SEOUL— Strolling the gingko tree-lined side streets of central Seoul it’s easy to see why the prospect of war with North Korea is so unappealing. Generations of hard-working South Koreans have transformed theirs into a nation nothing short of remarkable. Koreans have overcome 35 years of Japanese colonialism, the devastating Korean War, dictatorships, and episodic political violence to build a hyper-modern nation with thriving arts, education, science, and hi-tech industries that rival anywhere in East Asia.
After surviving one of democracy’s greatest tests—the peaceful but forced removal of a corrupt head of state—the Republic of Korea (ROK) emerged from its candlelight revolution with a new liberal president and a sense of hope: a shining yang to the isolated North’s yin.
To ponder war with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is to consider the destruction of all the South has built in spite of 70 years of division. A military conflict between the two would be, even by U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ own admission, “catastrophic... the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.”
But even as Pyongyang accelerates the pace of testing increasingly deadly weapons and the means to deliver them and as Washington refuses to budge on provocative U.S.-ROK war games that include “decapitation strikes” and responds to North Korean threats with long-range heavy bomber flyovers, a significant number of South Koreans are militantly anti-military, and want their leaders to flex their diplomatic muscles, not their missiles.
Although largely under-reported in Western media, South Korea has a highly energized peace movement that continues to push back against the U.S.-ROK military alliance preparing for war.
On May 24, International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament, five South Korean NGOs organized a women’s peace symposium in Seoul that drew around 80 (mostly Korean) women and a handful of men together to discuss alternatives to war and how to shift the paradigm away from permanent war footing.
In 2015, an international peace group, Women Cross DMZ, held similar symposia in Pyongyang and in Seoul and again in Seoul in 2016. The 2017 symposium was followed by a march of around 800 people along a barbed wire-lined trail following the Imjin River which flows through the DMZ north of Seoul. “This event [was] for Korean unification—life, peace, and co-existence,” said organizer Ahn-Kim Jeong-ae.
Aiyoung Choi, a member of Women Cross DMZ, who has participated all three years, said the primary goal of the march was to raise awareness of “the increasingly urgent need for peace on the Peninsula through a genuine peace treaty.” Dressed in symbolic all white, Choi added, “Where [there] is no peace, you begin to think you are being threatened all the time.”
Previously, groups like Women Cross DMZ who have engaged with the North have been lambasted as “apologists” for the DPRK, accused of lacking sympathy for the suffering of North Koreans. Christine Ahn, founder and international coordinator with Women Cross DMZ, disagrees. “Peace is not against human rights; it is part and parcel of it. Peace is a necessary condition for the full realization of human rights,” Ahn said in an email.
“Whether we like it or not, the North Korean regime will continue to use the threat of a U.S. pre-emptive strike to justify repression in the name of preserving their sovereignty,” she added, noting the “winner-take-all” model that is critical of engagement and diplomacy only perpetuates the war footing, leaving no room for “nuance, complexity and compromise.”
“States of hostility and international conflict,” Ahn said, “are the basis on which states have long violated the rights of their citizens.”
Fight Tonight, Pay Today
For decades, U.S. Forces Korea have lived by the maxim “ready to fight tonight.” Meanwhile, 70 years of endless war preparations have meant South Korea must pay today, a reality that has been lucrative for global arms dealers and their shareholders.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, South Korea was the fifth largest global arms importer (2001-2016) and the fourth largest weapons buyer from the U.S., spending $36.8 billion on arms (PDF), a major increase in arms purchases even as Seoul’s own arms sales are on the rise.
Operating on the “bad news is good news” business model, Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson was recorded in 2015 reassuring investors that volatility and instability in Asia made it a growth area for arms sales. Tension on the Korean Peninsula has been a boon for the world’s largest weapons manufacturer as is evident by impending sales of the F-35 fighter jets and the introduction of Lockheed Martin’s most prominent “product” in South Korea today, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system (PDF).
Approved by ousted former president, Park Geun-hye, the deployment of THAAD rapidly accelerated less than two weeks before South Korea’s presidential election on May 9. THAAD has not only angered China and Russia, which view the system as a threat, but also sparked a year of continuous protests in rural Seongju County and around the country. In a June protest, several thousand demonstrators marched through downtown Seoul and surrounded the U.S. embassy calling for THAAD’s removal.
Baek Gayoon is a coordinator at the Center for Peace and Disarmament with the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, a Seoul-based NGO opposed to THAAD. She said the anti-missile system opens the door to an endless deployment of new weapons that don’t actually provide real, long-term security.
Instead, Baek says a first step toward a demilitarized Korean Peninsula is to sign a peace treaty to at last end the Korean War. Younger Koreans, she pointed out, may not even realize that the 1950-53 war paused with an armistice, not a formal peace treaty.
North Korea has called for a peace treaty on multiple occasions, but disputes over the North’s nuclear program, U.S.-ROK joint military exercises, and the presence of U.S. forces in the South have forestalled peace talks. Speaking in Berlin last week, however, South Korean President Moon Jae-in stated his willingness to meet with Kim Jong Un and of the need to negotiate a peace treaty.
Baek and other Korean peace activists would like to see the network of U.S. bases closed and 28,500 soldiers leave Korea, but she doesn’t expect it anytime soon. “There is no reason for the U.S. military to be here forever. [We] have to go in the direction so that we don’t need a U.S. presence here in the future.”
Militarizing the Island of Peace
Sixty miles south of the Peninsula is South Korea’s sub-tropical Jeju island, known for its biodiversity, political independence, and unabashed embrace of tourism development. Jeju is also home to a bitterly contested Korean Naval Complex completed in 2016. In Gangjeong Village, where the base was built, residents and their allies fought a bitter 10-year battle against construction of the base, opposing the militarization of what former President Roh Moo-hyun designated the “Island of Peace” in 2005 as a gesture of reconciliation and in memory of the Jeju April 3 incident in which up to 30,000 people were killed between 1947-1954.
Anti-base activists suspected the strategically positioned port would ultimately be docking U.S. warships, something officials denied but a 2013 report (PDF) by a U.S. Navy commander described the Jeju base as an ideal location for operating ocean surveillance ships and combatant escorts patrolling the East China and Yellow Seas. “In spite of these potential advantages, the United States has wisely been quiet about the Jeju Naval Base and should remain so, lest it cause China to overreact,” the author wrote, acknowledging the base’s potential to spark a regional arms race.
Earlier this year U.S. Pacific Command’s Harry Harris raised red flags among base opponents when he floated the idea of deploying the U.S.’ largest missile destroyer, the USS Zumwalt, near the Jeju base. In March, the USS Stethem guided missile destroyer became the first U.S warship to dock at the Jeju base followed by the guided missile destroyer USS Dewey in June. Both times protesters were demonstrating outside the base, decrying foreign military visits which they say will further heighten regional tensions.
Ko Gwon-il, the vice-mayor of Gangjeong, has some advice for the U.S.: “You are not the only country burdened with the cause of world peace. We can accept the burden together. You can stop your role as the world’s police nation.”
A divided Korea that is technically still at war is fertile ground for playing off fears of any neighboring country, Ko said. “So many Koreans easily accept the military and don’t question government proposals about the base.”
One of South Korea’s most prominent peace activists, retired Catholic priest Father Mun Jeong-hyeon, moved to Jeju to oppose the base and, more broadly, all forms of militarism in Korea. Mun has traveled to North Korea and wants to see a non-military solution but recognizes reunification is no simple task. “It’s very complicated. It’s very difficult to be united,” but Mun asked pointedly, “Why Korea was divided? Why the USA is stationed in this country for a long time?”
Little Slice of America
An hour’s drive south of Seoul in the city of Pyeongtaek, U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys is in the final years of a massive expansion. When completed around 2020 it will be the largest overseas U.S. military base in the world with a population projected to swell to nearly 46,000 as other U.S. bases are closed and personnel are relocated to Humphreys.
Camp Humphreys, reported to be the U.S.’ largest-ever peacetime military construction project, includes half a dozen 12-story family housing towers, new schools, a golf course, retail complexes, a chapel, an Army simulation center, a small arms range, and 140 other construction projects with 655 new buildings and a price tag of $10.7 billion, 90 percent of which is being paid for by the ROK government (PDF).
There’s been a human cost too. Tripling Humphreys from 1,000 to 3,400 acres required absorbing the land surrounding the base which was provided by the South Korean government. This involved the messy task of forcing villagers off their farms and relocating them. Protests in the mid-2000s were fierce but in the end, the villagers were removed, the land handed over to the U.S. military and the razor wire topped walls were pushed outward.
Now, more than 10 years after the protests, large black, red, and white banners with angry slogans still flutter in the breeze just beyond Humphreys’ walls. They read: “We can’t live like this. Find a solution for residents,” “Low-flying helicopters force our windows closed in summer heat,” and “Change the flight path!”
Kang Sang-won of the Pyeongtaek Peace Center monitors local military matters and works with villagers affected by the expansion. He asks what peace means to the U.S. and South Korean governments. “[Both] governments are saying they want peace… peace means a level of military tension for them… so they agreed to deploy the THAAD missile system and bring more U.S. arms to Korea.”
Like other South Korean communities divided by military installations, Pyeongtaek’s population is a mix of base supporters and opponents. And while resistance to bases appears to diminish over time as the social, psychological, and physical costs mount, diehard opponents continue their struggle for years. As Father Mun said, even in defeat, it is important to continue to be a witness for truth.
Following North Korea’s Fourth of July announcement that it had tested its first ICBM, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley warned of waning chances for diplomacy and the threat of using “our considerable military forces.” Not surprisingly however, the more than 10 million South Koreans living in Seoul, a mere 30 miles from the DMZ aren’t so quick to discount diplomacy. Casualty projections are exceptionally grim and despite Kim Jong Un’s “sea of fire” proclamations, Koreans on both sides of the border share the same ethnic, linguistic, and cultural roots.
Alexis Dudden, a professor of Korean and Japanese history at the University of Connecticut, stresses the importance of understanding the complexity of modern Korea-Japan relations to better appreciate Korean resistance to U.S. demands. Dudden said it is “imperative that Washington planners take seriously South Korean desires for renewed engagement.” Nearly 77 percent of South Koreans want renewed talks with the North according to a recent poll. In a country where one in six families is directly affected by the North-South divide, Dudden said, “the obliteration alternative is no alternative at all.”
Following North Korea’s July 4 test of an ICBM, world leaders meeting at the G-20 summit in Hamburg were unanimous in their condemnation of the test but failed to present a unified statement. President Donald Trump has vowed to press for increased sanctions against the North that could take aim at China too. Meanwhile the presence of THAAD, ongoing U.S.-ROK and Japanese military exercises, and the likelihood of further North Korean weapon tests bode ill for the region.
If escalating tensions and the threat of war have served any useful purpose it has been to bolster the determination of South Koreans and others to pursue the peaceful resolution of a war that should have ended 64 years ago. At a time when the U.S.-South Korean alliance is being tested as never before, the voices of those calling for peace implore their new president to seek engagement with the North.
Last month, in a speech delivered before the Center for Strategic & International Studies during his first overseas trip as president, Moon Jae-in described South Korea and the U.S. as sharing a “great alliance.” Even as he spoke of “facing the most imminent and dangerous menace in the world,” Moon acknowledged opposition to THAAD and the importance of democratic legitimacy. Then, in a statement that may have heartened a nation weary of the constant threat of war, Moon declared, “a great alliance is the one that brings peace.”