How Grassroots Activists Made Peace with North Korea Possible

By Sarah Freeman-Woolpert

In April, it was a handshake. On Tuesday, it was a hug — one that might end a 70-year-long war.

The leaders of North and South Korea are meeting in Pyongyang this week to discuss the possibility of a peace treaty to end the decades-long conflict dividing the Korean Peninsula. This marks the third meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in since April, when the leaders famously shook hands across the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, separating the two countries.

After a swell of global optimism at warming relations between Kim and Moon, attention shifted to Donald Trump’s June meeting with Kim in Singapore. Despite the peace community’s hope for increased diplomacy following the summit’s vague yet optimistic outcome, many voices on both sides of the aisle in Congress, as well as within Trump’s own administration, have since disparaged the possibility for peace.

Contrary to the frequent inflammatory rhetoric from leaders in Washington and the media, North Korea has made modest concessions since June, such as the dismantling of certain missile launch sites. In this week’s meeting, Kim has agreed to allow international experts to observe a permanent dismantling of a missile test site and nuclear facility.

Despite these steps toward diplomacy, many government leaders are still demanding the immediate and complete denuclearization of North Korea — and they are doing so without offering any assurance that the United States won’t invade. At the same time, they are also refusing to announce the end of the Korean War, mostly due to fears that it could lead to a withdrawal of the 28,500 American troops stationed on the peninsula — even though Moon has dispelled such concerns.

Amid the clamor and saber-rattling, however, a steady, persistent grassroots peace movement is working hard to counter the negativity. By influencing stakeholders behind the scenes, building new coalitions and reframing the narrative to promote negotiation as a difficult but worthwhile process, this movement has risen above “fire and fury” to chart the way toward lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Building Coalitions

Among the most important developments for the peace movement in the last year is the formation of broad coalitions. According to international scholar-activist Simone Chun, 2018 marked “the first time we saw a formidable, sustaining coalition with major American peace activists and the Korean activist communities.”

These coalitions have allowed actors to coordinate strategically in pushing for clear goals, like a formal declaration ending the Korean War and sustained diplomacy on a path to peace. These coalitions have also been key in elevating a range of voices, particularly those of Koreans, women and people of color, who have often been marginalized from the mainstream policy debates in Washington D.C.

Korea Peace Network, or KPN, is one of the key U.S.-based coalitions promoting peace on the Korean Peninsula. Spearheaded by the American Friends Service Committee, Peace Action and Korean-American peace activist Christine Ahn, KPN works to educate and organize Korean peace activists around the country, from birddogging congressional candidates to hosting webinars and strategizing sessions. In June, the network organized an action called KPN Advocacy Days, which saw a group of advocates from KPN visit Capitol Hill to meet with key legislators, like members of the Armed Services Committee, to promote negotiations with North Korea.

Members of Korea Peace Network outside the White House in June. (Facebook/KPN)

“I think it’s important that Koreans decide the fate for the peninsula,” said Korean-American activist Kwan Nam. With only 50 miles separating Seoul from the DMZ, and 25 million people living within 100 miles from the DMZ itself, Kwan described the possibility of war as “devastating for Koreans.”

“We cannot afford any kind of war,” he added. “My aunt lives near the DMZ. My older brother lives in Seoul. So when I see the possibility of war growing, I get really scared.”

Kwan mobilized around 20 Korean organizations throughout the United States into a network called One Korea Now, so that they could better support each other’s efforts to advocate for peace. This mobilization became even more effective once they partnered with larger, more established organizations like Peace Action, which formed during the anti-nuclear movement of the 1950s and has a wider national network of its own.

“It’s important to try to lift up those people who have much more expertise and more at stake for their families [if there were a war on the Korean Peninsula],” said Peace Action president Kevin Martin.

At the same time, however, Kwan has found it uniquely challenging to incorporate some parts of the Korean-American community into this peace work.

“Korean-speaking Korean Americans are somewhat isolated people in the Korean-American community,” he said. “We are working with some of the largest peace organizations in the United States, but a lot of Korean-Americans have never heard the names of these groups. My role is to get the Korean-speaking Korean-Americans more engaged with the general peace movement in the United States, and to think of Korean peace in terms of the global peace movement.”

Women Cross DMZ at the Demilitarized Zone on the Korean Peninsula in May. (Facebook/Women Cross DMZ/Jeehyun Kwon)

Recent organizing for peace on the Korean Peninsula has also underscored the importance of women-led organizations in mobilizing public support for peace.

Women Cross DMZ is one of the leading groups in this movement, along with partners like the women-led activist group Code Pink. Headed by Korean-American peace activist Christine Ahn, Women Cross DMZ launched its efforts in 2015 by leading an international delegation of 30 women in a walk across the DMZ, followed by international peace symposiums in Pyongyang and Seoul. In May 2018, the group sent another women’s delegation to Korea, in partnership with the Nobel Women’s Initiative and Women’s Peace Walk. While there, the organizers convened an all-women’s symposium, met with key stakeholders and called for a peace treaty in an historic crossing of the Reunification Bridge.

Not only have these coalition-building efforts raised attention and public awareness – they’ve also raised much-needed funding. Women Cross DMZ, Nobel Women’s Initiative and PeaceWomen were the recipients of a $2 million grant supporting women-led campaigns pushing for a viable peace process by 2020. Part of this funding will be allocated to a network of South Korean women working for peace, elevating their voices in the ongoing public debate about the Korean peace process.

“In a moment when we all felt stuck, the fact that women’s groups began the process to break through this deadlock really shows the power of what peace movements can do, especially what women’s peace groups can do,” Ahn said. She also emphasized the important role women’s organizations have played in challenging those demanding total and immediate disarmament by stating clearly that there should be as much attention on diplomacy and steps toward signing a formal peace treaty, as there is on denuclearization.

Still, despite the breadth of this coalition-building work, Women Cross DMZ has faced challenges, particularly when it comes to gaining proper attention within the broader peace community, which has focused much of its attention on the Middle East — even after President Barack Obama’s so-called “Asia Pivot.”

“In some ways, I feel the peace movement has really failed to look at the shift in U.S. military war policy,” Ahn explained, pointing to the o