A Korean American and a North Korean Diplomat join together in song
MCC Photo/Doug Hostetter

Keum Soon Lee, a Korean American, and Re Ki Ho, a North Korean Diplomat, join together in singing "I am a Child of the Fatherland," a traditional Korean song.

Coming straight out of college to work for Mennonite Central Committee’s United Nations office, I was not expecting to be so challenged, both in the type of work that I would be doing but also in my ways of thinking. I majored in Political Science and Global Studies, so coming from this academic background, I thought that I had a more or less clear understanding of international relations. Lately, however, that understanding has been challenged by the MCC advocacy offices’ role in the Global Peace Forum on Korea (GPFK), which took place September 29-30. The event brought together academics and government members from multiple countries to talk about the many issues that are facing the Korean Peninsula right now, especially focusing on reunification measures and ensuring a lasting peace. In the United States, many discussions on diplomacy are focused on hard power: utilizing money and the military to maintain a place of power on the world stage. My education in Political Science affirmed this stance as the only way that change occurs. I was living in a paradigm of hard-power making the most effective solution throughout undergrad. I have been finding that form of hard power to be less and less effective in maintaining and building peace the more that I work for an advocacy-centered office.

MCC’s work in the  Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) began in 1995, and since has included sending humanitarian assistance to the nation, as well as relationship-building through visits to the country. This is a different approach than the strict rules that the United States has implemented regarding the DPRK. These rules made planning an event like the GPFK particularly challenging, because of limitations such as travel restrictions for delegates from the DPRK. The general animosity that people in the United States feel towards the DPRK (fueled by the media and current administration’s sanctions) are another reason that there is quite a bit of sensitivity when working along these lines. My work with the event involved last minute arrangements, such as securing facilities, coordinating catering, confirming audio-visual support, and sending out invitations (which included learning how to use a fax machine—something that I had never done as a 22-year-old), all while fielding emails from all of the previously mentioned. Getting into the grit of what goes on in soft diplomacy can seem a lot more like an event-planning job than advocacy at times! However, when all the pieces fit, and the morning of the event comes, it is easy to see why we do it.

    The narrative of the forum was focused on good relations and diplomacy instead of sanctions and arms. Dr. Jungchul Lee (from the Institute for Peace and Unification at Soongsil University in Seoul) said that “Ultimately, peace on the Korean Peninsula should be focused on the construction of mutual trust between South and North Korea. The ultimate goal is construction of mutual trust, instead of forcing the end-state such as CVID [referring to the Trump administration’s Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible Denuclearization goal]. Such trust again should be achieved through conversation.” And conversations were exactly what the GPFK was about.

    After speakers’ presentations, the first day of the event ended with a dinner which included performers and a reading of a Declaration of Peace and Prosperity for Korea and the World. This gave room for open discussions, which were continued the following morning. It was amazing to see people from very different cultures have open spaces to talk about their respective countries and how to improve relations, without the interference of bureaucracy that usually runs along these channels. It was honest and genuine, and the conference ended with hope. Dr. Xiong Lei of Tsinghua University in Beijing reflected upon this hope in her speech on creating an external environment for reunification of the Koreas: “The promising new era of peace now unfolding on the Peninsula is hard won and precious. All peace-loving people should cherish the situation and make efforts to support and sustain it”.    

Diplomacy happens in many small ways: from organizing catering and cameras for an event, to a handshake, or sharing in a song. It could be a personal meeting that changes the mind of a person that leads to a link of trust between people of different countries and cultures. It is not only about high-level meetings, such as the ones that happen every day inside the United Nations Headquarters. It is not all heads of states visiting others, employing sanctions, and propping up militaries. Sometimes it is as simple as going out of your way to share a story with another person. My perceptions of international policy and power have changed, which now leaves me wondering: how can we best utilize soft diplomacy as a country so focused on hard power? How can we make our leaders and representatives see the benefits of speaking instead of striking out? Or of maintaining relationships instead of arms? These are very involved questions which don’t have easy answers. But the GPFK left me with hope that there are many people, not just in the United States, but all over the world, who are realizing along with me that there is a better way to peace than force.

Victoria Wiebe is a Program Assistant at Mennonite Central Committee's United Nations Office.