WELLESLEY, MASSACHUSETS – Merrill Newman, the 85-year-old former US Army officer who recently returned home after more than a month of detention in North Korea, had gone to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to gain long-overdue closure on his experience during the Korean War. What Newman did not realize was that he would, yet again, be stepping into a war zone.
For DPRK authorities, closure without a peace treaty is unthinkable – as is accommodating individuals’ psychological and emotional need to reconcile their past and present toward the end of their lives. Simply put, if Newman was an enemy combatant 60 years ago, he is an enemy combatant today.
And Newman was very much an enemy of the regime. He trained Koreans to join the Kuwol unit, an anti-communist guerilla force tasked with disrupting North Korean military operations. Kuwol survivors claim to have killed 1,500 North Korean soldiers and captured 600 during the war. The unit – which the DPRK asserts also killed civilians – was “hated and feared” by North Korean fighters and was considered a major threat to the regime.
Newman has kept in touch with some of his trainees, who now reside in South Korea. Indeed, he planned to head to South Korea for a reunion with former Kuwol members after his visit to the North – a plan that raised serious suspicions among DPRK authorities.
But Newman was, of course, unable to preserve ties with those who ended up in the North. If, during his tour of the DPRK, he expressed an interest in finding out what had become of them to any of the North Koreans he encountered, it could have gotten back to the authorities, deepening their mistrust further.
Whereas the Korean War is often labeled the “forgotten war” in the US, it remains very much alive in the minds of North Koreans. Posters and placards of soldiers and tanks – not to mention reminders of the military prowess of three generations of the Kim dynasty (although only Kim Il-sung, the current leader’s grandfather, had military experience) – adorn streets, schools, and apartment buildings. Vivid depictions of soldiers killing and dying are features of citizens’ daily walk to school or work, the sports arenas where they play, and the parks where they picnic.
Likewise, miniature replicas of Unha missiles rise out of pink and red flowerbeds, as a cupid statuette might garnish an American garden. There is nothing beautiful about these mini-missiles; they are symbols of the North’s enduring will to survive “imperialist aggression” – and of the threat that its nuclear program can pose to its enemies. But this is lost on ordinary North Koreans, who admire the displays and pose beside them for photographs.
Moreover, North Korean holidays, celebrations, and days of mourning are arranged around the war. Citizens’ personal identities and socioeconomic opportunities are determined by their extended family’s relationships to the war – whether they were heroes, martyrs, traitors, prisoners, defectors, and so on. Military cemeteries receive more state funding and maintenance than most schools.
In short, in the DPRK, the personal and political are inextricable. At the July inauguration of a new cemetery dedicated to Korean War heroes – part of the “victory” celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the armistice – a North Korean man told a FRANCE 24 reporter: “At last…I get to see my father’s eternal image. I am grateful to Marshall Kim Jong-un for this!”
Newman most likely had no desire to tour what is effectively still a war zone. He probably hoped to make peace with his own past and form some type of personal connection with the North Koreans whom he would meet during the organized tour. In fact, he may well have visited with better intentions than many US officials and politicians, who cannot fathom genuine peace or cooperation with the DPRK.
Of course, such misgivings are not unfounded; achieving peace with the DPRK would be a massive challenge. But the issue runs deeper than that. Even if denuclearization, accompanied by a credible verification regime, were implemented and a diplomatic path toward peace were laid out, the challenge of demilitarizing the population would remain. Governments can sign a document, but citizens would have to shed decades – for many, entire lifetimes – of relentless reminders of war.
The fact is that visits like Newman’s – if his intentions were as he claimed – could play a critical role in opening populations’ minds to the prospect of peace. Waiting for governments to decide that a peace treaty is possible allows the mentality of war – and the concomitant hostility toward outsiders – to persist.
Citizens of free countries can advance peace: Educators, health-care professionals, artists, engineers, and even informed tourists can carry out people-to-people diplomacy and share their skills. They can help to open minds, even in tightly controlled countries like North Korea.
Governments declare war; it is up to people to make peace.