When you want to understand a global conflict, experience it with your body. I don’t mean that you need to get shot, but at least breathe in the air and talk to the people living it out. That’s why, the day after graduation, faculty of Kroc School of Peace Studies hopped on a plane to visit South Korea. Our school, located just thirty minutes from Mexico, offers numerous opportunities for faculty and students to contemplate and engage with issues of borders and divides. This trip enabled us to consider these same themes from a different vantage point; the divide between North and South Korea and the historic U.S. role in that division as well as the on-going tensions.
We know that engagement with the subjects of peace, justice, and innovation requires engagement with Asia. Otherwise, our teaching and thinking becomes too parochial. We too easily focus on domestic issues and rely too much on approaches to conflict developed out of conundrums faced by the west. Putting our bodies in the east expanded both the kinds of conflicts we’re considering as well as approaches to those conflicts. Visiting BCorps exposed us to different approaches to equity and environmental restoration.
Standing in the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea reminded me that the United States has comparative great neighbors. Mexicans want to move into the United States, not annihilate it. Neither neighbor has nuclear weapons pointed at us.
It’s easy to blame those closest to a conflict for its existence. That’s a mistake, especially in this particular conflict. I learned that the United States dropped more bombs on North Korea during the Korean War than it did on Germany or Japan during World War II. The U.S. decimated the country. So when the North Korean leadership preaches to its citizens about the dangers of the “western imperialists” returning, they can point to relatively recent history. We often rush too quickly in conflict resolution to the “solution” without taking time to understand how problems came to be and our country’s role (past or present).
Visiting South Korea even enriched my understanding of San Diego. If North Korea decides to invade South Korea, our local navy bases would engage. Because even though South Korea maintains its own robust military, the country relies on this backing from the U.S. military. Some say that just knowing that the U.S. would come to help gives them peace of mind. This links us. If they go to war, so do we. If Seoul, which sits quite close to the border, gets attacked, San Diego-based military will mobilize. Our destinies are intertwined.
The opening ceremony of the ” Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity: Working for Sustainable Prosperity in the Indo-Pacific ” offered me an opportunity to confront my western-centrisim. BAN Ki-moon, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, spoke about the important role of South Korea in supporting peace in the indo-pacific as well as the larger global political power struggle between China and the United States. Because while South Korea aligns politically and economically with the west, culturally Korea resembles China. He sees South Korea as a potential mediator between the U.S. and China. I had never considered South Korea as a potential global mediator. But why not? The United States and other western countries are not always in the best position to bring peace and prosperity.
I look forward to returning to Korea, hopefully with colleagues to the Jeju Forum in 2024, to further engage with the peacebuilding community there and to welcome more students from the region into our program so that we can continue to learn from each other.