University of Washington student June Kim has family back in South Korea and she would worry for her brother’s safety if conflict between North and South Korea were to escalate into combat.
But while over the past few weeks, U.S. news media outlets have concentrated on escalating tensions between the U.S and North Korea, Kim says most Koreans — including her — have been more invested in Tuesday’s South Korean presidential elections. The elections followed the impeachment of Korea’s former President Park Geun-Hye earlier this year. The president-elect Moon Jae-In, supports increased dialogue with the North.
Local Koreans and Korean Americans — interviewed before Tuesday’s election — hope for peace between the two sides, and many call for a nuanced resolution to the decades-long struggle on the Korean Peninsula.
“I am extremely worried about the current tensions,” said Seattle-area resident Soya Jung, senior partner at ChangeLab which conducts strategy, research and vision for racial justice. “In many ways Korea represents a much larger global problem about the way that U.S. elites have narrated the end of the Cold War.”
Redmond resident Simone Chun teaches Korean history and political science and is part of an organization called Korea Peace Network.
“I feel sort of a sense of frustration and also worried because of the lack of information and also lack of awareness [and] American ignorance about Korea.” she said.
Chun quoted a recent FOX news survey that found 53 percent of Americans polled favor the use of force to curtail North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Reactions on both sides of the Pacific
Christina Seong, a designer and artist from Seattle, participates in #KoreanPeace, a coalition of people supporting peace first on the Korean peninsula.
“There has been a big push among many of us to focus on this idea of we should have peace first to examine what is going on in the Korean Peninsula,” Seong said.
Seong says in South Korea most people have accepted the idea that North Korea is “bad” and will continue to be a threat without necessarily feeling like they are at war. In North Korea, however, the narrative is one of continuous war with the United States due to the world power’s continuing presence in South Korea. That brings about a ping-pong match of muscle flexing of nuclear strength and aggression.
But because of decades of tensions, most South Koreans have continued to go about their daily routine despite the escalating tensions between the North and the U.S.
“I think they are worried but they don’t react to worry in the way the U.S. media or some of the right-wing politicians react,” Chun said.
Among Chun’s siblings, who are all in South Korea, there are varying viewpoints.
“My oldest brother, he is conservative so he is somewhat very worried about communism,” Chun said.“But all my sisters, they think they are very hopeful,” about Moon, whose stance promises more policy dialogue and engagement with North Korea.
Seong said that sound bytes in the news give a simplistic version of the conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
“A lot of times in U.S media there’s not a lot of context given in terms of the relationship that North Korea has with South Korea and how the U.S has been involved for so long,” Seong said.
Korea was split into north and south after gaining independence from Japan in 1945. Following a common pattern throughout the cold war, the United States and what was then the Soviet Union rushed in to influence the region. The U.S extended their sphere of influence to South Korea, while the USSR backed North Korea.
The bitter relationship between North Korea and the United States started during the Korean War, which started in 1950.
In 1953 an armistice agreement was signed between the China and Soviet Union backed North and U.S and U.N backed South, creating the demilitarized zone, a neutral zone separating the nations.
However, the armistice was never followed by a peace treaty, so technically, the Korean War never officially ended.
When the USSR began to pull out aid to North Korea in 1985, the country was left with little security and backup, inspiring North Korea’s effort to build an arsenal of nuclear weapons to serve as a bulwark against aggression.
According to Chun, so much of North Korea was bombed after the Korean War. Those painful memories are kept alive by the North Korean regime.
“Their position is we don’t want to be killed, we don’t want to go through the same experience. The only way to do that is to protect our sovereignty,” she said.
As wars do, the Korean War devastated both North and South Korea, and the DMZ severed friends and families who, to this day have not been reunited. Chun says that hundreds of thousands of Korean Americans still have family members in North Korea.
Seong has traveled to North Korea twice as part of the Korean Experience and Education Program (KEEP). During her second visit, a fellow participant was reunited with family in the North.
“Having a participant be able to meet their family and come back and have this overwhelming sense of happiness but also hurt and sadness because you know there is no resolution. It’s kind of like seeing a grandparent that you’ve been forced not to see,” Seong said.
Mainstream narratives of North Korea illustrate a totalitarian state that mistreats its people and deprives them of necessities. The country’s severe issues with poverty and starvation stem from a combination of the North Korean government and the heavy sanctions imposed on the nation.
Seong observed the disparity between North Korea and other nations that have access to technology, satellites and cell phone service that other countries — especially the U.S. — takes for granted.
“They’ve had to DIY their life in terms of powering the country, finding countries or companies to work with them,” she said.
She also noted how visitors to the country are obsessed with collecting visual evidence of “weird” or “strange” activities in North Korea.
“People just want to be people, but if you treat them like zoo animals, it’s going to kind of close that bridge of communication off,” she said.
Can tensions give way to peace?
Seong, Chun and Jung’s sentiments all center around an urgent need for compassion around the pain of a conflict that has lasted for more than half a century. While concern over conflict is very real, and an intervention of force would be devastating, this is also an opportunity to reexamine history, U.S involvement and reeducate the American public on the true tolls of what is still an ongoing war in the Korean Peninsula.
“I feel this is time for opportunity to mobilize, to raise awareness about Korea,” said Chun.
Along with encouraging a cooling down of the conflict immediately at hand, organizations and individuals, like the Korea Peace Network, are urging for peace first.
But “peace first” will not be easy.
“Until we acknowledge this and deal accordingly and honestly and diplomatically with the situation, the crisis will continue,” wrote Jung.