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Korea: Moving from crisis to peace

Pat Cunningham and peace demonstrators at JeJu Island

The following article by Irish Columban missionary priest Pat Cunningham, SSC, of Seoul, South Korea, was published in the May-June 2017 issue of NewsNotes. Father Cunningham is an active member of the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative  and the Catholic solidarity movement for peace on the Korean peninsula which opposes the construction of a military base to host U.S. military ships and personnel on the beautiful island of Jeju.

It seems we are trundling along from one crisis to the next when it comes to the tit-for-tat exchanges between the United States and North Korea. Many people in South Korea feel on edge as the rhetoric grows more belligerent and the military exercises by both the United States and North Korea become more dangerous. 

 On April 25, North Korea conducted live-fire drills off of the east coast of the peninsula as South Korea, Japan, and the United States carried out its own military exercises. North Korea responded with a warning that it would conduct its sixth nuclear weapon test. The U.S. military then moved its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile defense system into South Korea as fears of increasing nuclear weapons capabilities by the North grow.

The THAAD nuclear defense system has angered residents of the village in Seongju county where it has been installed in South Korea and drawn protests from officials in China. Beijing says that the system will do little to deter North Korean leader Kim Jong-un but will destabilize the regional security balance. 

At the same time, the U.S. moved the USS Michigan guided missile nuclear submarine to South Korea, for what a U.S. defense official described as a “show of force.” The USS Michigan is the most destructive nuclear submarine in the United States’ arsenal. 

The latest series of showdowns are taking place against the backdrop of the highly provocative annual joint military exercises by the United States and South Korea, which engaged 300,000 military personnel in war drills during the final week of April. The drills simulate North Korean regime change and 'decapitation' of its political leadership on the border of the two Koreas.  For numerous years, North Korea has insisted that it will suspend its nuclear weapons program and missile tests only when the U.S. and South Korea put a stop to these joint military exercises.

In order to de-escalate the situation and move beyond the crisis, both sides need to employ constructive language as a first means of engagement.

The United States needs to show serious intent by redirecting the USS Carl Vinson, the U.S. Navy's third Nimitz-class supercarrier, and the USS Michigan, away from the peninsula. Not only does the U.S. continue to feed the tension by deploying warships to the Korean peninsula, it also uses North Korea’s possible launch of ballistic missiles as a pretext for moving the THAAD anti-ballistic missile system to South Korea before the presidential elections in South Korea on May 9.

China is watching all of this. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently stated, “THAAD is not a simple technical issue, but an out-and-out strategic one.” China sees the missile defense system and its radar, against which it has protested vehemently, as a direct violation of its national security interests.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said during his recent visit to South Korea that “the era of strategic patience is over” and that “all options remain on the table.” These remarks are akin to President George W. Bush’s use of the infamous and highly inflammatory term “axis of evil” to describe governments that his administration accused of sponsoring terrorism and seeking weapons of mass destruction.

North Korea has responded with its own inflammatory verbiage. “Whatever comes from the U.S., we will cope with it. We are fully prepared to handle it,” North Korea’s top diplomat, Han Song Ryol, said, according to an Associated Press report. North Korea views these joint military drills as nothing short of an occupying imperial army based in South Korea overreaching and engaging in belligerent actions too close for comfort on its border.

It is important to remember that North Korea developed its nuclear weapons program during the years when the “six party talks” were suspended.

The six party talks are a series of multilateral negotiations held intermittently since 2003 and attended by China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States for the purpose of dismantling North Korea's nuclear program. The talks are hosted in Beijing and chaired by China. While the talks were suspended, the other countries increased economic sanctions on North Korea in the hope that the North Korea leadership might suddenly collapse of its own accord. On the contrary, what we have witnessed is an incredibly resilient and emboldened North Korea.

[Read our article from 2014 about the use of dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea in the past and the immediate positive impacts for both countries if dialogue were restarted.] 

Few media outlets have reported on North Korea’s repeated requests to the United States to sign a peace treaty that would bring the unresolved Korean War to a long-overdue end.

In a recent workshop on peace and reunification during Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington, D.C., I spoke about the powerful witness led by Women Cross DMZ, a group of thirty international women peacemakers who in May 2015 – the 79th anniversary of Korea's division into two separate states by Cold War powers – walked with thousands of women from both North and South Korea to call for an end to the Korean War, reunification of families, and women's leadership in the peace-building process. 

Women Cross DMZ also held international peace symposiums in Pyongyang and Seoul where they listened to Korean women share their experiences and ideas of mobilizing women across the peninsula and around the world to bring an end to war and violent conflict. On May 24, International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament, the group of thirty women peacemakers successfully crossed the 2-mile wide De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) that separates millions of Korean families, as a symbolic act of peace. Like these women, the majority of people in South Korea wish to move beyond a truce to a peace treaty. 

The facts presented by Women Cross DMZ are stark:

  • 4 million people died in the Korean War of 1950–53, most of them Korean civilians.
  • 10 million families are still separated by the demilitarized zone.
  • 70 million Koreans live in a state of war due to unresolved conflict.
  • 60+ years after the war ended with a temporary cease-fire agreement, we are still waiting for a peace treaty.
  • $1 trillion has been spent by the U.S., China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea on militarization, fueled by unresolved conflicts.

A peace treaty is the way to sustainable peace and is what the people of the Korean peninsula deserve after the horrendous loss of four million lives during the Korean War.  

The urgent need for peace on the Korean peninsula and the important role of women in the peace process have never been more keenly felt, especially as governments and politicians fail to deliver. It is crucial to acknowledge that the military solution never works and that listening to an alternative civilian voice from an internationalist, feminist perspective is the way to build bridges. It is time to increase civilian exchanges and women's leadership, highlighting the need for all parties involved to de-escalate immediately, and move toward a peace treaty.

Faith in action: The 64th Anniversary of the Korea Armistice is July 27. To sign the Korea Peace Petition, go to

Photo: Columban Father Pat Cunningham (left) with women demonstrating for peace outside of the construction site of a naval base on Jeju Island, South Korea. Photo courtesy of the Columban Missionaries UK. Read more about Father Cunningham's work at