By Daniel Jasper
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK/North Korea) has been in the news a lot this week after a surprise announcement that President Trump had accepted an invitation to meet with Kim Jong Un. The decision came after months of escalating tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, which included nuclear and ballistic tests and a public exchange of verbal threats between the two leaders.
All the dramatic real-time news coverage may leave you wondering, “Is peace between the U.S. and North Korea even possible?”
The answer is absolutely yes. And the way forward can be seen through the lens of AFSC’s experience—from the beginnings of our involvement in 1953, when we worked with refugees and families divided by the war, to our current program, which helps North Korean farmers raise farm productivity and improve food security.
Educating policymakers in Washington, D.C. about possibilities for cooperation with North Korea is part of my work with AFSC. Here are just a few of the points we have been making in our meetings with the National Security Council, the State Department, and Congress about ways to pursue peace.
Humanitarian issues are a good starting place for dialogue.
If you are looking for a politically low-risk way to relieve tensions, humanitarian engagement is your best bet. Why? The stakes are lower. Common ground is easier to find. Success is more likely. Plus, these kinds of projects present opportunities for building mutually beneficial relationships—and trust.
AFSC has the longest-running program in North Korea of any U.S. nongovernmental organization. Our program began in 1980 and has helped maintain what little stability there is in the U.S.-DPRK relationship. That’s why it is vitally important for Congress and the administration to ensure humanitarian access by organizations like AFSC when they consider travel restrictions to North Korea.
Repatriating remains could help build bridges.
In 2016, AFSC worked with former Gov. Bill Richardson (who also served as Secretary of Energy and U.N. ambassador) and with families of U.S. servicemembers to sponsor a delegation to North Korea. Their mission? To discuss bringing home servicemembers’ remains—something that would mean a great deal to the families of those who died in the Korean War and present a practical opening to de-escalate tensions between the U.S. and North Korean militaries.
The U.S. had worked with North Korea to repatriate remains until operations ceased in 2005. In 2016, the delegation learned that North Korea had up to 200 sets of remains that they would be willing to hand over to a third party if the U.S. government would simply acknowledge—in any forum, from a tweet to a more formal speech or memo—the repatriation as a humanitarian gesture. AFSC is advocating for the U.S to offer this recognition—and make the most of the opening it would create for establishing a collaborative project and channel of dialogue.
Family reunions bring countries closer.
Korean and Korean-American families offer another opportunity for the U.S. and North Korea to collaborate on an achievable project. Following the Korean War, families became separated by the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas. More than 100,000 members of those divided families came to the U.S., thousands of whom are still alive and remain eager to reunite with their loved ones after almost 65 years of separation.
At one time, these families could travel to the DPRK on their own if they could locate their family members, but today, they require government permission and assistance to reunite. While the South and the North have carried out 20 rounds of family reunifications over the past 18 years, Korean-Americans have never been allowed to participate. We have seen these reunions serve to de-escalate tensions—and we urge the U.S. to consider initiating a family reunion, both to do right by separated Korean-American families and as a means of building better relations.
Even in this political climate, we have reason for optimism.
AFSC supports an amendment to the North Korea Human Rights Reauthorization Act that would require the Trump administration to report back on planned activities to reunite Korean and Korean-American families and the repatriation of U.S. servicemembers remains left in North Korea. I was encouraged to see the House pass this amendment in 2017.
I have also been encouraged that in recent months, North Korea sent athletes to the Olympics, the South and North agreed to restart a military hotline, and the U.S. and South Korea agreed to suspend military exercises during the Olympics. These are all favorable signs for U.S.-DPRK humanitarian cooperation—and an indication that the opportunities we have identified remain viable—and urgent—for policymakers to pursue in the coming year.
Want to get involved?
- Urge your elected officials to work for peace.
- Get tips on how to talk about North Korea.
- Find resources, reports, and videos on AFSC’s work in North Korea.