Christine Ahn is the founder and international coordinator of Women Cross DMZ a global movement of women immobilizing for peace in Korea. She led 30 women peacemakers across the DMZ in 2015. She also co-founded the Korea policy institute and Korea peace network.
BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News, I’m Ben Norton. The Korean War is finally coming to an end, after nearly seventy years of conflict. The heads of state of North and South Korea held a historic summit in Seoul on Friday, April 27th. This was the first time a North Korean leader had entered the South. Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in pledged to negotiate a peace treaty that would officially end a war that has plagued the Korean Peninsula since the early 1950’s. The South Korean government said these negotiations would lead to complete denuclearization and a nuclear free North Korean peninsula. Joining us to discuss this unprecedented historic breakthrough is Christine Ahn. Christine is the founder and international coordinator of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing for peace in Korea. She also cofounded the Korea Policy Institute and Korea Peace Network. Thanks for joining us, Christine.
CHRISTINE AHN: Thank you, Ben
BEN NORTON: So, can you just respond to this historic news? What got us here?
CHRISTINE AHN: Well, it took incredible diplomacy by both Korean leaders, and a real commitment, I think, to genuine peace. But, I would say, the the real force behind Moon Jae-in is the democratic people’s movements that basically aborted his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, who’s sitting now in prison, who maintained a hard line against North Korea. And so, it was the people’s movements, and through their candlelight revolution, that basically led to her impeachment, and swept to Moon Jae-in into power. And he’s a human rights lawyer, he basically comes from the very movements that have long been advocating for peace and the reunification of Korea.
BEN NORTON: Yeah, can you talk more about the candlelight protests? A lot of Americans don’t realize that this was a historic development in the South, in South Korea, that pushed out, as you mentioned, the former right-wing president, Park, and bring in a new president. This was similar- it’s been compared to Occupy, here in the US, and other grassroots movements. And of course, as you said, it led to this historic breakthrough. Can you talk more about it?
CHRISTINE AHN: Absolutely. So, it started in the fall of 2016, and basically, outrage over developing news about her political corruption led to massive protests on a weekly basis for months, for over five months in the dead of winter, in subzero, freezing temperature. The Korean people, sixteen million- one out of three South Koreans took to the streets to hold candlelight vigils and to call for her impeachment. And, it ultimately led to the National Assembly, and was backed by the Supreme Court. And so, there was a vacuum, and in that period, there was a snap election, and Moon Jae-in won. He won on a platform calling for improved relations with North Korea, and he basically won by a huge margin. And it had, actually, the greatest percentage of South Koreans voting in history. And so, he came into power, and in his first foreign policy speech in Berlin, he promised to see through a peace treaty, if North Korea were committed to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. So, I’d give tremendous credit to, obviously, the leaders of North and South Korea for coming to this moment, but really, it reflects the deep wishes and longing for the Korean people to see the end to this war.
And, obviously, in 2017, we saw brinkmanship and threats of total destruction, total annihilation, “fire and fury,” bloody nose strike, where, even seventy-five percent of South Koreans said that they feared Donald Trump more than they did Kim Jong-un. So, the prospect of a new Korean War, and the devastation that would wreak throughout the entire Korean peninsula, where already millions of families still remain divided, where the country the two countries- the entire peninsula has not yet even healed from the last war- would just be devastating. And so, this is the will of the Korean people.
They don’t want a new conflict on the Korean peninsula. They want to move forward to promises that were made under the last sunshine era. And today, Moon Jae-in still, he has about an eighty percent approval rating. Eight out of ten South Koreans say they want a peace agreement with the North. This is the will of the people. And I think this is an extraordinarily watershed moment, and I think, extremely hopeful, not just to Koreans all around the world, to the Korean people, but I think for every peace-loving person. That you can put aside historic enmity, and you can just- ask Kim Jong-un said, this was so simple, to just cross this line. And this, it takes tremendous courage. And I’m very hopeful about the future for the Korean Peninsula, for Northeast Asia, and for our world.
BEN NORTON: Yeah. And of course, it wasn’t just the people inside the Korean Peninsula. You, and many other activists throughout the diaspora, have organized protests for years. And I know that, in 2015, you lead thirty women peacemakers across the DMZ. So, can you speak about your past peace activism, and then also the peace activism in the diaspora that helped lead to this moment?
CHRISTINE AHN: Thank you, Ben. Well, I would say that in 2015, when Park Geun-hye was in power, it was a really low moment in inter-Korean relations. It was also a really low moment for democracy in South Korea, where really intense repression, one of the opposition political parties was basically disbanded, those who had worked for peace and reunification were being fined, were being imprisoned. The national security law still exists in South Korea. So, anybody that is organizing for worker rights, or greater equality is basically labeled as a communist. And so, on the seventieth anniversary of Korea’s division, I felt a responsibility as a US citizen, and knowing that this is not just a civil war between North and South Korea, but that it’s actually a global conflict, and that the key signatory to that cease fire is the United States, representing the UN command. That the US waged a devastating air bombing campaign, an indiscriminate bombing campaign, where more bombs were dropped on the Korean Peninsula than all of the Asia Pacific Theater during World War II. And there was just such a systematic erasure of that history in this country. So, that is called the forgotten war. And so, feeling the tremendous responsibility as a US citizen, as somebody who has deep ties, obviously, to Korea, was born in Korea, myself, felt that we had a responsibility as an international community to help bring closure to this war. And so, it’s just remarkable to have done that action.
I know that- I just traveled to Seoul and met with many of the women’s peace movement leaders to plan our activities this May. And they reaffirmed, to women across the DMZ, the critical role that we played in that dark hour for Korea. That the vision that we had, about the urgency to help end the war with a peace treaty, is now starting to be realized. And it’s just an extraordinary moment for me, and I followed on the footsteps of those extraordinary, courageous peace activists. But yeah, there has been a long history of the Korean diaspora playing a role, during Japanese colonial occupation, during the war. And so, I just feel honored to be able to be among that long lineage of activists in the diaspora supporting peace, and the reunification and ultimate, independent, sovereign Korea.
BEN NORTON: Yeah. And then finally, this is a good segue to discuss the US role in all of this. You mentioned the Korean War, which the US waged from 1950 to 1953, absolutely devastating. The US killed at least three million people, about twenty percent of the North Korean population. The US burned- destroyed more than eighty percent of the cities in North Korea. So, clearly, the US has, for the past several decades, played the role of an aggressor in this conflict, the US still has more than twenty-eight-thousand troops in South Korea. And then, of course, we’ve seen, with the election of Donald Trump, that Trump and Pence did anything they could, it seems like, to sabotage this process. Trump, as you acknowledge, threatened nuclear apocalypse in the Korean peninsula, and he has repeatedly taunted the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. So, what do you think the role of the US has been in this process? Does Donald Trump deserve any credit for this?
CHRISTINE AHN: Well, I think probably in an indirect way. I mean, we hear throughout statements, Tweets from Donald Trump, and from the US side, and that’s parroted by a lot of the “disarmament community,” the think tank community in Washington DC- is that the maximum pressure campaign worked, that it forced, so much, Kim Jong-un to his knees. On one hand, I mean, of course, sanctions have an extraordinary impact on the lives of everyday people- women and children. UNICEF released a report saying that the new rounds of sanctions could ultimately lead to the starvation of sixty thousand North Korean children.
CHRISTINE AHN: So, I’m not denying, at all, the impact that the sanctions have had. But we know that North Korea has pursued something called the Byungjin policy, which is basically a two-track policy. One is pursuing nuclear weapons, so that they would have an effective deterrence to prevent regime change, a precision- a bloody nose first strike from the US. But the other is economic development policy, so that they can improve the everyday conditions of its people in North Korea. So, we know that North Korea said that they achieved, what they felt, was an effective deterrence at the end of the year last year, and so that was part of Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Day speech reaching out to South Korea. And Moon Jae-in totally sees that window of opportunity, with, provided by the Olympic Games- and extended olive branch. And that just began what was the beginning, which led us to this moment.
But I would say that whether or not the maximum pressure campaign is what yielded the current outcome, I mean, I would say this- I would say that the threat of totally destroying a sovereign country, that would lead to a counter retaliation by North Korea on the eighty-seven US bases, on thirty thousand US troops, is not something that the South Koreans, obviously, wanted. And as a close ally to the US- the last time North Korea conducted a missile test, in November, Moon Jae-in condemned, justly, the nuclear and the missile test. But he also sent a clear message to Washington, that said that there will not be a new conflict on the Korean Peninsula without South Korean government approval.
And so, I think that really changed, I think, the terms of the debate, and obviously, the growing geopolitical context, which is the looming standoff between the US and China. I mean, this is clearly outlined in the Pentagon report, about who are the the new security threats to the US. It’s no longer ISIS and the War on Terror, but it’s actually China and Russia. And so, I think that broader geopolitical grab for power in the region, primarily on the Korean Peninsula, is what has driven the two Koreas to come together, to say, “We have to resolve our historic differences so that we can advance Korean interests, Korea for Korea.” And I believe that’s what we saw yesterday, and the Panmunjom Declaration that came out of that summit yesterday, completely reflects that sentiment. And so, I think that we could potentially see a nuclear -free Korean peninsula that could hopefully be the beginning of a nuclear-free world.
So, the international community must support this inter-Korean peace process. I hope that Donald Trump commits to seeing through a peace treaty. It’s obviously very strange to be in alignment with Donald Trump on this one issue, but we have to give him credit for having the political will to do this, for whatever his own narcissistic reasons, geopolitical US interests. But this is a historic moment. And whether or not Kim Jong-un or Donald Trump has a successful summit in either late May or early June, really is important. But really, the train has moved forward. And North and South Korea, I think, them coming together is the greatest deterrent against any kind of potential war- new war that’s waged by the US on the Korean Peninsula.
BEN NORTON: Well, this is definitely a positive development for anyone who wants peace. As for Donald Trump’s role , I’ll say that even a broken clock is right twice a day. Whether or not he actually intended for this to happen is still, I think, up in the air. But you’re certainly right that the Korean Peninsula is moving toward peace for the first time and this is a hugely historic development. Thank you so much for joining us, Christine.
CHRISTINE AHN: Thank you, Ben. My pleasure.
BEN NORTON: We were speaking with Christine Ahn, who is the founder and international coordinator of Women Cross DMZ, and a longtime peace activist. She will join us in the future to talk about similar issues on Korea. This is Ben Norton, reporting for The Real News.