Making peace not war with North Korea

Fear, hate, and conflict too often operate as a closed, self-reinforcing, repeating cycle. Fear feeds hate; hate feeds conflict; and conflict feeds fear.

Optimally, peacemakers disrupt that destructive cycle before conflict escalates into war. Fear (perfect love casts out fear), hate (love your neighbor), and violent conflict (turn the other cheek and the prioritization of life over property) are all antithetical to Jesus’ teachings.

North Korea and the United States are currently locked in an escalating cycle of fear, hate, and conflict. Briefly recapitulating North Korean and U.S. moves underscores the growing danger this cycle poses if it continues uninterrupted:

·       President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Il have repeatedly responded to one another with increasingly bellicose rhetoric. Moreover, the U.S. has heightened its defensive posture, the U.S. Department of Defense is considering ordering family members of military personnel stationed in South Korea to return to the States, and Hawai’i (where I live) has resumed testing its Cold War Civil Defense alert system and promulgated instructions to residents on what to do in case of a nuclear attack. Consequently, pundits and the public alike now openly talk about their fear of a potential U.S. – North Korean war.

·       Among actions that promote not only fear but hate, President Trump and Kim Jong Il consistently engage in xenophobic rhetoric and mutual name calling. Their xenophobia and name calling depersonalizes the other and the other’s nation. Depersonalization is a key element of and catalyst for hate. (I quote neither leader because doing so would indirectly contribute to their hateful efforts.)

·       Missile launches, nuclear weapon tests, expedited improvements to anti-missile systems, vastly increased military spending, aircraft carrier deployments, and expanded economic sanctions all indicate heightened levels of conflict. Importantly, some military ethicists argue that economic sanctions are a form of war waged by non-lethal means.

The foregoing analysis may appear to attribute disproportionate responsibility for this escalating cycle to the U.S. However, that imbalance simply results from fundamental differences between the two societies. U.S. moves, reported by a free press, are easier to ascertain than are North Korean moves that occur in the world’s most secretive state. The most reasonable supposition, supported by all available evidence, is that North Korea bears equal or greater responsibility for the current state of affairs.

What can Episcopalians, a small group of relatively powerless U.S. Christians, do to help break this potentially nightmarish cycle of fear, hate, and conflict?

Firstly, we need to gain courage by remembering that perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:17) and that Jesus exhorted his disciples to “not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28). Thereby empowered, stand boldly and openly against the contagion of fear.

Whether anyone likes it or not, North Korea is today a nuclear power. Its nuclear weapons assuredly provide this isolated state and its dictatorial ruler increased confidence and self-esteem. Diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions have never caused any nation, once it has acquired nuclear weapons, to disarm. Expecting that North Korea to disarm voluntarily is naïve and unrealistic.

Aware of the potential nuclear threat that North Korea poses, courageous Christians nonetheless will refuse to panic or allow fear to shape their lives. They draw additional strength from their recognition that Kim, who is neither insane nor mentally ill, and the North Korean people do not want to fight a nuclear war they cannot win.

Secondly, we should speak and act in ways that incarnate God’s love for all, including both Donald Trump and Kim Jong Il. God, as Peter learned, accepts everyone as a beloved child. Mark’s (7:24-30) account of Jesus’ dialogue with a Syrophoenician woman memorably underscores this point. Indeed, God calls Christians to speak not with hate but with a love that welcomes and heals.

Choosing whom we identify as an enemy illustrates language’s power to shape relationships. Although I abhor most of Kim’s policies and those of his predecessors, I refuse to consider him, North Korea, or its people my enemies. North Koreans live in an unenviable police state and most endure abject poverty. They need our compassion, not our hate. Kim’s murderous bellicosity reveals his unremitting wariness against internal and external threats, real or imagined, upon which the continuance of his rule and life depend.

Similarly, I object to slogans such as America first (or North Korea first). These slogans are inimical with Christian love because they elevate one group of people while implicitly demeaning other peoples. More helpfully and hopefully, remember that North Korea is one of the last five remaining communist nations and that it, like all tyrannies, will eventually collapse from its own internal dysfunctionality. Engagement rather than isolation will expedite that collapse.

Groups such as the Episcopal Peace Fellowship and The Episcopal Church (particularly through its Washington Office) can constructively urge the U.S. and other states to welcome North Korea as part of the global community, giving North Korea the respect that they crave and boosting their confidence that they are secure from external threats. Steps to build bridges connecting North Korea and its people with the rest of the world include cultural exchanges, replacing sanctions with trade that incentivizes economic growth and improves the well-being of North Koreans, expanding their internet access, etc. These steps not only counter hate but also erode the ability of hate proponents to regain traction.

Finally, make peace, not war. Military action aimed at destroying North Korea’s nuclear weapons will fail and probably lead to a nuclear holocaust. A successful strike against North Korea’s nuclear capacity requires knowing the location of all of its nuclear weapons and of its weapon making facilities, then destroying those targets before North Korea is able to launch any of its weapons. If such a strike succeeded, North Korea would still possess a formidable non-nuclear military might with which it might strike at South Korea and U.S. forces on the Korean peninsula in retaliation for the preemptive strike. Media reports agree that U.S. military leaders oppose such a preemptive strike because of the improbability of success and the danger, after a partially successful preemptive strike, of North Korea launching a nuclear attack against South Korea, Japan, or the U.S. Christians, in cooperation with others opposed to military action against North Korea, today make peace and not war by protesting against the escalating conflict. A preemptive U.S. strike against North Korea serves no one’s interest.

Concurrently, make peace not war by advocating smaller defense budgets. Tulsi Gabbard, one of Hawai'i’s two Congressional representatives, is a combat veteran and Major in the National Guard. Her vote was one of just 72 against the proposed $700 billion 2018 U.S. defense budget. She opposed the bill because she believes some U.S. Middle Eastern arms sales harm the U.S. Encourage other members of Congress to emulate her example and vote against defense spending that harms the U.S. by destabilizing the Korean peninsula.

Make peace and not war by supporting with time and money candidates whose actions, and not just their words, demonstrate their commitment to peacemaking. Alternatively, run for office or convince a committed peacemaker to run for office. One New Testament thematic thread maintains that God gives us government for our benefit. In a democracy such as the United States, government is at least partially of the people, by the people, and for the people. This means political campaigning can be an essential facet of doing God’s work.

Admittedly, some of my recommendations resemble familiar nostrums. That is not a reason to ignore them. Living courageously in the face of fear, choosing to love instead of hate, and making peace instead of war are basic components of Christian discipleship. Now – especially as we near the end of Advent and begin our annual celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace – is the time for Christian peacemakers to join the struggle to end the cycle of fear, hate, and escalating conflict between North Korea and the United States.


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