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  5. The Trickle-up Approach to Building Peace in Korea

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FOCUS March 2000 Volume 19

The Trickle-up Approach to Building Peace in Korea

Karin Lee

Last year, in Berlin, the United States and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) made a breakthrough in high-level talks. Meanwhile, negotiations at the Four-Party Talks in Beijing continue to try to bring peace to the Korean peninsula. The United Nations is coordinating large-scale humanitarian relief for North Korea. And the U.S. government is working with U.S. NGOs to revitalize North Korean agriculture.

In the midst of these multiple, high-powered international initiatives to address humanitarian concerns and reduce tensions in North Korea, what does a small Quaker-based agency bring to its work with the DPRK? As with our work around the world, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) brings a faith in the transforming power of human relationships at all levels of society. Alongside Track One and Track Two diplomacy, Track Three or people-to-people diplomacy has an important role to play. We believe that the power of these relationships has a "trickle up" effect, creating more opportunities for reconciliation at all levels of society. As more contacts are made between the peoples of two countries in conflict, this bottom-up reconciliation can lead to or strengthen peaceful relations between the governments.

In 1993, an AFSC delegation to North Korea determined that AFSC might play a useful role in increasing DPRK/US understanding. The AFSC then began a new International Affairs Program, based in Japan, with the intention of playing two roles. One was to continue creating opportunities for dialogue and increased understanding between the US and the DPRK through people-to-people exchanges. The second focus was to strengthen regional dialogue between North Korea and its neighbors.

The AFSC soon found that our partners in North Korea were most interested in improving relationships with the United States. While regional events were well-received and attended by a wide range of Japanese, Chinese, and South Korean participants, we were not successful in including North Koreans in these events. As a result, the program currently has two foci. The first is a continuation of AFSC's efforts to increase communication between Korea and the United States through delegations and exchanges on a range of issues. Professional exchanges are one way to build relationships among people: the common interests of professionals in the same field have the power to erode barriers. The second focus of our East Asia program is support for peace and reconciliation efforts in the region, with a particular emphasis on South Korea. The AFSC looks forward to a time when these two areas of work can be integrated.

US-DPRK Exchanges

The International Affairs Program staff of AFSC facilitate professional exchanges between North Korea and the US at a people-to-people level as part of our "trickle up" approach.

One exchange in July 1999 focused on cardiology and cardiac surgery. According to a 1987 WHO assessment, North Korea ranked high in the delivery of primary care services. However, recent hardships have seriously reduced the capacity of the medical system. During a visit to the North Korean Ministry of Public Health in the fall of 1998, we discussed the possibility of medical exchanges on a range of topics, including epidemiology, public health, pediatric medicine and cardiac care. Our North Korean counterparts were most interested in cardiac care.

In July we brought a delegation of men, ranging in age from 36 to 60, to the United States for two weeks, during which they visited seven hospitals and two medical organizations in four cities. Through it all, the Korean doctors were resourceful, energetic, adaptable and gracious. They won our respect for their ability to keep their focus throughout the tour, despite its overwhelming pace.

The tour gave the North Korean doctors an overview of the health care system in the United States. They learned about the technology available, the patient care process, and about the continuing education of certified doctors. Many US doctors showed a high level of interest in follow-up work with North Korean doctors.

All of the North Korean doctors appreciated the connections they made with US doctors and several of the US doctors deeply appreciated the opportunity to make contact with North Korean doctors. In addition, many Korean-Americans, doctors and lay-people were grateful for the opportunity to meet the delegation and to assist in the work. AFSC was fortunate to be the conduit of such deep commitment to medical sharing and reconciliation. As we move forward, we hope to build on these exchanges to provide additional opportunities for North Koreans to study and share information in the United States in a variety of fields.

Advocacy on policy issues is another key element of our Korea-related work in the U.S. AFSC's Philadelphia and Washington offices work together to interpret and respond to Congressional and administration stances and legislation on North Korea. AFSC heads a committee of NGOs responding to a recent Congressional initiatives that threaten to derail any progress in improving U.S. government relations with North Korea. We also write articles and opinion pieces that help to dispel the one-sided picture of North Korean concerns that too often dominate the US press.

AFSC Humanitarian Program in North Korea

In addition to the International Affairs Program, AFSC has undertaken a program of direct humanitarian aid to North Korea. In 1995, our North Korean partners asked for our assistance in coping with the effects of severe flooding. At that time, AFSC contributed funds to buy rice. Then, in 1997, a new phase began, in which we work directly with farmers on food production. AFSC now has relationships with three cooperative farms, working with them to provide inputs to increase their ability to produce food. Through discussions with farming cooperative staff, AFSC determines the most useful inputs, such as fertilizer, plastic sheeting for seedbeds, and seeds to produce crops which improve soil fertility.

The AFSC also works with the North Korean Academy of Agricultural Science (AAS) to explore new seed varieties and fertilizing techniques. The AFSC brings AAS delegations on study tours to different countries. For example, last fall (1999) the AFSC brought three scientists to the US for two weeks to study corn, rice, and soybean production. Exchanges such as these provide DPRK scientists with information on current research and production methods, so that they may determine what might be applicable to the DPRK system. In the spring of 1999, AFSC brought a delegation of DPRK scientists to China to research True Potato Seed, in response to the DPRK decision to focus on potato production. With support of agencies such as Mennonite Central Committee and Quaker Hilfe Stiftung, the humanitarian program has supplied over US$1.2 million, with the majority of funds going toward direct inputs to improve farming.

In both North Korea and South Korea, working with doctors and peace activists, addressing gender equality and agricultural sustainability, AFSC works through different means to support a common vision -- of a world in which people can live together in both peace and justice.

In the words of the AFSC Mission statement, "We nurture the faith that conflicts can be resolved nonviolently, that enmity can be transformed into friendship, strife into cooperation, poverty into well-being, and injustice into dignity and participation."

- oOo -

More on the AFSC...

The AFSC is an American organization founded by Quakers in 1917 as means to provide Quakers and other conscientious objectors a means of aiding civilian victims of World War I. Since they believe that there is "that of God" in each human being, Quakers embrace a philosophy of non-violence and refuse to participate in war. Over eighty years later, the AFSC is staffed by a diverse group of people, only a small percentage of whom are Quaker, but all of whom find common cause in AFSC concerns.

The East Asia Quaker International Affairs Program

AFSC's work in relation to Korea began in 1953 at the end of the Korean war when we sought ways to provide humanitarian assistance to both North and South Korea. Ways were not found to help people in the north at that time. Later, in the 1970s, by working with Koreans in Japan, AFSC opened a line of communication with North Korea. The first AFSC delegation visited North Korea in 1980, followed by five more delegations over the next ten years. These delegations created a small, unofficial means of dialogue at the height of Cold War tensions. After each trip, AFSC staff shared with ordinary Americans and policy makers what they had learned about the North Korean perspective. Lack of contact between ordinary people in the United States and ordinary people in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea allowed for the demonization of the North Korean people in the United States, and vice versa. A series of AFSC conferences in the 1980s on reunification of Korea promoted dialogue in the U.S. on Korean reunification and led to publication of the book Two Koreas - One Future? It was AFSC's conviction that the goal of reunification "is not visionary; it is an attainable goal whose achievement should command the efforts of all men and women of good will."

East Asia Regional Peace Work

AFSC's work in East Asia hopes to strengthen efforts for peace and reconciliation in the region. This at times can be as small as making connections among like-minded people that we meet in the course of our travels in the region.

At other times it takes the form of conferences to exchange views and coordinate political actions. In mid-August, we participated in a series of events that wove together reunification concerns and previous work done on security issues. A two-day conference, organized by the Korean National Congress for Reunification, was a useful exploration of the security issues specific to Korea (U.S. bases, land mines at the demilitarized zone, North-South relations) as well as the international/regional factors that influence events on the Korean peninsula (arms trade, U.S.-Japan security relations, the lack of multilateral security institutions in Northeast Asia). We will be working together on an arms trade project that focuses on the flow of weapons from Europe to Korea as well as several other initiatives leading up to the Third Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) to be held in Seoul in October 2000.

Our program also supports regional working groups, such as a recent meeting integral to regional efforts toward gender equality. In preparation for an Asia-Pacific NGO Symposium on the upcoming Beijing +5 Review, nine women from China, Japan, Mongolia and Korea came together in Seoul for two days in August 1999 to prepare an East Asian sub-regional report. The result of the group's hard work is an "executive summary" for the region, which provides a quick overview of the main issues facing women in the North East Asia, and the differences and similarities behind the issues. The report can be viewed in English at

Our work often takes the form of workshops to explore new methods of analysis and problem-solving. In Seoul, during the first weekend in September, AFSC and three Korean civic groups co-sponsored a workshop on conflict resolution skills for 23 young Korean activists. It was an experiment in both style and content. Led by Jan Sunoo, a professional mediator from the United States, we spent two days learning about and practicing various conflict resolution skills, such as active listening, interest-based problem-solving, and mediation. We also explored the relevance of conflict resolution to the Korean context, at the interpersonal, group, and international levels. The workshop resulted in some very interesting conclusions. For example, some participants pointed out that because they were fighting against an authoritarian system, many Korean activists are very good at confrontational politics, such as protests and strikes. They are not, however, as well-versed in negotiating skills. This workshop was a first step toward practicing these skills.

Karin Lee is the East Asia Quaker International Affairs Representative based in Tokyo. You may contact Kerin in this e-mail address: