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Feb. 4—The Korean War, which began in 1950 when the Soviet Union-backed North invaded the American-backed South, was halted by an armistice in 1953. But with no formal peace, the conflict never truly ended. Punctuated by periodic border violence, the stakes have raised significantly since North Korea tested its first nuclear warhead in 2006.
Today, as tensions boil and test missiles fly across the Korean Peninsula, an unlikely partnership in Hawaii between a longtime activist and a retired general is aimed at taking a different approach to bringing an end to the conflict.
Christine Ahn, an activist who was born in South Korea and immigrated to the United States, made international headlines in 2015 when her Honolulu-based organization Women Cross DMZ rallied 30 women to cross the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.
Dan Leaf is a retired Air Force general who once served as acting commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific and went on to serve as director of Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Waikiki.
On face value, the two Hawaii residents seem as though they would have nothing in common. But Leaf said, "Step zero to any real progress on denuclearization, human rights, human conditions — anything really — is to achieve the peace agreement and end to the technical war. We come at that from decidedly different perspectives, but we meet right there."
Ahn added, "I think we've seen that (there is) progress ... when some kind of peace process is underway." She said that such progress can include human rights issues, or regarding more cooperation between the North and South or between America and North Korea.
In Hawaii, North Korea's missile program became a household issue on Jan. 13, 2018, when a false-alarm missile alert went out to cellphones across the state. The alert came during tensions as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and then-U.S. President Donald Trump traded threats and insults, with Trump boasting he would unleash "fire and fury" on the Korean Peninsula.
Tensions continue to escalate. In 2022, North Korea launched 95 ballistic and other missiles — more than any previous year — in a historic show of force. It was an election year, and South Koreans voted out then- President Moon Jae-in — who favored a conciliatory approach to relations with the North and sought to formally end the war — in favor of the conservative Yoon Suk Yeol, who favors a more hard-nosed approach.
The U.S. along with South Korea and Japan have boosted military ties in a show of force against the North.
But behind the scenes Ahn and Leaf have used their contacts across the worlds of politics, defense and diplomacy to lobby American officials and facilitate back-channel talks with North Korean officials in an effort to bring down the temperature.
"I'm a combat veteran. I'm not one of those 'oh, what I did was wrong' types; I don't think what I did was wrong," said Leaf. "But from my service in combat, I do know that war should be the last choice and only when all the other choices are even more awful."
The way forward
Leaf said the U.S. needs to find ways to reestablish engagement with the North if security is the genuine goal.
"There needs to be a stated element of U.S. government policy that we're seeking peace agreement — that is a nonhostile avenue for North Korean engagement," he said. "That doesn't take away from deterrence or the demand for denuclearization."
Ahn and Leaf stress they don't believe formally signing a peace agreement would end tensions. They argue it would be the first step in a generations-long reconciliation process.
Still, the prospect of reconciliation with the North Korean regime is a hard sell to some. Ahn's activism in particular has been criticized in corners of both the U.S. and South Korea.
In an opinion piece published in The Wall Street Journal last year, Ji Seong-ho, a conservative member of South Korea's Parliament who was born in North Korea and escaped in 2006, called Ahn a "phony" peace activist and alleged she was driven by a desire to see the U.S. and South Korea lose influence to North Korea and China more than any commitment to peace.
Ahn responds, "The idea that if you are for peace, that you become an apologist for the regime, is a very tired old trope ... I think we can all agree that this system needs to change. But the question is, how do you change the system? And so this is where I've had numerous debates with defectors."
But Ahn said she understands why some survivors of North Korean abuses can be skeptical or even hostile to the idea of making peace with a regime they believe must face justice. When it comes to defectors whose traumatic experiences lead them to be suspicious of people like her, Ahn said, she has "enormous empathy for their situation."
The North Korean refugee community has people with varied experiences that have led them to different points of view, and while a small number of them have pursued politics and public activism, many more prefer privacy after their ordeal as they try to integrate into the outside world.
Ahn said she also has friends in the community who support a peace agreement, in no small part because they hope to see relatives again.
In December, a North Korean human rights conference held in Hawaii brought in U.S. and South Korean ambassadors for human rights in North Korea, along with several outspoken activists. A major talking point during the conference was reaction to the forced repatriation of several hundred North Korean refugees by the Chinese government in October. Escapees that return can face imprisonment, torture and in some cases execution.
U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Julie Turner told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that "calling upon the (People's Republic of China) not to forcibly return North Koreans, and also helping to create pathways for those refugees to get to safe third countries is probably one of the more concrete ways that we can help advance the welfare and dignity of the North Korean people now."
While deeply critical of Pyongyang, Turner echoes several of Leaf and Ahn's arguments on a need for diplomacy, saying, "I want to leave the door open to cooperation-type efforts, even if that's through proxy governments to work on issues that maybe the North Korean government doesn't see as hyper confrontational." She said governments like Vietnam, Cambodia, Mongolia and others have helped relay messages and shape the conversation.
During the conference in Hawaii, Leaf met with Turner and praised what he saw as her knowledge and good-faith efforts to promote the welfare of North Korean escapees.
But he was critical of some other participants in the conference and its overall tone. He singled out Morse Tan, dean of the law school at the evangelical Liberty University and a former diplomatic appointee in the Trump administration, who in an impassioned speech called for the arrest of Kim and the overthrow of his regime.
Leaf, an independent, said his concerns weren't motivated by any partisan concerns and noted, "I'm interested in things that work; what was described isn't going to work. Being angry about about Kim Jong Un and speaking loudly while carrying no stick isn't going to help anyone."
The U.S. and its allies have tried to use sanctions to weaken the North Korean regime in hopes that it will give up its nuclear program or collapse in on itself.
Ahn singled out sanctions passed in 2017 by the U.N. Security Council targeting North Korea's civilian economy as especially unhelpful.
"Why can't we look at all these other factors that are actually making the conditions in North Korea unbearable, and that includes these kinds of failed policies of sanctions," she said, in particular noting a ban on textile exports. "These officials claim to care about these people, but prove it. The policies that they're advocating for are actually worsening the human rights conditions in North Korea."
Turner defended sanctions, arguing that "the North Korean government is spending billions of dollars to advance its weapons program right now. If it wanted to, it could take that money and spend it to support the welfare of its people. Governments are supposed to serve the people. And here we have a government who is sending workers overseas who live and work in exploitative conditions that amount to forced labor."
She added that "we are very focused on engaging with other governments on enforcement efforts, educating other governments on (North Korea's) tactics for evading sanctions, and needing the cooperation and partnership of that global community is really important in terms for the sanctions to have the kind of full impact that we're looking for."
Critics of sanctions have argued that restricting North Korea's ability to trade legally has only made the country embed itself into the world of transnational crime. North Korea has used hackers to steal money across the globe, and the country's intelligence agencies have become deeply involved in drug smuggling and counterfeiting schemes to bring black market money into its economy. Meanwhile, its missile program has continued to advance with seemingly no impact.
Lack of information
Lee Shin-wha, a longtime international relations professor at Korea University who became South Korea's ambassador-at-large on North Korean human rights issues in 2022, told the Star-Advertiser that a lack of information about what actually happens in the North is a major challenge for knowing what works.
"Since we don't know exactly what is going on there, there are always controversies. And because of those controversies, there is always political division," said Lee. "Within South Korea, there are some big debates over what we should do: engagement or accountability? But I think we need both."
She said she's interested in exploring more targeted sanctions on individual North Korean officials and agencies that would call out human rights abusers, while still allowing aid and forms of commerce that ordinary North Koreans can benefit from. However, she said, to make that effective, policymakers need a better idea of what's going on in the North.
"That can be a combination of defectors' accounts, (intelligence) and satellite imagery, and also some kind of comparative analysis with similar crises," said Lee.
But Leaf and Ahn argue that part of the problem is that North Korea is treated as fundamentally distinct and uniquely isolated. Leaf compared American approaches to Vietnam and North Korea, pointing out that in the case of Vietnam, human rights has always been a point of contention.
"That didn't stop us from 20 years of hard work to normalize relations and get to a strategic partnership, a comprehensive partnership, that is frankly amazing," said Leaf. "Throughout that time, there's been disagreement on many fronts, there have been difficult discussions on Agent Orange and the bombing and all the hard things of war. But we put the future as the priority, not the past and continue to discuss improvements in human rights."
Ahn said there have been opportunities to have those conversations in the past. "When you have a situation where they don't feel totally threatened, backed against the wall, that there actually is a process for them to engage that, they will. But we have to set the table, we have to create the conditions to do that," Ahn said.
Recent developments could make that even more challenging.
In late December, Kim announced a "new stand on the North-South relations and the reunification policy."
Pyongyang now sees the South as merely another foreign state, eliminating previous ideas of inter-Korean relations based on pan-nationalism.
Kim said, "South Korea at present is nothing but a hemiplegic malformation and colonial subordinate state whose politics is completely out of order, whole society tainted by Yankee culture, and defense and security totally dependent on the U.S."
Throughout January, North Korean forces fired rockets and artillery into South Korean territory several times.
Leaf said that the turn by North Korea is "dangerous" and that the escalations are worrying. But at the same time, he said, North Korea's recognition of South Korea's government potentially opens the door to serious diplomacy and talks between the two to set the stage for finally establishing a formal peace agreement.