Pensacola, Florida
Friday May 25th 2018


Viewpoint—Korea: A Fresh Approach

By Michael N. Nagler and Stephanie N. Van Hook

On the bus from Incheon Airport to Seoul National University, where we were going to participate in a six-culture nonkilling exploratory seminar, we found ourselves across the aisle from a young fellow eager to show us pictures of his recent trip to the North. Groups of South Koreans have until recently been regularly going across the border to help sew the fabric of the divided country back together. In fact, we were soon to experience the poignant yearning for reunification among people in South Korea and infer that it must be at least as strong in the North. The war games going on right now–at least as far as the Korean people are concerned–is a lovers’ quarrel.

Those can be nasty, but that is not the main trouble—there is not much room for the Korean people to work this out on their own. Superpowers rarely show much concern for the nations in whose fates they intervene—or for that matter, much wisdom. That is why the Korean conflict seems intractable—and also why it has to be resolved. If it is not, global hostilities could be reignited.

So it was with interest that I scanned a recent editorial in a newspaper of record listing possible scenarios and four things we (the U.S. and available allies) could do about the rising tensions. The first was violent. So was the second. So were the third and the fourth (that the U.S. and South Korea could simply outmaneuver the North with our superior technology and weapons).

Anyone who studies conflict knows that there are two ways to go about resolving one. There is of course a violent path, which leads ultimately to war, but there is also a nonviolent one that leads to reconciliation and the resumption of normal ties. Scholars and activists alike know that the latter are far less costly, in life and property, and they are really the only choice if we want a permanent solution without the residue of hatred that follows conquest. But public discourse and state policy are perfectly innocent of this knowledge, almost as if the participants inhabit the world of video games and “action movies” rather than historical experience and scientific logic. So conflict science, if we could inject it into the discourse, might just work wonders. What would it tell us?

As in any conflict, large or small, one has to start with the assumption—so far conspicuously absent here—that the people of North Korea—yes, including their leadership—are rational. They have a problem: they want respect, fulfillment of their basic needs, security and (as far as the people themselves are concerned) freedom. If they use extreme and sometimes counterproductive methods to achieve these results it is because they do not know any better. Do we?

If we do, our approach should be not to force them to give up on these goals but to help them find other, less extreme, ways of achieving them. So far the approach I’m describing is well known and has a well developed methodology that goes by the name of Nonviolent Communication, or NVC.

But what if it doesn’t work? What if the North Korean leadership clings to their destructive pattern of behavior, as is not uncommon in extreme conflicts? Then it will be time for what Gandhi called Satyagraha, which has the power, as he showed, to “compel reason to be free.” Koreans are no strangers to this science. They used it successfully in their dangerous uprising against the Syngman Rhee regime in the “April 19th Movement” of 1960. Last year Buddhist monks, who for centuries had kept to themselves, joined with popular demonstrations against the insane government-sponsored scheme to dig a canal across the Korean peninsula (the results of that campaign are pending).

Popular resistance, based on the nonviolent methodologies that have sprung up steadily since Gandhi and King, could be used to compel the government to adopt reconciliatory, mutually respectful approaches to the North, despite U.S. pressure. In fact—and literally volumes could be written on this—nonviolence could effectively be brought to bear both within the two Koreas and between them.

Furthermore, nonviolence is not limited to resistance. The other string to the nonviolent bow is what Gandhi called “constructive programme.” There is much Koreans could do—with the judicious help of international non-profits—to build bridges toward northerners, who after all have some dire physical needs that could be addressed in a respectful way (as was done in Sri Lanka by the longstanding Sarvodaya movement).

While we’ve been stressing what Koreans could do without, indeed despite, U.S. or other foreign intervention, it is not to say that we should take a hands-off attitude. Rather, we should say to the policymakers we can reach, ‘if you want to interfere, interfere usefully.’ U.S. intervention came down on the side of the student-led uprising (for once) against President Slobodan Milośevič in Serbia ten years ago, with the result that he was deposed bloodlessly and inexpensively (after a hugely expensive NATO campaign had failed to do this in much more time).

Nonviolence can be learned, up to a point, as can any other method of peace and reconciliation. At present there are as far as I can tell no peace studies programs per se in the educational system of the South (not to mention the North!); the South Korean system could be rapidly brought up to speed, ensuring that the next generation would not have to wait until tensions rose as high as they are now to resolve their conflicts. Koreans themselves are quite ready for this.

Behind the saber-rattling we’re hearing about there has been a tentative diplomatic opening between the two sides recently, which we should take advantage of, not to mention that the General Secretary of the UN is a Korean. But let us not be content with just another standoff, which is about the best normal diplomacy, left to itself, would bring. The Korean people and the world want and deserve more. They want and deserve real peace, leading in due course to reunification—and with the right means all of this is possible.

–Michael Nagler and Stephanie Van Hook are president and director of the Metta Center for Nonviolence Education.