worse, the so-called south-to-south ideological division within South Korea is so deep that there are people who truly believe that war is not only necessary but it is the only way to deal with North Korea. Further, there is danger for those who are critical of the South Korea–U.S. military alliance, for those who see the alliance as negative and who are thus stigmatized as being “pro-North” (i.e., a Red, a Commie, an enemy of national security).
In spite of the fact that the majority of people in South Korea are worried about an “impending war,” they nonetheless go about their business as usual. This has to do with the thought that even if a war breaks out it will not change much in their daily lives, primarily because it will be different from so-called traditional warfare; that is, it will be more like a video game where fired missiles and military flights will be shot down from the skies. If this is going to be a nuclear war, it will mean the complete destruction of the entire peninsula. No matter what a potential war looks like, if people continue to go about their business as usual, this suggests we really need to think differently about peace and security.
As many peacemakers remind us, “You can’t have peace without the presence of justice.” The goal of promoting peace should, then, include what Swanee Hunt and Cristina Posa have called “the creation of sustainable peace by fostering fundamental societal change.”* We need to ask whose peace, whose security we are talking about. We also need to ask if official talks of peace address the security of the marginalized people who suffer various forms of covert and overt violence, including economic violence, on a daily basis. We can proclaim the power and promise of peace only when we can envision what that looks like. We cannot promise something that is hidden from our awareness.
Every time I watch televised forums that address the current tensions on the Korean peninsula, the “experts” are exclusively male professionals. As the film Pray the Devil Back to Hell shows so well, men (i.e., a dictator’s army versus rebels) have created and are sustaining the war in Liberia, while women and children have to bear the brunt of the war. Although both Christian and Muslim women in Liberia have been persistent in challenging the daily status quo of war and in demanding peace, they are excluded from official talks of peace. The perpetrators of the war—men—are sitting down at the table to discuss peace, but no women, who have been advocating for peace all along, are included in these discussions.
Rethinking and reframing peace and security on the Korean peninsula are more urgent now than ever before, and people who are concerned about the state of the two Koreas need to come up with a better response to the current crisis, which can create “sustainable peace.” We need to start thinking about what kind of unified Korea we envision and the implications for peace and security both on the Korean peninsula and across the wider Asia Pacific region. For this, we need to know what we want, what we are resisting, and what we are bringing to the table to make fundamental societal change. And for this to be realized, we also need to ask and answer who should be present at the table for both official and unofficial discussions of peace and security. My students who watched Pray the Devil Back to Hell may have something to say about this matter, if only we listen.
* Swanee Hunt and Cristina Posa, “Women Waging Peace: Inclusive Security,” Foreign Policy (May/June 2001): 38.