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The Potential Power of Grassroots Activism for Peace in Korea: A Case Study

Sarah Sloan at a march for Peace in Korea

Sarah Sloan of ANSWER at a march for Peace in Korea

Sarah Sloan | August 9, 2014

This past July 27, 2014 marked the 61st anniversary of the signing of the 1953 Armistice Agreement that brought the combat phase of the Korean War to a close but did not formally end the war. Calling attention to the unfinished struggle for peace on the Korean peninsula, the Korea Policy Institute presents a powerful account of the role of American grassroots activism in the Korea peace movement. In local partnership with the Korea Policy Institute, the Alliance of Scholars Concerned about Korea and the National Campaign to End the Korean War sponsored the first Korea Peace Days for the 2013-14 year at UC Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley last November, reanimating a peacemaking tradition commenced over a decade ago on college campuses across the United States. These inaugural 2013-14 Korea Peace Day events featured speakers from major national social justice organizations who offered crucial context for the current tensions on the Korean peninsula and underscored the importance of U.S. dialogue, cooperation, and the active pursuit of peace with both Koreas, North and South.  Here, we highlight remarks on the significance of international solidarity in bringing an end to the Korean War delivered by Sarah Sloan, the national staff coordinator with the ANSWER Coalition (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism). *Note: you can also view this presentation.

We are gathered here 60 years and three months and one week and a few days after the United States signed an armistice agreement to temporarily halt the active combat in its war of aggression on the people of Korea, and we are faced with a monumental task: how to finally bring the Korean War to an end.

Whether you are just learning about this issue tonight or whether you are a long-time organizer for peace in Korea, ending the Korean War probably seems like a very daunting task—how can we can find hope that the end of the war could be near when it has been going on for so long?  In other words, how we can go from the current situation to a different situation?   So what I want to talk about today is politics.  Politics may seem endlessly routine and static.  Yet there are moments when seemingly imperceptible changes below the surface give rise to an entirely new situation.  To illustrate that point, I want to talk about unexpected changes in U.S. policy towards Syria in recent months.

The United States had warned Syria that use of chemical weapons would trigger a U.S. military campaign to topple the Syrian government.  Thus, in August 2013, when the United States alleged that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons against civilians, we may have expected reasonably that the Obama administration would make good on its word.  But that didn’t happen.  So we have to try to appreciate and understand what took place, and why.

It was August 21 when the United States said that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons.  Now, if the United States had started bombing right away, nothing could have stopped it.  But it hesitated.   The Obama administration was preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 march on Washington invoking the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., perhaps the greatest figure for peace and civil rights in American history.  Moreover Obama was going to represent his presidency as a legacy of the great civil rights struggle.  He couldn’t do that while simultaneously carrying out a major, unprovoked military assault against a country at peace with the United States.

In that moment of hesitation, opposition to a punitive military strike against Syria grew in England.  The House of Commons did something that it has not done since 1782.  It rejected the edict of the Prime Minister and voted against joining with the United States in an assault against Syria.  Thus deprived of the support of its traditional European ally, the United States found itself isolated on the international front, and the target of increasing opposition at home. Protesters were in the streets in cities around the country.  Congress was being overwhelmed with letters, emails, and faxes that were running, according to Congressional representatives, hundreds to one in opposition.

By now it was August 31.  Ten days had passed since this started and Obama decided to address the nation in a Rose Garden press conference.  Coincidentally, ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) happened to be demonstrating in front of the White House that Saturday afternoon when the press conference was announced.  Even though it was incredibly hot and everyone was exhausted, we rallied everyone to keep going and to just keep chanting.  We were chanting “Hands off Syria” over and over, and we started getting reports that in the Rose Garden and on the White House video feed, all you could hear was the chant “Hands off Syria”—this was the White House live video feed that was going to be broadcasting the speech.  Obama was inside the White House, the Rose Garden was set up for the press conference, all of the national and world media was sitting there waiting, but Obama wasn’t coming out, CNN reporters were tweeting “all we hear is ‘Hands off Syria,’ where’s the president?”

The last thing the administration wanted was to have people chanting in the background, “Hands off Syria,” while the president was making his case.  So it kept delaying the press conference.  The park police were threatening to arrest us if we didn’t leave (which we didn’t), and they were obviously undecided about what to do.  Then finally Obama came out and surprised everyone by saying that he was not about to begin bombing Syria, but in fact was delaying again, waiting for Congress to return so they could vote on it.

As the Congressional vote drew closer, it was clear that Obama would lose.  Thus when Russia intervened and announced that the Syrian government was willing to put its chemical weapons under international supervision and allow them to be destroyed, the Obama administration leapt at the offer.  Under the circumstances, Russia had tossed the Obama administration a political lifeline.

In other words, this was a case where a seemingly intractable U.S. policy was unexpectedly reversed by a congruence of events.  It wasn’t any one event.  There were multiple events—some of them domestic, some of them global, some of them just good luck (or bad luck, depending on your perspective)—and these combined to change the political situation.  What seems impossible or nearly impossible at one moment thus can change rapidly.  It can suddenly seem not only possible but probable and perhaps inevitable.

We have to believe that there can be a change in U.S./Korea relations.  The politics that determine what happens between the DPRK and the United States, and even between the DPRK and South Korea, are the politics of Washington, D.C.  As a U.S. anti-war organization, ANSWER has always felt it was important for the American people to do what the politicians seem to be unwilling to do: take the next step, push the U.S. government, and demand that it change its policy.

The first step in changing that policy would be to sign a peace treaty.  And so we should collect signatures, have rallies, carry out public education campaigns, lobby Congress, inform the media, and do everything else we can to show that people in the United States, along with Korean people in the North and South and overseas, demand that the politics of Washington change.  But often we are frustrated and sometimes demoralized because we protest, we have meetings, we do outreach, and nothing seems to change.  But we must remember that we never know where we are in the historical continuum until after the fact.  For example, in 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the back of that bus in Montgomery, Alabama, she had no way of knowing that her actions would spark a civil rights revolution in the United States, but they did.

Ending the Korean War means a peace treaty and everything that flows from that—an end to the U.S. threats against North Korea, an end to the so-called war games carried out between the United States and South Korea, the removal of all U.S. troops from South Korea, the end to sanctions against North Korea, and the right of the Korean people to self-determination and for the reunification of their country that was so cruelly divided by outside forces.

We truly believe that with the resolve and continued work of Korean and Korean American activists, and the anti-war movement in the United States, along with growing solidarity from progressive people across the globe, we will ultimately prevail.  And we also know that the will of the Korean people on the peninsula and around the world who demand peace and reunification cannot and will not be broken.

Sarah Sloan is the National Staff Coordinator of the ANSWER Coalition (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism). She helped found the ANSWER Coalition on September 2001, just days after September 11, to organize opposition to the Bush administration’s  manipulation of those events to carry out wars of aggression abroad and attacks on civil rights and civil liberties domestically. Ms. Sloan was a central organizer of the large-scale protests prior to the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003, and has continued to organize against the U.S. occupation of Iraq as well as U.S. wars, interventions and occupations in Afghanistan, Libya, Korea, Syria and elsewhere, in support of the Palestinian people, and on issues facing working people in the United States. Most recently, she helped organize mass opposition to the Israeli massacre in Gaza, including the August 2, 2014, National March on Washington attended by tens of thousands of people from across the United States. Ms. Sloan has appeared on Press TV, Telesur, HispanTV, Al Jazeera, RT, and other media outlets. 


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