BY DOUG HOSTETTER
Looking for peace in difficult places
People often seem surprised when they learn I have spent a significant time in recent years working on peace with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, commonly known as North Korea. Perhaps it is the combination of who I am and where I work that has given me the passion for peacebuilding in one of the most difficult regions of the world.
I am a peace pastor in the Mennonite church and work as part of the advocacy team of Pax Christi International, the international Catholic peace movement, at the United Nations. Mennonites and Catholic peace people take seriously the Sermon on the Mount.
Although North Korea and the United States do not have diplomatic relations, North Korea is a member of the United Nations and has diplomatic staff that live in New York and work out of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Mission to the United Nations. Some of my most important peacebuilding efforts in recent years have been reaching out and befriending North Korean diplomats and their families. North Koreans in the United States are restricted to a radius of 25 miles from Columbus Circle in New York City. My home, fortunately, is just within the permitted zone for North Korean diplomats.
Human relationships are the foundation of peacebuilding.
Some years ago, I invited the diplomats from the North Korean Mission to the U.N. for a picnic at my home, along with a South Korean Mennonite International Voluntary Exchange Program (IVEP) intern, a Korean-American Mennonite pastor friend and a few Korean American friends active in the peace movement. It was an amazing day, 20 North Korean diplomats, wives, children and grandchildren, fishing in the stream behind my home, eating, drinking, laughing and playing. There was no political talk or strategizing on that day (although those kinds of conversations did happen later, after trust had been established), just meeting the diplomats, their wives, children and grandchildren and enjoying each other’s company. It was through friendship and conversation that I learned that the North Koreans want the same things we do: safe communities for our families, health care and education for our children and grandchildren and meaningful and productive work for ourselves. At the end of the day, the senior North Korean ambassador came over to the young IVEP intern from South Korea and said, “This war has gone on too long. We really need to end the conflict and reunify our country.” The intern readily agreed.
Human relationships are the foundation of peacebuilding. The challenge in building relationships between Americans and Koreans from both the North and the South is formidable. North and South Korea do not have diplomatic relations with each other. Even phone, mail or email connections between the two Koreas is prohibited. The United States also does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea. North Korea is one of the countries whose citizens are prohibited from traveling to the United States, and a U.S. travel ban makes it illegal for any American to travel to North Korea without a Special Validation Passport. The travel ban has eliminated all tourism, academic and cultural travel by Americans to North Korea, although Mennonite Central Committee, American Friends Service Committee and a few other nongovernment organizations have received Special Validation Passports to travel to North Korea for small-scale humanitarian efforts. I have learned that personal encounter and face-to-face dialogue enhance understanding, dispels some of the stereotypes of the “other” and can even result in friendships that can lay the foundation for solving larger political problems. But with sanctions and travel restrictions, few Americans, South Koreans or others ever have an opportunity to meet a North Korean in person.
For the past two years, I have been working with religious leaders to organize a forum to bring together diplomats, scholars and peace activists from South Korea, the United States, Russia, China and Japan to meet with North Koreans. Our first challenge was to find a location where guests from around the world could meet personally with North Koreans. After considerable discussion we decided to organize our forum in New York at Columbia University, so North Korean diplomats at the U.N. could come to a location were others could meet them. We decided to organize the Global Peace Forum on Korea at the end of the week of the opening of the General Assembly of the U.N. with the hope that several scholars from Kim Il Sung University in North Korea would be able to come for the opening of the GA and participate in the peace forum. Unfortunately, both years we have organized this conference, none of our invited scholars from North Korea was able to get U.S. visas. But due to trust built through personal friendships, we did have full cooperation from North Korean U.N. diplomats. We invited more than 100 scholars, religious leaders, peace activists and a few government officials from South Korea, Russia, China, Japan and the United States. I have been impressed by the fact that the participants of this forum paid their own way, often flying from Asia, for an opportunity to meet face-to-face and share ideas with North Koreans. U.N. officials who had also been invited commented that the Global Peace Forum on Korea was unique; it was the only meeting those officials had ever attended where the North Korean participants mingled and spoke freely with participants from the United States, South Korea and other nations.
Out of that amazing mix of scholars, religious leaders, peace activists and government officials, we reached a consensus that we all hoped would be a roadmap for government negotiations to follow.
Out of that amazing mix of scholars, religious leaders, peace activists and government officials, we reached a consensus that we all hoped would be a roadmap for government negotiations to follow: (1) ending the Korean War; (2) calling the United States and North Korea to take reciprocal steps to de-escalate tensions and normalize relations; (3) requesting that North Korean actions in disarmament be responded to with reciprocal U.S. lifting of economic sanctions; (4) calling for the creation of a nuclear-free zone on the Korean Peninsula as relations are normalized and sanctions against North Korea are lifted. With the failure of the Hanoi Summit and the United States blocking inter-Korean efforts to connect roads and railroads between their countries, we reaffirmed our roadmap for negotiations and chose the theme for this year, “Making Connections : Global Challenges, Korea and Peaceful Coexistence.” The organizers continue to believe relationships between people across the national and ideological boundaries are the building blocks for the political consensus needed for building peace on the Korean Peninsula. Religious leaders gave strong support for this effort. Jim Winkler, president of the National Council of Churches, gave a keynote speech with warm greetings and encouragement from Cardinal Joseph Tobin, and Peter Prove, director of the International Affairs of the World Council of Churches, offered closing remarks. We also heard messages of support and encouragement from former President Jimmy Carter and Rosemary DiCarlo, the U.N. Undersecretary General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs. The unique strength of the peace forum, however, was the personal involvement of the North Korean diplomats, who made themselves available to speak, listen and build relationships with the other participants. These relationships have the power to turn enemies into friends.
is peace pastor at Evanston (Ill.) Mennonite Church, member of the Pax Christi International UN Advocacy Team and a Co-Chair of Global Peace Forum on Korea.
Love Your Enemies was first published in the December issue of The Mennonite, and is being reprinted with their permission.