An American Women’s View on Peace Building in Northeast Asia


Karin LEE

Secretary General, National committee on North Korea (US)


Please allow me to extend my thanks to Women Making Peace for inviting me to participate in the Northeast Asian Women’s Peace Conference/Women’s Six-Party Conference. I am honored to attend. I would like to give a special thanks to Jung Gyung-Lan! It occurred to me as I prepared to come here that we met for the first time just about ten years ago. I will always be grateful to her for helping me to understand the perspective of peace workers in the ROK. I have deep respect for her work and dedication and the work of Women Making Peace.


When exploring the view of the American woman on peace building, I am struck, once again, by the difficulty of defining "a woman’s view." Two American women have played very prominent ? and very different -- roles in U.S. foreign policy in the last ten years. The first is U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright, who met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in October 2000. Albright discussed her visit with him diplomatically, complimenting Kim for his intelligence and ability to answer complex technical questions about his missile program, without reference to notes or his own experts. Although articulate about the threat she felt that the DPRK’s missile program posed to the United States and the region, she also acknowledged, realistically, the role missiles sales play in the DPRK economy. Albright was prepared to address missile proliferation from that perspective. She worked toward a non-military diplomatic solution to the long-standing peace and security issues between the United States and DPRK.


About two years later, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice’s approach was markedly different, when she used inflammatory language to help build the U.S. administration’s flawed case for going to war with Iraq. On September 8, 2002 Rice that "The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he [Saddam Hussein] can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don't want the smoking gun "Smoking gun"is an American English idiom that means irrefutable evidence or proof to be a mushroom cloud." This image of the mushroom cloud, which triggers an almost visceral response of fear, lodged in people’s minds, a dramaticsymbol of the threat posed by Iraq’s nuclear program, and the necessity of U.S. military action. A year later, when inspections had found no nuclear weapons, Rice’s words symbolized insteadthe tactics of fear and exaggeration that the Bush Administration usedto persuade the American people to support the war.


The policy pursued by women in leadership positions, is, of course, unpredictable. While women certainly bring their own experiences, viewpoints, and experiences to bear, gender does not predict behavior. Furthermore, the constraints and demands imposed by a political party, by global or regional dynamics, or the imperative of inherited diplomatic agreements are as important as their own beliefs. Women who achieve leadership roles in government, depending on which government they serve or the historical moment in which the serve, may wield their power to foster diplomatic solutions, or they may use their power to unleash war.We can see this is the case with Rice, now the Secretary of State, who has become a stalwart and absolutely indispensable supporter of the Bush administration’s new approach with the DPRK, a far different approach than the one taken in the administration’s first term.


Women in power represent the governments they serve, and all governments fall short of our own idealistic goals for a peaceful world. It is a government’s mission to ensure the human security of its subjects. However, our governments’ interpretation of the interests of its citizens is very complex. At times, it is the exact opposite of what we ourselves would define as our interests. In the United States we remain angry about how "U.S. interests" were interpreted to justify starting the war with Iraq, and deeply pained by the loss of life carried out in the name of "U.S. interests."


So we must look for additional methods to build our own common interests, as both peace makers and as women, to challenge the "national interests" of our governments. Women have a significant role to play in peace building in Northeast Asia at the grassroots and civil society level. Women for Genuine Security, a U.S. based peace organization, has an excellent definition of our common interests that I would like to share here:


We envision a world of genuine securitybased on justice, respect for others across national boundaries, and economic planning that meets people's needs, especially women and children. We work toward the creation of a society free of militarism, violence, and all forms of sexual exploitation, and for the safety, well-being, and long-term sustainability of our communities.


Women for Genuine Securityworks closely with groups in Asia, such as Du Rae Bang (My Sister’s Place), the National Campaign to Eradicate Crime by US Troops in South Korea and Safe here in South Korea to address the impact of US militarism on the societies in which US troops are based.


The United States falls short when it comes to peace building in East Asia. Women for Genuine Security is a real rarity in the United States: it is a women’s organization that focuses on foreign policy and peace issues in Asia. In the Untied States, most women’s organizations focus primarily on domestic issues that particularly affect women, such as domestic violence, rape, abortion, and pay equity (equal pay for men and women).


Women’s groups that do look at peace and foreign policy do notspend much of their time and funding on Asia, with the exception of Women for Genuine Security. For example, Code Pink is a women-led group formed on the belief that "Women are not better or purer or more innately nurturing than men, but the men have busied themselves making war, so we are taking the lead for peace." Code Pink is a women’s organization that focusesexclusively on peace and foreign policy. However, although Code Pinkobserved Hiroshima and Nagasaki Commemoration Week, they are primarily concerned with war with Iraq and possible war with Iran rather than peace issues in East Asia. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom pays some attention to Asia, but they tend to be reactive rather than active. They don’t have a full-time program focusing on Asia, but instead respond to moments of crisis such as North Korea’s nuclear test.


In the absence of faith that women in leadership will necessarily bring peace to the region, and with a recognition that women’s peace organizations in the United States are not poised to contribute significantly to peace building in East Asia, you may think that I have lost hope. However, I am still hopeful. This is because a third tool, people-to-people exchanges, is one of the most powerful tools for building peace, and that is a tool we can all use.


In the 1990s, working with some of my friends here from Women Making Peace, we witnessed a powerful meeting of the minds, and meeting of the hearts between women from Taiwan and South Korea whose sons had been injured or killed during mandatory military service. For me, the ability of these women to communicate the pain of their losses, and their rage against their unsympathetic governments, was proof of the commonality between women across nationality and language barriers.


It is this bond that I would like to propose be the one on which we focus in building peace in Northeast Asia. Exchangeshave the potential to be the building blocks of a new understanding, of a new common interest that can replace the "national interest" that dominates foreign policy decision-making.


We have seen this work effectively when many women united, in the region and in the United States, to work on the Comfort Women issue. One of the most powerful elements of this campaign was its transnational elements, and its decision to reject nationalist arguments for a broader-based international human rights framework. I would like to take a moment here to remember the late Yayori Matsui, the founder of the Violence Against Women in War-Network, which was a keyforce behind the Women's International War Crimes Tribunalheld in Tokyo in 2000.Yayori worked tirelessly to address the transgressions and crimes of the Japanese government. Her efforts would not have been successful unless she had formed strong relationships across national boundaries. Unfortunately, Yayori, who passed away in 2003 at the age of 68, did not live to see the U.S. House pass House Resolution 121, which stated that it is the House of Representatives’ opinion that "the Government of Japan should formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner for its Imperial Armed Forces' coercion of young women into sexual slavery."


International work on the Comfort Women issue is still needed, as we know. And there are other topics in Asia that could benefit from similar regional work. Some of this work might parallel the work being done on a common history that incorporates all viewpoints into what took place during the Greater Pacific War and World War II. For example, the world was shocked by the violence instigated by Chinese students when the Olympic torch passed through Seoul, overwhelming that South Koreans who had gathered to protest China’s actions in Tibet. Tibet is an extremely controversial issue that dividesthe region. Similarly, the nationalist fevers over Dokdo/Takeshima Islands that resulted in the rewriting of Japanese history books and the subsequent bloody decapitation of pheasants in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul draw attention to another issue of great regional contention.


These are deeply divisive issues as an American, I cannot begin to understand their emotional and national significance. However, my reason for raising these controversial issues is to say that I believe we would all benefit if peace groups and civil society contributed to a greater understanding of the basis of the radically different views that drive these divisions. I think it would be useful for civil society to make a concertedeffort to address these topics through people-oriented investigations, partnering with women across the region, to make inquiries into topics that tear the region apart. I think it would be extraordinarily powerful for women in the region, as a first step, to meet together and to work together to talk about the basis for the different perspectives. The point would not be to develop a common agreement, but rather to demonstrate, ultimately in writing, that each side understands each country’s beliefs.


It might not be useful for Americans to be involved in such efforts at this stage, particularly in relations to the Dokdo island dispute. However, the United States can be usefully engaged in other kinds of exchange programs. Some exchange programs are very formal, such as educational exchanges that take place at universities around the world. Exchanges between professionals can be even more powerful. When professionals meet, they have a common mission, and out of that mission, peace and understanding grows spontaneously rather than through the force of will. Cross-training programs among women farmers, business women, bankers, doctors, historians and computer engineers and so-on can create a reservoir of understanding that transcends national interests.


Professional exchanges with the DPRK are particularly important, because we know so little about the DPRK, and they know so little about our countries. With the exception of the PRC, there are few exchanges of students, business people and training programs between the DPRK and countries in the region. Professional exchanges with the DPRK is one area in which the United States is increasingly active, and hopes to be ever more active as relationships between our two countries improve. One of my colleagueswho works closely with the DPRK explained to me "I can't say enough about the need for such exchanges. We can't possibly expect them to begin to understand us and why we do things the way we do without them getting some glimpse into what makes our society work, for better or worse."


It is not always possible for the ROK to host exchanges with the DPRK, and yet Koreans from either side of the DMZ often have a high interest in meeting with one another. Therefore, when hostingprofessional exchanges in third countries, we should be sure that both South Koreans and North Koreans can participate.


Women should also make every effort to visit the DPRK. To understand North Korea’s perspective, Americans should consider participating in a "reality tour" with Global Exchange, which was co-founded by Medea Benjamin, the co-founder of Code Pink. The Global Exchange offers a trip to the DPRK includes meetings with North Korean government officials to discuss US/DPRK relations, and a day-long visit to an agricultural program. Americans can also take a less political, more typical tourist trip through Asia1-on-1.


Focusing on exchanges provides an additional advantage. When the Six Party Process works well, we can all applaud it. However, we have all witnessed that the political process is fraught with obstacles and delays. Exchanges can take place despite lulls in the political process.


Furthermore, exchanges plant seeds for the future political process. South Korea will soon welcome Kathleen Stephens as the new U.S. Ambassador. You may know that Ambassador Stephens was a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in South Korea in the mid-1970s, when she learned to speak Korean.


Since I have just spent the first 10 of my 15 minutes about the mistake of relying on gender alone to predict the behavior of people in government, I can hardly conclude that Ambassador Stephens will prove more skilled at peace making than her male predecessors. However, I do believe that it was through an exchange program thirty years ago, Stephens learned a love for the ROK, and that she is dedicated to bringing the understanding she developed as a young woman to her future service here in South Korea. We can hope that the exchanges we initiate today can have a similar impact in the future.


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