Yesterday, the University of Denver Sturm College of Law hosted Eric Sirotkin, a widely regarded peacebuilder and mediator who has worked to resolve conflict in the Koreas and South Africa (to name just a few). Earlier this year, he presented a Peace Conference hosted by the North Korean government. He created a twelve-step plan to end the conflict in the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea is a much more modern that I would have expected – Pyongyang is a city full of modern skyrises, stadiums, and a recently constructed reunification tower. Both North and South Korea have unification ministers, whose job is to work toward ending the war and reunifying the country. However, years of conflict have affected consciousness of the governments. Indeed, a mindset of war and conflict pervades the dialogue on this issue. Military parades and shows of force – think the parade of weaponry – are still frequent occurrences in the North.
There remain obstacles to peace in the Koreas. In 1953, the Armistice ending the military conflict required future meetings to build a peace and restore the countries. However, the first meeting was tainted by the Cold War, and nothing came. Militarism, on both sides, pervades the conflict. While the North Korean military is well knows, the United States recently shifted military assets to Asia. South Korea hosts many US military bases, and if war breaks out, the United States is in charge of the military operation. South Korea’s fear of state subversion also plays a role. South Korea has a strong national security law that makes it extremely difficult for South Koreans to talk openly about the Korean conflict.
But the future is bright. South Korea will elect a new government this year. The United States’ election, as well, can be a bright point as people with more positive views on North Korea – such as Bill Richardson or John Kerry – come into influence. North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong Un, is fresh blood and is not necessarily beholden to the past. These new generation of leaders hopefully can transcend beyond the racism and recognize the self-reliance which inheres in Korean society. With this in mind, Mr. Sirotkin created his peace proposal.
Communication is the foundation for bringing this peace. Listening to the dialogue, and understanding the context for the dialogue, is key. This can involve some uncomfortable truths. The South Korean Truth and Reconciliation uncovered some unsavory actions perpetuated by the United States and South Korea during the war before it was shut down by the South Korean government. The trick is to move beyond the “bad” North Korean and the “good” South Korea to negotiate while understanding the other side’s position. To this effect, the West needs to shift its negotiation structure to recognize the cultural underpinnings of North Korea and address that state as a co-equal state on the international playing field. Jimmy Carter, a frequent visitor to North Korea, talks about North Korea’s desire to trade nuclear weapons for a peace treaty. The point is, the US needs to open its dialogue and treat NorthKorea as coequal state on the international field.
This comments are my impression of Eric Sirotkin’s presentation, but do not necessarily reflect his views.