This op-ed originally appeared in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists
Ahead of US President Donald Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, we spoke with young people around the world who saw hope in the summit, and a chance to advance their own work—including the reunion of families divided by conflict, the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula, and a negotiated agreement that would lead toward the denuclearization of North Korea.
Captivated by North Korea’s nuclear tests and Trump’s reckless Twitter tirades, the media rarely pick up voices of the next generation. Young people and their work should inspire the United States to choose diplomacy over war and to pursue peace with North Korea. We decided not to ignore them this time.
The bridge builders. Of the nearly 2 million Korean-Americans living in the United States, an estimated 100,000 may still have family in North Korea. Young volunteers like Paul Lee, 22, and Eunsoo Choi, 25, hope to reconnect those lost relatives through their work at a group called the National Coalition for the Divided Families.
“Divided families are the last remaining human link between the United States and North Korea,” Lee told us. (All quotes in this article come from interviews we conducted by email.) “This connection could be a point of mutual interest for the two countries as the governments work toward building peace.”
Raising awareness about the issue is half the battle, especially when, as Lee reminded us, “The media often highlights attention-grabbing stories about North Korea's nuclear program or its military and diplomatic endeavors.”
Another challenge for Korean-Americans is to make relevant an issue that tends to be framed as purely an inter-Korean one. “Though there have been 20 reunion programs between North and South Korea, Korean-Americans have not been allowed to participate in them and there has never been a successful reunion program between the United States and North Korea,” Lee said.
Now that Trump is openly discussing the prospects for peace with North Korea, there may be a real opportunity to make family reunions happen. The sooner, the better.
“When I call the elders in our registry, I hear that they are ill and losing hope in reunion,” said Choi, who helps register and translate for aging Korean-Americans. “Sometimes I get on the phone only to hear that they have passed away.”
Choi’s grandfather, now 87, was a teenager when he was separated from his family during the Korean War. Choi hopes that Trump and Kim will consider family reunions during their planned summit. “Our advocacy is the only thing left to offer them as their children.”
Being young also gives people like Choi and Lee a unique perspective: “The fact that I was born well after the outbreak of the Korean War and have no recollection of a unified Korean peninsula allows me to view the issue through a relatively clear lens and without firsthand biases,” Lee explained. At the same time, he added, “young people can gain so much from looking back, connecting to our roots, and learning from older generations.”
At once capable of relating to the past and envisioning a new future, these young advocates are building bridges for a better tomorrow.
The peacemakers. In South Korea, the issue of peace with North Korea can be as controversial as war. We spoke with college representatives at Kyoreh Hana, a South Korean NGO that advocates for the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula, to learn why.
“Until recently, we were at the crossroads of war and peace,” Chulwoo Jung, 26, reminded us. Tensions have significantly eased since last year’s brinkmanship between the United States and North Korea, which raised real fears of a “preventive war.” But there has been little progress to advance peace between the Koreas.
“I think the media and politics have strengthened the division over the past 73 years,” Younhee Kim, 30, explained. “For the past nine years, the perception of North Korea by the younger generation has been exacerbated by the conservative government. I think the press and politics have led to opposition against unification and a desire for war rather than peace.”
South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s progressive platform is a notable shift from the hardline policies of his previous two predecessors. His engagement with North Korea, which brought about the Inter-Korean Summit at Panmunjeom in April, has received wide public support.
But Moon is not without criticism—from the right or left. Favoring engagement with North Korea can be interpreted as weakness. As Hyebin Kim, 23, observed, “[Politicians] seem to think it is peaceful to develop military superiority and strength to subdue the opponents. I think that peace is not a contest of strength but coexistence.”
Peace activists like those at Kyoreh Hana are hopeful that an inter-Korean breakthrough can usher in a new era of reconciliation. Asked what he thinks Trump and Kim should discuss at the US-North Korea summit, Jung said, “I hope that there will be dialogue for a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. There is hope that the two sides plan to build a peace zone in East Asia by using a nonaggression pact to dismantle strategic nuclear weapons and troops deployed on the Korean Peninsula.”
The anti-war activists. In the United States, teens wary of their country stumbling into yet another conflict of choice are encouraging the United States to pick diplomacy with North Korea over war. Sam Bruxvoort Colligan, 16, and Charlotte Gorham, 18, are Advocacy Team members at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, which chose to focus its 2018 campaign on preventing nuclear war with North Korea.
“I was three months old on 9/11, so as a young person who has never experienced a world without war, I'm motivated to prevent another conflict. North Korea poses a serious threat, and I definitely don't want to experience the horror of nuclear weapons firsthand,” Colligan wrote in an email to us. “My perspective is that we should take the road of diplomacy and stick with that road for as long as possible.”
Gorham, a Quaker, believes that “war is never the answer.”
Youth participation on the Friends Committee’s advocacy team offers the team a “voice of the future,” she adds. “Across the country today, youth are clearly and energetically standing up for what they believe in. We are advocating for our future, for our lives. War with North Korea would affect millions of people around the globe for generations to come.”
“Being a young advocate puts me at a big advantage,” Colligan wrote. “Nobody expects a 15- or 16-year-old kid to come in to the office of a member of Congress, to be well-informed and speak intelligently about an issue. So when I do, people pay attention. Even if we're still too young to vote, [teenagers] can still make a huge difference.”
When Trump and Kim meet on June 12, Colligan hopes they will talk of peace between the two countries and discuss North Korea’s nuclear disarmament. Gorham hopes for “diplomacy to de-escalate the unnerving international climate.”
Young game changers. After nearly 70 years, the unresolved Korean War continues to sow divisions beyond the border splitting North and South Korea. It will take fresh thinking, bold leadership, and an appetite for change to lay the groundwork for peace where conflict has grown.
These seven young people are just a few members of the next generation people taking up that challenge. Their work shows that, more than policy, the North Korea crisis is about people. At stake are the families long separated by war, a country divided by politics, and young individuals—Korean and American alike—who desire a future free from the threat of nuclear war. It is time we elevate their voices.
If 2018 teaches us anything, it is that, as UN Secretary-General António Guterres said on May 24, young people “are the most important force for change in our world.” In an era routinely marred by gun violence and inflammatory language, we see a new generation of student activists boldly rejecting the status quo.
As the North Korea crisis shifts in the direction of diplomacy, it is more important than ever that we engage the next generation. Their peace is past due.