I read this week that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock has been moved up, to two minutes before midnight. The clock, first used in 1947, is to show how close we are to destroying the world. It’s only been this near to midnight once before, in 1953, after the U.S. and Soviet Union tested their first nuclear bombs. One reason the scientists moved the clock forward is the hostility between North Korea and the U.S., best captured in the tweets by American President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un about the size and power of their “nuclear buttons”.
The tension related to the Korean peninsula was the backdrop for The Foreign Ministers Meeting on Security and Stability on the Korean Peninsula that Canada and the U.S. co-hosted in Vancouver this January. The summit gathered leaders from 20 nations—countries that had participated in the Korean War, along with Japan and South Korea. (Notably absent were North Korea, Russia, and China.)
I wrote earlier about preparing to join an amazing delegation of 16 women representing peace movements, women’s networks, and faith-based groups in Vancouver. The Rev Moon-sook Lee represented the National Council of Churches in Korea, a United Church partner. Co-sponsored by the United Church, the Canadian Voice of Women, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the women’s peacemaker delegation was the brilliant idea of WomenCrossDMZ and Nobel Women’s Initiative, brought together in a matter of weeks.
Why? We wanted to be physically present, to press the foreign ministers to prepare the table for peace talks and a diplomatic process toward dialogue with North Korea. And we wanted to ensure that women are present at the negotiating table. We know that women influence peacemaking processes—and that’s not just our opinion! Studies show that when women’s voices are involved, peace agreements are more likely to be reached, and to be stable and enduring. We know that war and violence disproportionately impact women and girls worldwide. When women lead the peace process, they bring a commitment to avoid violence rooted in their own experience. Delegation member Erica Fein from World without War said it well in a blog for Ms. Magazine: “If we want to truly achieve peace, we must listen to the voices of those who have witnessed the human costs of war on the Korean Peninsula. And, on all sides of the negotiating table, women must be heard.”
In short, we wanted to be part of the foreign ministers’ meeting, and to influence the outcome.
Although we didn’t get to be part of the formal meeting, we did meet with Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland. We took part in a civil society roundtable that gathered Canadian organizations with experience and relationships in North Korea. We gave Minister Freeland and others our recommendations, based on our collective experience that sanctions and isolation have encouraged North Korea into a nuclear weapons program and have severely harmed ordinary North Koreans. Peace on the Korean Peninsula, and the end of nuclear weapons there, can only be achieved through genuine engagement, constructive dialogue, and mutual cooperation, we said.
And in true United Church style, we sang, we danced, and we encouraged others to courageous engagement for peace, justice, reconciliation, and reunification.
The evening before the Summit, led by a Korean drumming troupe, we gathered on the plaza outside the convention centre where preparatory meetings were underway. Vancouverites—among them many United Church people—joined us in a candlelight vigil, prayers, songs, and dances for peace.
At 7:00 a.m. the morning of the Summit, our delegation—and others, including BC Conference President Cari Copeman-Haynes—encouraged the foreign ministers and their staff as they entered the convention centre. “Prepare the table for peace talks!” we prodded running-shoe clad Minister Freeland, who smiled and greeted us as she hurried up the steps. “The world wants words not war!” we called as UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson walked by and waved.
As the day went on, word began coming out that the foreign ministers were not continuing the path begun by North and South Korea, whose recent discussions led to an “Olympic Truce” and the promise of a single, united Korean Olympic team. Instead the Summit’s final statement spoke of agreement on the U.S.-led focus on "maximum pressure" and increased sanctions.
We did not want to believe our ears. This policy is not about diplomacy for peace. It's about domination.
We were profoundly disappointed—especially by countries like Canada, which speak about leading from a “feminist foreign policy base.” From Canada, from South Korea, from Sweden, from others… we had hoped for positive, constructive leadership toward engagement, dialogue, encounter without preconditions. Further isolation of North Korea, and starving the North Korean people into submission, will not create the conditions for dialogue toward security and peace in the Korean peninsula—or the world. We had no illusions about the history and complexity of northeast Asia, or about the pressures of geopolitics. But we are convinced that people in Korea, in Canada, and around the world long for peace and the well-being of all.
Dismayed but not discouraged, delegation leader Christine Ahn of WomenCrossDMZ called the Summit a huge missed opportunity for peace.
The United Church of Canada has engaged with the people of Korea for over 100 years, supporting their desire for health, education, training, independence, democratization, and human rights. Today the yearning is for reconciliation and reunification between North and South Korea. Together with partners in Korea and the global ecumenical family, join me in a deepened commitment to promote engagement and dialogue, challenge sanctions, work toward a peace treaty to end the Korean War, and strengthen the global movement to build peace, not conflict.
Back to the Atomic Scientists. How do we push back the hands of that clock? The Vancouver Summit showed that we can't depend on political leaders.
Strengthened and encouraged by the experience of global solidarity and sisterhood, I remain steadfast and passionate to work with others for peace in the Korean Peninsula.
—Patti Talbot leads the Global Partnership staff team in the General Council’s Church in Mission Unit.