Commentary
By Jim Wallis 3-15-2018

The most immediate foreign policy danger we face is a potential military conflict on the Korean Peninsula, with nuclear weapons at hand.

Unexpectedly, as of this week, there is a real possibility of direct talks in the coming months between the United States and North Korea — perhaps even direct dialogue between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.

That is both very good news and will be very complicated at the same time. As such, as we approach these conversations, here are three truths that American Christians must keep in mind.

1. There is a high danger of military confrontation

…Including even potential nuclear confrontation. Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un — two of the biggest and brashest egos on the planet — have both actively escalated a more than 60-year-old conflict with irresponsible and inflammatory rhetoric, with both even threatening the ultimate violence of nuclear war. The dangers here, and the potential loss of life especially in East Asia, are unimaginable.

As Wes Granberg-Michaelson wrote for Sojourners last fall from South Korea and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ):

…What’s at stake here is the possibility of a nuclear conflagration which seems more threatening than at any other time since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Instead of quiet, earnest diplomacy exploring every option to prevent this, we've heard cataclysmic threats and taunts from President Trump, delivered from the podium of the United Nations. Of course, Kim Jong-un’s rhetoric is also predictably and continuously bombastic — but past U.S. presidents have recognized that peace isn’t advanced by escalating taunts and insults.

When there is such danger, there is every reason to talk, and none for not talking. With such complications, enormous egos, and political hypocrisies present, an even greater attempt to de-escalate danger is needed. No one should be willing to accept the potential loss of millions of innocent lives in North and South Korea, even in a non-nuclear military confrontation. Any possibility of avoiding this outcome through dialogue is not only worth trying — it is a moral imperative.

2. South Korea deserves credit for this opportunity

…Not the egos of the adolescent bullies leading the U.S. and North Korea. Trump and Jong-un’s mutual lack of diplomatic experience or skill makes the role of South Korea even more important. And since the removal of South Korean President Park Geun-hye last March for her connection to a corruption and influence-peddling scandal, the landslide victory of the more liberal Moon Jae-in as her successor has heralded a change in South Korea’s diplomatic posture, toward more engagement with the North.

We have seen this posture bear fruit already, particularly with the success of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, which featured athletes from North and South Korea competing and marching under the same flag. South Korea has shown tremendous leadership in pushing forward to create an opening for direct dialogue between leaders in the South and the North, and dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea, to resolve the nuclear impasse — in spite of the nearly unprecedented provocations from both Trump and Jong-un.

At the same time, these talks are still in the planning stages, and remain extraordinarily fragile. South Korea is the only member of this three-nation equation that shares ideal outcomes with both the U.S. and the North. North Korea wants reunification of the peninsula. So does South Korea, albeit under different terms. The U.S. wants the North to denuclearize. South Korea wants this as well, as the only way its own safety and the goal of peaceful reunification can plausibly find a path forward. As such, these talks will depend upon the more mature and wiser leadership of South Korea, which still sees its neighbors to the north as members of their own country and families. Both Washington and Pyongyang should turn to Seoul as an honest diplomatic broker, as each has more reasons to trust South Korea than one another.

3. It is time to put conflict resolution over partisan politics

The danger demands that. Fox News will inevitably use these talks to build up the credibility and future electability of Donald Trump (while it would have slammed Barack Obama had he done anything like this — and did on Iran). MSNBC has displayed similar hypocrisy, with continually critical of the initiative, when a similar type of effort by Barack Obama would be getting high praise from the same anchors and analysts who criticize it now.

At Sojourners, we have always taken Jesus’ words at the Sermon on the Mount (“blessed are the peacemakers”) to heart, and we continue to believe that the principles of conflict resolution should form the basis for the Christian and moral response to such nuclear danger.

The core ideas behind conflict resolution are simple but powerful. Human conflict is inevitable. More importantly, however, most conflicts, even those between nations, are resolved without recourse to violence. It is not conflict itself that is negative or to be avoided — the fact that most conflict ends non-violently tells us that we should view violent conflict as a profound and nearly-always avoidable failure.

And we have seen from conflict resolution processes like the one that led to the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland that, in the words of then-Senator George Mitchell, “No matter how ancient the conflict, no matter how much harm has been done, peace can prevail.” Northern Ireland, which our colleague Layton Williams just wrote about for Sojourners magazine, is a model that should give us hope for conflicts like the current standoff on the Korean Peninsula.

Indeed, as Granberg-Michaelson pointed out, it’s important for us to recognize that the Korean War has never officially ended:

“For some Koreans, reunification is an earnest hope…countless times [in South Korea] I’ve heard prayers and hopes for reunification, some time, in some way. And those prayers come from Christian communities across South Korea. It’s hard to answer how reunification would be peaceably achieved, but that doesn’t diminish hope.” 

Conflict resolution does not presume moral negotiating parties, nor does it require a demonstrated prior trustworthiness on the part of any side. Merely the willingness for parties to get together to both talk and listen — even and especially when it’s hard — has often proved a necessary and pivotal first step on what ultimately proves to be the pathway to peace.

As a final note: It would be irresponsible not to mention the United States' nuclear hypocrisy. We cannot resolve this conflict without the humility to fully understand and accept our own part in it, and our role in the continuing proliferation of nuclear weapons. We are the only country to have used a nuclear weapon against another, and we have the largest and most powerful arsenal by far. We ourselves have been willing to take only baby steps toward the commitment enshrined in U.N.'s Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, while using the treaty to forcefully argue for preventing non-ally nations from acquiring nuclear weapons.

At the end of the Cold War, when the former Soviet Union had collapsed and was incredibly weak, we had a real window and opportunity, for the first time in history, to pursue steady global nuclear disarmament. While some progress has been made (nearly 14,500 nuclear weapons exist worldwide today, compared with 70,000 at the height of the Cold War), no one could look at our previous administrations, stretching back to Truman, and earnestly conclude that we have ever intended to fully mutually disarm ourselves.

The non-nuclear world has long recognized the danger that nuclear weapons represent for the survival of the human race. Last year, 122 nations adopted the first-ever international treaty banning nuclear weapons. No country who possesses these weapons today participated in the debate, so the treaty didn't get as much attention as it should. But it represents a strong belief by the majority of the world’s nations that the current status quo is neither acceptable nor sustainable.

Sojourners has a longstanding commitment to reducing the global nuclear stockpile and working toward a world free of nuclear weapons. We believe it is a sin for a nation to build a nuclear weapon, or threaten to use one. It is time for our nation, and all others who possess this ability, to repent. Perhaps face-to-face.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His new Audible spoken-word series, Jim Wallis In Conversation, is available now, as is his book, America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

Don't Miss a Story!

Get Sojourners delivered straight to your inbox.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"On US-North Korea, Listen to Seoul"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines and acknowledge that my comment may be published in the Letters to the Editor section of Sojourners magazine.

Must Reads

Subscribe