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The Road To Reconciliation For The Koreas

Since President Donald Trump had that historic handshake with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un earlier this summer in Singapore, headlines here have been dominated by talk of denuclearization.

But it’s a different story in South Korea, according to Jean H. Lee, former bureau chief for the Associated Press’ Pyongyang bureau in North Korea.

Today, she’s with the Woodrow Wilson Center, and The Show spoke with her about how that country is moving full steam ahead with reconciliation.

JEAN H. LEE: We are focused on that summit that took place in Singapore. But we should remember that the North Koreans and the South Koreans had several summits before that, in April and in May, and at those summits, issued their own declarations with specific promises. So we're kind of seeing two different tracks here, in terms of reconciliation or engagement with North Korea, and we're starting to see a little bit of a gap between these two tracks. One of them, we'd like to call it the nuclear track, which is pushing for complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and the other one is pushing for peace. Ideally, those two things should happen in tandem. But we're seeing very different timelines on how the South Koreans want to see peace and how the Americans want to see denuclearization happen.

GILGER: That's interesting that those are different things. Yeah. Tell us a little bit more about what was in the agreements that the South Koreans signed with the North Koreans.

LEE: So in what the leaders of North Korea and South Korea are calling the Panmunjeom Declaration, they agreed on a number of things. The significant thing was a cessation of hostilities. They also declared that there would be no more war on the Korean peninsula. Remember that the Koreans are the ones who are in the line of fire here, both the North Koreans and the South Koreans, and so these two leaders said there will be no more war on the Korean Peninsula. There were a couple other things that they agreed to. They agreed that they would hammer out some sort of peace mechanism or peace regime by the end of this year. So they gave themselves a very specific timeframe. Now let me just give you a little bit of background on that. I think that the recent negotiations have drawn attention to the fact that the Korean War never formally ended. We think of it as the Forgotten War. Now this is a war that was fought in the 1950s and it ended in a truce in 1953.

Today, 65 years ago actually — today's the 65th anniversary of that armistice — and that armistice was never converted into a peace treaty. Now I mention this because this is the backdrop of all of the tensions that have been taking place over the decades on the Korean peninsula, because the North Koreans believe themselves to be engaged in an active war, and they use the fact that this war was never resolved as justification for why they have to build nuclear weapons. So all of this ties in together. Part of the reason we are seeing all of this diplomacy happen, is that North Korea has wanted to use this milestone anniversary, the 65th, as an occasion to build momentum for a peace treaty to resolve this issue. But this is something that the United States is very hesitant to agree to quickly. But this is something that we will see the sides discussing in the months ahead. We will see the South Koreans and the North Koreans trying to come up with some sort of peace declaration.

GILGER: I want to talk a little bit about how the people are feeling about this in South Korea. Can you talk to us a little bit about how some of the history and the family reunification ideas kind of play into this for the people there?

LEE: It's such a complicated issue, and we should be careful not to paint South Korea as a monolithic country. It really depends on when you were born, how old you are, whether you're a man or a woman. But this is something that I've found. Now my family is from South Korea. I'm a second generation American-born Korean American. But I've been going to Korea since I was a kid, and my parents now live there. So I've been watching the the change and sort of the ebb and flow of how people feel about North Korea and feel about reunification, reconciliation, really change and transform over the years. I have been covering this issue as a journalist my entire career. So I have covered several summits between North and South Korea, and so I've seen firsthand as a journalist the different moods depending on where the country is in its relationship with North Korea. So, you know, in 2000, when I was a young journalist covering, that was the first time the leaders of North Korea and South Korea sat down together and that was in North Korea. I covered that from Seoul, and there was such a sense of excitement among the South Korean people. They had this real sense of hope that things were going to be different when it comes to that relationship, instead of all the provocations, that they would finally reconcile. I couldn't help but be influenced by that and feel some of that myself.

So in the interim, since 2000, there was a 10-year period that we call the Sunshine Era, and this is when the South Korean government embarked on this era of warming ties. During this period, South Koreans and foreigners could take a bus and drive into North Korea just across the border. Really hard to imagine today, given the tensions. Now all of that has been shut down. Most of that has been shut down since 2008. With the election of a very conservative president, who took office in 2008, South Korea went into a very different mode. He had a very hard line stance toward North Korea, and it was his zero tolerance stance. So we went into a period of extreme heightened tensions with North Korea. During this period, it's not surprising that South Koreans were extremely anti-North Korean. So suddenly, to have this switch in the past couple months to this new what we call Sunshine 2.0 — this new era of reconciliation — I think has been a little bit of whiplash for those of us who were in South Korea during this period, but it has also forced the South Koreans to think about what they want for their future. While they are very skeptical because they have been through all these ups and downs with the North Koreans, the fact is they have to live with the North Koreans as their neighbors, and they would much rather choose peace and reconciliation than living under the threat of nuclear war. That, I think, is something that we, here in the United States, need to remember. This is a country that is so far away from ours, but the people living there have to think about what they want for their long term future.

GILGER: Yeah. Alright. Jean Lee, thank you so much for the time today.

LEE: Great. Thanks for having me.

GILGER: Jean Lee was the bureau chief for the Associated Press's Pyongyang bureau in North Korea. Now she is the director of the Center for Korean History and Public Policy at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

News The Show
Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.