Presentation to Northeast Asia Women’s Peace Conference

Seoul, October 5-7, 2010


Linda J. Yarr

Director, Partnerships for International Strategies in Asia (PISA)

The George Washington University


Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am honored to have received the invitation from the distinguished organizing committee of the Northeast Asia Women’s Peace Conference to address you today. I must confess at the outset, that I am not an expert on the history of or even the current political situation of the Korean Peninsula. My standpoint is that of a concerned citizen of the United States of America and an individual committed to fostering the conditions for peace and social justice for all the inhabitants of our planet.

 

In reflecting on how to address the issues before us during this conference, I am reminded of a personal experience shortly after my move to Washington, DC from the New York area. I am a runner, and I was out for a run one early fall evening in the park in the center of Washington called the National Mall. As I ran, I came across larger than life-size statues of a squad of soldiers, dressed in heavy rain ponchos, their faces intent and troubled, making their way across a field. The late-day shadows cast by the statues enhanced the overall impression of the pain, difficulty, and loneliness of battle. I had stumbled upon the Korean War Memorial dedicated to the memory of the dead, wounded, captured and missing from 22 countries in the United Nations forces during the war here on the Korean Peninsula. The central motto displayed on the memorial is the phrase “Freedom is not Free.” And yet, as I contemplated the memorial and what it evoked, I could not fail to note how partial a representation it was of the true cost of war, and especially the true cost of war for all the people of the Korean Peninsula, North and South of the Demilitarized Zone, which marks a pause in the war, not a real peace.

 

As moving as this monument may be, like most military memorials, it does not come close to depicting the impact of the war on the civilian populations of the entire peninsula: the loss of lives, livelihoods, livestock, farmland, and dwellings suffered by vast numbers of inhabitants. How many families lost their principal wage earner; how many children lost their fathers; how many women bore the physical and emotional scars of war? How many generations continue to bear the cost of war? When economists consider an investment of funds, they also take into consideration the opportunity cost, in other words, the gains that could be achieved by an alternative use of those funds. What is the opportunity cost of war? What are the gains that society could have obtained from young men pursuing an education, manufacturing useful goods, reaping bountiful harvests, and directing their creativity to the arts and invention rather than means of destruction?

 

Some years ago, I was teaching a course on global political economy at a university on the East Coast of the United States, and I asked my students how many had close relatives who lived west of the Mississippi River. Nearly all raised their hands. I asked them to imagine how they might cope if from one day to the next our country was divided in two and they were to lose contact with their families on the other side of the river. We explored not only the personal ramifications, but also the economic, environmental and social problems that would ensue. How does one begin to calculate the enormity of that cost?

 

Of course wars do not spring from a rational calculus of costs and benefits. More often than not they arise from missteps in assessing what international relations theorists call a security dilemma. Each side in a potential conflict seeks to protect itself from what it fears are the weapons and military forces marshaled by the opposing side. What ensues is a dangerous instability where intentions can be too easily misconstrued and the dogs of war are unleashed.

In August, the world marked the sixty-fifth anniversary of the dropping of atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As reported in The Catholic Worker newspaper (August - September, 2010), Archbishop Joseph of Takami in Japan journeyed to New York to take part in the United Nations’ Non-Proliferation Treaty Conference. The paper quoted him as saying: “An atomic bomb means a total denial of the dignity of a human person. The human race does not need such an inhuman weapon nor should we need it…I dare say that the existence of nuclear weapons is intrinsically evil and there is no reason whatsoever to justify this deadly weapon. Even one nuclear weapon should not be tolerated.” He goes on to say that “The existence of nuclear weapons in the world is a grave threat to peace and we need to abolish them. We humans produce weapons and we humans can and must do away with them. I would like to insist that the time has come to take concrete and definitive steps toward total nuclear disarmament.”

During the War on the Korean Peninsula some 690,000 tons of bombs were dropped by US forces resulting in the deaths of two to three million people. As unjustifiable as those numbers may be, they cannot even point to a peaceful outcome to the conflict. Today we face a dangerous and fragile stalemate. Koreans on both sides of the line drawn across this peninsula, seen from space, a spit of land jutting into the sea, are alleged to be protected by nuclear arms: to the north by a nuclear arms program condemned by other nations as nuclear proliferation, to the south by the so-called nuclear umbrella extended by treaty and backed by the overwhelming nuclear arsenal of the United States.  In the wings, the nuclear powers Russia and China watch and wait.

 

Resolution of this stalemate and acceptance of the Archbishop’s admonition to “take concrete and definitive steps for toward total nuclear disarmament” requires patient and deliberate measures to reduce the security dilemma and raise confidence that a peaceful future can be achieved. How to do this?

 

I fear that at this time the focus on the nuclear issue is fraught with fear and hyperbole. So, the first tack to take is to broaden the scope of what will contribute in tangible ways to helping residents of the Korean Peninsula North and South feel safe and secure and improve their well-being.

 

A common motto used by the group Another Mother for Peace, during the effort to stop the American War in Vietnam, emblazoned on badges and T-shirts, read “War is not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things.” The motto and image of a flower became ubiquitous in peace movement events because it was a simple message that appealed to what everyone strives for, the well-being of their off-spring and future generations.

Therefore, I propose that those of us assembled here at the Northeast Asia Women’s Peace Conference consider reframing the immediate threat to peace and security away from that of nuclear proliferation and toward a looming threat that offers scope for knowledge sharing and cooperation in order to ensure the well-being of future generations north and south of the DMZ.

 

Redirecting the focus of dialogues and activities to the environment offers a way to build confidence in pursuit of concrete plans to face threats to the future health and well-being of residents of the entire Korean Peninsula. Dr. Peter Hayes of the Nautilus Institute and others have proposed engaging both the North and the South to work together to turn the Demilitarized Zone, or parts of it, into a biodiversity corridor to that will preserve a natural environment and allow for the free range of species dependent on it. The engagement of planners, scientists, and policymakers in this joint project would be a positive step forward toward building trust among the parties.  Whereas I laud this initiative as a creative and concrete proposal, I fear that it may be considered a luxury, a side project that does not go to the heart of the security dilemma. Rather than seeing each other as threats, how can Koreans in the north and the south turn their attention to what threatens their future equally? I am thinking of the threat of global climate change and its attendant effects in terms of sea level rise, extreme weather events, and change in biodiversity, agricultural conditions, fisheries, disease prevalence and access to fresh water.

The Korean Peninsula has in recent years experienced severe floods and droughts causing untold hardships and loss of productivity. A study at Pukyong National University of sea-level rise around the Korean Peninsula indicated that the increase is more rapid and “…almost 30 percent greater than the accepted figure for global rise during the same period” referring to the period 1993 to 2005. The report dated January 9, 2008 states that it is “…almost 30 per cent greater than the accepted figure for global rise during the same period.” It continues to note that “It is twice as fast as the rate during the last 30 years.”

(http://asmmag.com/news/sea-level-rise,accessed9/10/10)

The challenge of building resilience in the face of global climate change is urgent and will require North/South cooperation and coordination. Promotion of knowledge sharing on disaster preparedness and response, technical cooperation on infrastructure design, development of early warning systems, building urban resilience, creating community based adaptation programs, as well as measures to reduce deforestation and increase afforestation, while increasing energy efficiency, all offer the means to channel attention to creating real security on the Korean Peninsula and harnessing creativity and good will on each side.

 

Can the women of Northeast Asia offer a new vision of the security dilemma, one that displaces the instability of mutual fears about nuclear arms with the certainty that global climate change represents a clear and present threat for which counter-measures can be cooperatively designed and put in place? How can we distill this vision into a slogan as potent and effective as “War is not healthy for children and other living things?”  I believe that if we can make our voices heard at the conference tables and corridors of power, we can offer an alternative framework for facing the challenges of the future for the peoples of the Korean Peninsula, Northeast Asia and the countries from which we hail.  Thank you for your attention.

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