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Koreans Want Peace, Do Liberal Pundits Want War?

(Reuters / Korea Summit Press Pool)

Interview with Christine Ahn by Aaron Maté | June 19, 2018 From the

In decrying the Singapore summit and Trump’s freeze on U.S. military exercises, liberal pundits are ignoring popular opinion and years of peace activism in South Korea, says Christine Ahn of Women Cross DMZ.

AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.

The peace efforts underway on the Korean Peninsula are widely popular on the Korean Peninsula. In South Korea, polls show overwhelming support for this week’s summit between President Trump and Kim Jong un. That sentiment was reinforced when just after the summit the party of South Korean leader Moon Jae-in scored a massive victory in local elections. But the reaction has been notably different among a particular group: U.S. liberal pundits. To some of them, even the sight of seeing American and North Korean flags side by side was alarming. Here, for example, is Wendy Sherman, a State Department official who served under President Obama.

WENDY SHERMAN: I must say, I was a little taken aback by the North Korean flags and the American flag side by side. We really aren’t side by side. We aren’t equals to each other. And this conferred power to Kim Jong-un that I don’t believe he has yet earned in terms of the respect from the United States.

AARON MATE: This liberal unease continued when President Trump announced a temporary freeze on U.S. war games in the Korean Peninsula. To MSNBC host Rachel Maddow this was an alarming development, and one that was likely the fault of Russia.

RACHEL MADDOW: Russia has just this tiny little border, 11 mile long border, with North Korea, with one crossing on a train. And they’ve got a troubled and varied history over the decades with that country. But Russia is also increasingly straining at its borders right now, and shoving back U.S. and Western influence. Especially U.S. and Western military presence anywhere near what it considers to be its own geopolitical interests. And one of the things that they have started to loudly insist on is that the U.S. drop those joint military exercises with South Korea. The U.S. has kept those going as a pillar of U.S. national security strategy for 70 years, now. Until last night, when Trump casually announced that that’s over now. He’s doing away with those. Blindsided everybody involved. And gave North Korea something they desperately want and would do almost anything for. Except he gave it to them for free. How come?

AARON MATE: Well, joining me for a perspective is Christine Ahn. She is the founder of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing to end the Korean War. Welcome, Christine. If we could start with addressing what we, what we’ve just heard, both from Wendy Sherman decrying the sight of seeing the flags, the U.S., North Korean flags side by side. Then also there from Rachel Maddow when she says that U.S. war games in, in Korea have been a pillar of U.S. national security for, for decades now, and she sees the halt to those war games by President Trump as something to be alarmed about.

CHRISTINE AHN: Well, I was actually in Washington, D.C. the day after the summit, and I walked around on Capitol Hill meeting with several Democrat offices, and it was hugely deflating, as somebody who has been working for this moment, for the U.S., a standing U.S. president to meet with the North Korean leader and to begin a process of establishing the historic enmity into one of potential friendship. And it’s just astounding to me that there is this intense U.S. exceptionalism that we don’t meet with dictators and we don’t believe in meeting with enemies as an important step towards building peace.

It’s just incredible to me. And the whole thing from the quote-unquote disarmament community that what was signed between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, especially Donald Trump’s noting about the halting of the provocative wargames was a concession, when in fact we know from South Korean president Moon that he actually had his senior envoy Moon Chung-in float the idea last year in the summer ahead of his trip to Washington, D.C. We know Moon Chung-in is often known as the envoy that is one to kind of introduce new ideas, and he was totally attacked for that. But clearly the response from the South Korean president that they would be amenable, especially if this is going to help advance inter-Korean dialogue and peace process-.

And today Harry Harris, the former head of the U.S. Pacific Command and the likely new U.S. ambassador to South Korea, has said that it’s fine to do this, that we are in a new era of relations with North Korea, and that it makes perfect sense to actually halt these war drills. And clearly they have been done in the past. In 1994, Clinton also got a, halted those military exercises.

And so I feel like what is completely missing is that there’s something about the Trump administration and President Trump himself, because he is in some ways so anti-establishment, he is, that he is kind of seeing the Korean situation through new eyes. And when he talks about the Korean War he talks about it as if he’s just learning about these things. Because that’s the truth, is most Americans have no idea about what happened on the Korean Peninsula. What the U.S. did in the 1950-’53 Korean War. How the U.S. even divided the Korean Peninsula, and has maintained a pretty aggressive military, economic, and political stance against North Korea.

So it’s, it’s quite surprising to me that the so-called party of peace and diplomacy, you know, are the quick ones to basically decry the significant meeting that took place this week between North Korea and the U.S.

AARON MATE: I’m not as confident about what Donald Trump represents and what he sees. But I do think that it’s remarkable to see liberals decry what is obviously a huge step forward, the first time a sitting U.S. president meets with a North Korean leader. There was a headline in Mother Jones, for example, the liberal magazine, reading “Donald Trump Abandons South Korea.” Seems to be quite different from the picture that you’re painting here. What has been the reaction inside South Korea? And does the victory of Moon Jae-in’s party just after the summit in local elections, does that signify an endorsement of this peace process?

CHRISTINE AHN: Oh, absolutely. I mean, he just killed it. His party just killed it. And it’s, I mean, every analysis is because of the vast support for engagement for this diplomacy with North Korea.

And you know, when we were in South Korea just two weeks ago with the South Korean women’s peace movements, you know, they asked us, could you please let the American people know that we want this peace process with North Korea to succeed, unlike it being derailed during the last sunshine era when George W. Bush put North Korea on the axis of evil. And they said, we accept Kim Jong-un as they are, and we believe that engagement with North Korea is going to improve the day-to-day conditions for North Korean people.

And so I feel that we have to listen. I feel like the way that it is framed in the U.S. is, you know, on the one hand, Donald Trump is just trashing our historic allies Canada and France, and meanwhile, you know, cozying up to such an autocratic leader, authoritarian leader like Kim Jong-un. And the truth is that South Korea has been one of our historic allies. And if this is what the leader and the vast majority-. I mean, this is like 90 percent of South Koreans support the Moon and Kim summit. They support the Panmunjeom Declaration that was signed between North and South Korea. This is pretty astounding support that the South Korean president and the people have demonstrated for this process, the two trains that are moving forward between the U.S. and North Korea, and between Seoul and Pyongyang. And so I think we need to hear from the peace movement that very much wants this to succeed.

AARON MATE: You know, when you talk about South Korea and the U.S. being allies, I think it’s worth remembering that they were also allies when South Korea was ruled by an authoritarian government, and that the the peace movement in South Korea has had to struggle very hard in recent decades. Can you talk about the evolution of the peace movement? So what this moment means for them, and how the conditions for them today contrast to how it’s been before, including not even too long ago.

CHRISTINE AHN: Well, I mean, the peace movement has these moments of ebb and flow. Because we know that really the first democratic election in South Korea was in 1987, when they elected Kim Dae-jung, otherwise it had been kind of backed by U.S. backed iterators in South Korea, from Syngman Rhee, the first president that was installed by the U.S., and then Park Chung-hee, the father of Park Geun-hye.

So it’s, the peace movement is able to kind of progress and evolve and develop under more liberal regimes. And you know, really, that’s in the past has only been ten years under Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. And so many decades of-. There’s been repression, not just in terms of, you know, sentiments about wanting reunification, or some people that might have more sympathetic views on North Korea. I mean, South Korea is under a national security law that has been in place since the end of the Korean War. And so when there are moments of detente between North and South Korea, there is greater freedom of speech, greater freedom of expression, of political participation.

And you know, that was, for me, one of the most significant takeaways from being at the DMZ this year when we were marching with 1200 South Korean women in the DMZ this summer, compared to 2015 when a lot of these women had to be underground. They, they put their focus on social justice and peace work towards other, other efforts, because of the repression under Lee Myung-bak and under Park Geun-hye. So this is a moment, I think that Moon Jae-in is just starting his, his term. I mean, this is just one year in a five-year term, and he has clearly won the mandate in this local election. And you know, the peace movement is just getting started.

I mean, I really felt this moment of optimism as the plans that were shelved under the last 10 years of kind of conservative, neoconservative hardline rule-. I mean, they are dusting off those shelves and those plans are being revived. And so this breakthrough between the U.S. and North Korea is only going to help advance that inner Korean peace process instead of getting in the way of it.

AARON MATE: Christine Ahn, founder of Women Cross DMZ, thank you.

CHRISTINE AHN: Thank you, Aaron.

AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.


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