An Appeal for Peace

On the 70th Anniversary of the Korean War Armistice

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the armistice that produced a ceasefire — and not an end — to the Korean War. Military tensions are higher than ever on the Korean peninsula, threatening both the north and south, the surrounding region, and the entire world with prospects of nuclear war which have escalated to a frightening intensity. This is happening in the context of a rapidly changing world: new political systems and economic relationships are rising from China and Russia to the rest of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, while the U.S.-led world order flails in an attempt to contain them. In the West, these developments have been framed as the resurgence of rival power blocs and a new Cold War. However, we in the Saturday Free School take the side of peace, and instead view these developments as the realization of greater humanity’s strivings to finally overcome the age of empire and Western hegemony to bring forth a new era of world democracy. In light of this special historical moment, we urgently raise the questions of peace and humanity’s common future to our sisters and brothers, the American people. We, people of the Korean diaspora and of America, aspire to reclaim and synthesize the best of the Korean and American civilizations, both of which have contributed to the forward march of humanity and must do so anew for our time and generation.

Korea’s deep history is unknown to many Americans. We understand Korea as a unique and ancient civilization, originating approximately 5,000 years ago and characterized by the development of its distinct language, state, and culture. We believe that the Korean people are a people whose culture is anchored in a deep understanding of peace and its singular importance. Throughout their history, Koreans largely remained in the peninsula surrounded by larger powers, and never invaded their neighbors in China, Russia, or Japan in aggressive wars. Rather, Korean historiography conceptualizes the development of Korea and its people as one of progressive unification of the peninsula over the centuries, towards a centralized, cohesive, and strong state. Peace and unity have long been understood as an absolute precondition to the prosperity and well-being of the people: many of the greatest works of Korean art and culture take peace as a thematic ideal. On the other hand, Korean art and culture have been thoroughly plundered and devastated by war and invasion. The past century of Japanese occupation followed by the Korean War, disrupted the development of Korean civilization and left deep scars on the people, including Korean Americans. The subsequent division and artificial separation of one people who share a long history and a common destiny has also profoundly hindered their capacity to reach their full civilizational potential. Our event is an earnest attempt to understand the Korean people in their entire possibility, and in turn see our own humanity and capacity reflected in them. 

As a result of the unended war, South Korea today is occupied by the military of the United States, while North Korea is the most vilified, least understood state in the West. Despite this, the North has withstood 70 years of maximum military, economic, and political pressure from the U.S. and collective West. It has maintained the sovereignty and legitimacy of its state, which has provided for its people a much higher life expectancy, level of education, and overall quality of life compared to other countries with similar GDP per capita. How was this possible, and what does it mean given the changes taking place in the world today? If we are to make a contribution toward peace and reunification, it is the North which will require the greatest reconsideration and new understanding from our part.

North Korea is a country posed as a geopolitical enemy of the U.S., and as the philosophical adversary of democracy. The U.S. ruling class and its allies in South Korea frame North Korea as an isolated enemy frozen in the Cold War past, but we assert that it is the continued military presence of the U.S. in South Korea that is the true anachronism of the Cold War, which only a handful of elites seek to revive. Asia is moving beyond its centuries of subjugation to the West, and North Korea is a country uniquely suited to this emergence of a new stage of history, with its long ties to humanity’s non-Western majority and world peace and progressive movements. In this light, we see the South Korean government’s continued acceptance of U.S. occupation and the broader neocolonial dynamic of its relationship with the U.S. as a remnant of a decaying epoch. This relationship must instead evolve with the times and in the true interests of the Korean and American people. We see this possibility because in the South, in spite of decades of dictatorship and brutal repression, a rich history of people’s movements arose whose spirit can be recaptured for the present times. Figures such as Moon Ik Hwan and Lim Soo Kyung reached towards the North seeking peace and reunification, framing peace as an issue directly for and from the entire Korean people. They acted in a spirit of good faith, openness, and courage, with the conviction that Korea's division was and remains today an aberration both irrational and immoral, which had to be overcome by the spiritual, ideological, and civilizational reunification of the people. They recognized that the democratization movement in the South to overthrow military dictatorship was fundamentally interlinked with the fight for peace and against imperialism. In this, they agreed with so many other democratic progressive movements around the world — including the Civil Rights Movement in America — in proclaiming that democracy could never truly be fulfilled without peace and the complete self-determination of the people. This is a more advanced understanding of peace than the conventional one. It is best captured in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. as a positive peace — not simply the apparent absence of tension, but rather the presence of justice. 

In the case of Korea, American imperialism has a stake in maintaining the current state of tension and making its occupation seem natural. Thus any movement for change appears to be a “threat” to peace. A move towards justice would mean ending the war to let Koreans figure out their own path to peace and reunification. However, the American ruling class frames North Korea as the constant aggressor that threatens the peninsula with nuclear tests and provocations. This narrative is propagated despite the fact that the U.S. government — the only one to ever use nuclear weapons on another country — uniquely adheres to a preemptive nuclear strike policy. At numerous times over the decades, U.S. politicians have openly proposed launching unprovoked nuclear assaults against North Korea. This, along with America’s refusal of direct talks without the North’s unconditional denuclearization, is justified with the reasoning that North Korea’s leaders are insane and irrational, and that the North Korean people are brainwashed. In other words, the U.S. government’s willingness to start a nuclear war is based on their own racist beliefs about North Koreans — a view that extends to all Koreans who resist that status quo, as demonstrated consistently by the genocidal proportion of civilians killed by U.S. forces during the Korean War, American complicity in the Gwangju massacre, and the deadly sanctions imposed during North Korea’s ecological crisis and famine of the 1990s. The North’s nuclear weapons program arose in response to this regime, understanding the status quo of U.S nuclear strike capability over Korea and the broader East Asian region as a concrete existential threat. Most if not all Korean Americans have experienced some form of racism in American society; and even if the American people themselves are less racist than before, this racism remains the most vicious and acceptable among the U.S. elite, who are hungry to wage untenable wars against Russia and China and toy with the idea of the complete annihilation of the entire Korean people.

We say all of this in a time when the American people are tired of war. We are more war-weary than we have ever been in our history. This political reality is intimately connected to our conviction in the Saturday Free School that the American people are in a process of becoming one people — a new nation capable of finally overcoming the triple evils of poverty, militarism, and racism as envisioned by Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. The ruling powers in this country are invested in sowing division among the people to prevent this achievement; moreover, they seek to prevent the American people from truly knowing the world so that we fear the vast changes taking place in it. However, the American people are simultaneously disinvesting in our incompetent ruling class; greater and greater portions of our people do not believe what the elite say anymore, seeking out alternative perspectives which resonate with their lifeworlds. We see the current moment as an opportunity like no other to open this country's perspectives on the total situation in Korea and its possible solutions. Why should anyone continue to trust the ruling class’s messaging about North Korea, when we have so much to gain by challenging old assumptions which prevent a path to positive peace on the peninsula?

The long history of Korea shows that the Korean people are capable of resolving the problems and division imposed since the Korean War, armed with both old civilizational knowledge and the capacity to transform anew towards the future. We have faith that the American people too can come together in their entirety and chart a new path forward for this country. We thus bring this message firstly to Korean Americans. We seek to understand specifically how Korean Americans can contribute to advancing the American revolutionary process; the tasks of reconciling our history and fighting for peace are problems tailor-made for us to solve. The younger generation especially has a pivotal role to take up in this potentially pre-revolutionary period of transition. Through this process, Korean Americans can contribute something new to the transformation of the American people, just as Korea can contribute something new to the world by overcoming 70 years of imposed division to reunify and renew its civilization. As such, we also bring this message to the American people, who have been profoundly changed by Martin Luther King’s vision of a new people who could say, “I’m not going to study war no more.” King’s message of peace, in opposition to the U.S. occupation and bombing of Vietnam, also resonates with the struggle for peace on the Korean peninsula. Just as King once said that the bombs dropped in Vietnam explode in the ghettos; so too do the multi-billions of dollars dropped in Korea explode as bombs of neglect all across America. We appeal to the American people to come together, to talk with one another, and to seek their own way forward on the vital democratic question of war and peace.

In the midst of a changing world order and threats to peace, a united American people have the capacity to join the movement of humanity to achieve a new peace and a new world. The opportunity is ripe for us to make real the progressive and democratic promises set forth in past revolutionary periods of our history, which have already shaped so much of American life. Learning about Korea is important because its history, civilization, and people have something to give to the world movement towards a new era of world democracy. For Korean Americans, there is a movement happening amongst the broad mass of the American people that we need to understand if we are to fully realize our identity as Americans. Korea has significance beyond our personal experiences and point of view — we have a chance to turn the painful experiences of our past into a strong, new chorus for peace and renewal. Moreover, if the American people are to make good on their own potential, it will require gaining new insight from what countries like North Korea have been able to achieve, the human relations they have been able to develop, and the perspective they have to offer. We believe, ultimately, that Korean civilization is not a throwaway object to be trivialized or abandoned — Korea has a progressive message for humanity. By joining under the banner of peace, Americans can become part of the great democratic experiment to discover this nation’s true possibility as a synthesis of world civilizations. If we are to have a place in humanity’s shared future, we must remake America into a civilization of peace. We stand therefore at a crossroads between war and peace, and at a threshold between epochs. A new America and a new world call to us — each and every one of us must give our answer. We turn our gaze to the dawn of peace and human brotherhood, and the unfinished task of achieving our nation: knowing that the best of our people, from every generation and continent, will come together to make this vision real.