By Paul Liem, August 26, 2017 | October 12, 2017
This is the fourth in a series of interviews with the five member U.S. Solidarity Peace Delegation, to South Korea, July 23 – July 28, 2017, of whom delegation coordinator, Juyeon Rhee, was denied entry to South Korea under a travel ban imposed by the Park Geun Hye administration, and remaining in force under the new administration of President Moon Jae In.
The delegates met with South Korean peace and labor activists, with Shim Jae Kwon, Chair of the National Assembly Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee, and with villagers of Seongju, Gimcheon and Soseongri who are waging a struggle against the deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system in their communities. The delegation was sponsored by the Taskforce to Stop THAAD in Korea and Militarism in Asia and the Pacific and the Channing and Popai Liem Education Foundation, and was hosted in South Korea by the National People’s Action to Stop the Deployment of THAAD in South Korea (NPA), a coalition of 100 civil society organizations.
Delegates Medea Benjamin of Code Pink, Reece Chenault of U.S. Labor Against the War, Will Griffin of Veterans for Peace, delegation coordinator Juyeon Rhee, Jill Stein of Green Party USA, have since spear headed an international petition campaign calling upon presidents Moon Jae In and Donald Trump to pull back from the brink of war in Korea, by halting the war games and negotiating a freeze on missile and nuclear weapons testing with North Korea.
Following the delegates’ return to the United States, Paul Liem, KPI Board Chairperson, interviewed the delegates about their experiences in Korea and their reflections on how to strengthen solidarity between peace activists there and in the United States. His interview with Jill Stein follows.
PL: Since we don’t often interview presidential candidates, I thought our readers might like to know how you came to be the Green Party candidate in 2016. How was it that you made your transition from medicine to social justice activism, and eventually to the Green Party and your candidacy?
JS: I grew up in the sixties, the era of civil rights, the movement against the war in Vietnam and the women’s movement. I was an activist but not predominantly an activist. I was part of the weekly vigils against the war in Vietnam when I was in high school before it became a major issue embraced by our generation. It made sense to me that the world should run according to justice, not according to who’s most powerful. I’d say that realization was brought home to my generation by Martin Luther King. King really framed my life as an activist.
I became a full-time activist in roughly 2006. At that time, I transitioned from clinical medicine to political medicine, to address the “mother of all illnesses,” our sick political system. I stopped my clinical practice at that point because activism became a full-time proposition. That is the short story.
PL: Did you go directly into the Green Party at that point or were you doing other things?
JS: While I was still practicing medicine, I became very involved in fighting environmental racism, helping communities shut down polluting incinerators and coal plants. I had been recruited as a doctor who was sympathetic to those issues. I was the go-to doc who would come out to help explain the health impacts of these facilities and the impacts on local communities and broader regional and global impacts of incineration and coal and air pollution and toxic chemicals moving their way up the food chain and so on. I began that work on behalf of communities that were on the frontlines of those struggles.
At that point, I began to realize that the power really lay in the community, not in talking to elected officials who are on the payroll of the powers-that-be. I’d say it’s next to impossible to make change through the current system. We could waste ten years working on a bill and the legislators would change one sentence as it was being passed, then there went ten years of work. I began to realize that the real power and the real commitment and the real justice lay in the communities that were struggling. At that point, I got recruited to run for office for the Green Party. I didn’t go looking for it.
I worked my fingers to the bone, as so many of us do, thinking that we can work within the current system. I was part of a campaign finance reform movement here in my home state in Massachusetts. We were successful. We passed public financing for political campaigns. We passed it by a 2-to-1 margin as a referendum. And then the legislature here in my home state of Massachusetts, in all of its wisdom, repealed this referendum that the people had supported for clean politics. It was a Democratic legislature. It could have passed any bill and overridden any veto. They repealed it on a voice vote, no less. That convinced me that if real work was going to get done we would have to do it outside of the political system. That was back in the year 2000.
PL: Of all the candidates in the last election, only the Green Party took the position that the United States should talk to North Korea. Everybody else’s position was that China should talk to North Korea which is still resonating today. How did you get interested in Korean issues and how did you form your views about them?
JS: I started to pay a lot of attention to Korea during the 2016 campaign. It was clearly a hot spot. The whole pivot to Asia was creating a serious question about where U.S. foreign policy was going. A foreign policy dominated by militarism was proving itself, without any qualification, to be an unmitigated disaster in the Middle East. And now we are in the process of pivoting that policy to Asia, a foreign policy based on economic and military domination. Given what a disaster it’s been in the Middle East, now add nuclear weapons to the picture, add China and add Russia, and you have, I think, a microcosm of what’s wrong with U.S. foreign policy. And on the Korean peninsula, our foreign policy is undergoing a reality check. We’re up against the limits of…
PL: [Technical glitch in recording] Please go back a few sentences because I lost you.
JS: The point I was making was that during the campaign, I was forced to develop positions about major issues in U.S. foreign policy and this demanded that our campaign have a clear position on the pivot to Asia. Looking at the Middle East, the problems with a foreign policy based on military domination were catastrophic everywhere that we’ve practiced it starting with Iran, going back to the 1950s. It led to the overthrow and the installation of the Islamic regime in Iran and with all the outfall from that. More recently our practice of regime change in Iraq and in Libya—unbelievable disasters.
It’s become clear that regime change is part of the pivot to Asia. There is a real intention to inflict regime change in Asia, with North Korea in the cross-hairs. You can see the regime change playbook being rolled out right now. So it became very important to develop a positive set of solutions during the campaign. The conflict on the Korean peninsula is begging for a solution based on the principles of democracy, justice, and peace.
I had the opportunity to meet the Korean Green Party last spring. It was at the global Greens meeting in Liverpool. It turned out that the U.S. Green Party had been in touch with the Korean Green Party and they had put out joint statements and developed joint policies. It was clear when I met the Korean Greens that the solutions they have for South Korea are those we need right here.
All we need to do in the U.S. is allow democracy to take its course. Let’s allow South Korea to guide the U.S. forward on how this should be done. Koreans have been thinking about this for 60 or 70 years. Korea has a very mature and principled approach to how to deal with North Korea. And a lot of that entails the U.S. getting out of the way because we have been fanning the flames of conflict on that peninsula for 70 or so years, ever since the Second World War.
PL: Is the Green Party gaining momentum in South Korean politics? We don’t often hear about the Greens in South Korea.
JS: The Greens are new in South Korea. They were founded in 2014 so they are a very new party. They’re gaining ground, as I understand. They have several candidates. They face the typical issues of an independent third party. It’s difficult to get on the ballot. It’s very expensive. So they’re fighting a steep uphill battle just like we are in the U.S. But they are gaining recognition.
I was introduced as a former Green Party presidential candidate during our visit with the villagers in Gimcheon and Seongju. I was astonished at how interested people were in the Green Party presidential campaign and then even more so when the village activists began introducing themselves saying they were already members of the Korean Green Party. The South Koreans have discovered Green Party’s principles of demilitarization, of a nuclear-free world, of conflict resolution based on dialogue, of democracy and sovereignty, and of getting rid of U.S. bases around the world, including in South Korea. Korea has paid the price for decades for being in the cross-hairs of U.S. militarism. So it’s no surprise that the people of Korea are very much in tune with the Green Party agenda.
PL: The communities in Seongju and Gimcheon were traditionally conservative. How did the villagers make the transition to political activism, calling for the removal of THAAD?
JS: As I understand it, for the villagers, it was a matter of becoming a victim of this system of occupation and militarization, and that it was the movement of the THAAD missile system into their communities that alarmed and alerted people. The people of Seongju and Gimcheon are well aware that that THAAD radar system is provoking China. It is the THAAD radar system which can detect China’s missiles that is believed to be the actual mission of the THAAD anti-missile system. THAAD is not strategically located order to protect Seoul, the major population area. And there are serious questions about the ability of these missiles to find targets under actual battlefield conditions.
The villagers are well aware that they are caught in the cross-hairs of North Korea and China and the U.S. by having this radar system in their backyard. They don’t want any part of it. They are not afraid of North Korea. They’ve dealt with North Korea’s leaders for some time. They understand how North Korea has been provoked into taking this, you know, offensive position, because the best defense is an offense. Korea has been threatened with nuclear attack for decades.
The U.S. has been rehearsing attacks, nuclear attacks, once or twice a year for decades against North Korea, so it’s no surprise when we have negotiated with North Korea, it has been productive. Had the U.S. not retrenched from its commitments, we might not have the problem that we have right now. But we’ve been threatening attack, we’ve been rehearsing attack.
The people of South Korea have a much better understanding of what dialogue has occurred with North Korea. The public here has little understanding of that in this country. We read only inflammatory headlines. Yet those high up in U.S. intelligence are well aware that there have been many opportunities for negotiation. If we would just engage in the freeze-freeze negotiations right now, we could begin to build trust. As South Korea knows there are opportunities for cooperative economic development. There are many ways forward. The people of South Korea need to be setting the pace here and setting the policy. It was so reassuring to see that the people of South Korea are not afraid of North Korea, they are not afraid of China. They’re afraid of Donald Trump, though, and the irrational and hostile things that he might do.
We need to allow democracy and justice to guide our way forward here, and that means giving the people of South Korea the sovereignty that they deserve. That is their right. They should be sovereign over South Korea and sovereign in deciding how to proceed in putting an end to this conflict that doesn’t need to be there.
PL: What is the freeze-freeze proposal that you mentioned?
JS: The freeze-freeze proposal calls for the U.S. to freeze the war games in exchange for North Korea freezing its missile and nuclear weapons development. They pause and we pause. There is absolutely nothing to lose here for anyone, particularly for the U.S. We have a huge advantage here in every way imaginable considering that we have thousands of nuclear bombs. North Korea may have 20 or 30, something like that. Freezing things where they are right now and beginning negotiations is a no-lose proposition on both sides. It’s a win-win. At worst we go back to where we were before. But at best we actually then begin to roll back the nuclear crisis which is on a hair-trigger alert right now.
I believe it was Senator Lindsey Graham who said if a war is going to happen. it’s going to happen over there. That’s false, there’s no such thing as a limited nuclear war. Nuclear winter comes from all the debris that’s thrown into the atmosphere. It would cause a massive global reduction in food production which will last for years. It’s predicted that this would kill hundreds of millions of people all around the world. It’s essentially the unmaking of civilization as we know it. There’s no way the world will survive the massive consequences of even a limited nuclear exchange.
It’s not just the Korean peninsula that’s at risk. What’s going on in Korea is a microcosm of a foreign policy based on economic and military domination at a time when we are no longer unipolar world. Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, was the author of this unipolar view of the world and foresaw a century of American domination. This generated the policies of regime change in the Middle East. Even Brzezinski had moved on from this view before he died recently. He said it was no longer possible to have a world based on U.S. military domination anymore, that we needed to develop a new approach based on collaboration and cooperation. This is what we need to do.
PL: When Obama was elected president, there was a hope that things would change on many fronts, domestic and also foreign affairs. And he did make some overtures that indicated that he would try to bury the hatchet with some of United States’ adversaries. Why did we end up in such a difficult situation with U.S. policy towards Korea where there’s virtually no diplomacy going on back and forth? He was supposedly the president that was going to change that or bring something new to the table.
JS: He did do some good things including negotiating with Iran. But in so many ways Obama did not, I’d say, generally did not, fulfill expectations of a kinder, gentler policy. There was kinder, gentler rhetoric. But beneath the rhetoric we generally moved backwards, even economically in the U.S. in the way the banks got bailed out. Larry Summers the architect of the Wall Street meltdown was reappointed. The recovery was a recovery for Wall Street. And in the realm of foreign policy we went on to expand the wars and we surged into Afghanistan. We brought the troops out of Iraq. But no real peace was made.
Obama was the architect of the pivot to Asia. The rhetoric made it seem as if we were going to cool our jets in the Middle East and stand up against the bully China in Asia. This was a very misguided policy. We didn’t make amends in the Middle East. We continued expanding our drone war, ground wars, and we had regime change in Libya. The Middle East under Obama was largely a disaster.
The policy towards Korea, towards North Korea, called “strategic patience” was neither strategic nor patient. It essentially continued the squeeze of economic sanctions, isolation and threats. It didn’t go down the pathway of engagement and negotiations. It was a misnamed policy and it was a missed opportunity. To my mind, it has been a bipartisan problem.
The Democratic Party, like the Republican Party, is funded by the dollars of the military-industrial complex and they don’t exercise independent policymaking in the world of foreign relations any more than they do in health care where the leading figures in the Democratic Party, the chair of the DNC, as well as Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, remain fans of health insurance as we know it. They keep putting the brakes on movement towards a Medicare for all policy, even at a time when people are clamoring for it. The opportunity has never been greater. This is the time to move forward and yet the Democrats are not capable of doing the right thing. So what’s going on in Korea is a reality check. It’s an opportunity for people to say, “Hey is this working?” It’s clearly not, even though there’s a solution within arm’s reach if we just do the right thing.
PL: The delegation to Korea was called the Solidarity Peace delegation and the purpose was to build solidarity with the grassroots struggle that is going on in Korea along with the struggles that are going on in the U.S. for social justice. From your interaction with the villagers in Seongju and Gimcheon, what is the key message from the villagers to the peace movement here for working together, trying to achieve common goals?
JS: I think the villagers were delighted and surprised to see that our goals were their goals, and that we understood their leadership, and that they are taking the lead. We want to support them and help raise their voices so that their voices are heard around the world. My own feeling about the direction we need to go in is very much based on that strategy.
It is the human struggle, their rights to democracy, to sovereignty, to justice, to freedom from occupation, to freedom from this missile system that makes them a target. The fact that they are camping out in the streets waiting for the next shipment of THAAD missiles to come in, the fact that the Won Buddhists have set up their tent and are there 24/7—that’s their human rights struggle. The heroism and courage of the villagers standing up to confront the military coming in, that they’ve been unbelievably heroic and courageous in their struggle—that to me is the real engine of the global fight here. The villagers are the face of that struggle.
There is a global crisis in the making on the Korean peninsula. It’s going to take a global effort, a global peace movement, I think, to reverse that crisis. This crisis is instructive because if we can establish the ground rules on the Korean peninsula we’ve established ground rules globally, that it is time to end the militarization, that it’s time to end occupation, that it’s time to support local democracy and local sovereignty. It is time also to demilitarize our foreign policies, to shift our resources to supporting human needs, militarism which is half of our budget in the U.S. But it’s the face of the villagers who are compelling. When you put this together with the faces of other human rights struggles for peace, for democracy, for environmental and economic justice and racial justice, that’s when we really get to critical mass, by bringing those local struggles together.
The role of the villagers is critical in igniting this new global movement. There’s a global force for war and that’s called Lockheed Martin and the like, the incredible economic powers that are pushing for war all over the world. And it’s the regimes that the U.S. is supporting, dictatorships all over the world that are based on consumption of the U.S. military weapons. That global force for war needs a global counterweight for democracy, human rights, and peace. It is by unifying those struggles that I think we engage the imagination of the public around the world and especially the U.S. public which is riveted right now on the fight against fascism and the fight against racism.
Fascism and militarism are two sides of the same coin. Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out that the three evils of militarism, racism, and materialism go hand-in-hand. Looking at fascism and militarism as flip sides of the same monster, it helps people in this country understand that they’re not taking away from the fight against fascism by supporting the peace movement in Korea. This is a crisis that all of us need to weigh in on right now, and for people to understand that this is the same movement as fighting fascism in Charlottesville and throughout the U.S. I think that’s the way we need to go forward, understanding that this is a win-win domestically and a win-win in terms of foreign policy. You cannot separate them.
PL: It’s tremendous that the delegation went there and took this step forward connecting the struggle in Asia and in Korea with struggles here in the United States. On that note I want to ask if there is anything else that we should cover this morning, anything else that you would like to address.
JS: Only that this is not a long term goal. We need to build the common cause between these struggles, share the love and share the fight and understand that we’re one unified community.
I was in Flint, Michigan, recently where people are struggling for clean water, for housing and for human rights. So many stepped up to send their good wishes and signed the petition. The same thing in Detroit where similar struggles are going on. Miko Peled, who is one of the leaders of the Palestinian Human Rights Movement, signed the petition. Alice Walker, Cornell West who was in Charlottesville also took time out to sign our petition, understanding that militarism and fascism are one and the same.
There are many steps we can take right now to capitalize on this surge of resistance. There is a rising up of these forces for democracy and justice and we can unify the peace movement with that fight as we build solidarity. The moment this becomes a unified human rights struggle, the quicker we get to critical mass and the faster we build a global force for peace to counter the global force for war. The potential for the breakout of nuclear and other wars right now and the potential for fascism are equally devastating threats.
PL: It’s inspiring that these progressive leaders have signed the petition to avert war in Korea especially as they are so involved in the actions that occurring now in the U.S.
JS: Exactly, and I think we need to bring the people of Guam in on this too because they are also in the target-hairs. The more we can bring the hotspots together to say we’re going to be a global force for peace, the more that global force for peace can be exercised in a variety of hotspots around the world. That includes Asia, South America and the regime change that is about to be practiced against Venezuela, and real peace and human rights in Israel and Palestine. The more we come together as a global force for peace, the stronger we’ll be.
PL: I want to thank you for sharing and spending the time with me this morning and let’s continue the work.
JS: Yes absolutely.
*Dr. Jill Stein was the Green Party’s U.S. presidential candidate in 2016 and 2012 and a co-founder of the Global Climate Convergence for People, Planet and Peace over Profit. She has helped fight for workers’ rights, to stop environmental racism and injustice, promote green economies and democracy, and is currently working to build support for Green Party candidates who are campaigning for progressive, sustainable solutions that are critical for our future.