AFSC’s Shared Security Vision for Northeast Asia:
‘Issues pertaining to peace and human security on the Korean Peninsula’
Asia Regional Director, American Friends Service Committee
American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is a US Quaker organisation in its centennial year, working for peace, justice and sustainable well-being for all. The foundational philosophy of justice and equality underlying our work has been consistent over the decades, and AFSC has been able to achieve positive results and gain valuable insights into conflicts around the world, enabling resolution. AFSC is an implementer of programme work, always in partnership; a facilitator addressing unjust divisions; a convenor; and a leader in quiet diplomacy. We recognise the humanity in all people and are ready to engage with all parties. Our lessons learnt through analysis of our long history suggest we are in fact working effectively, with an approach proven to be successful, as documented by Erica Chenowith[i]. We describe this approach as one of ‘shared security’, more of which will be presented later.
This paper will commence with a brief history of AFSC’s experience on the Korean peninsula, followed by the current context from a DPRK perspective and finish with an analysis showing why the shared security framework is exceptionally well-suited for mapping the necessary initial steps towards authentic peace and security in the region and beyond.
Since the very start of AFSC’s engagement with Korea in the 1950s, we have had three consistent intentions. First to provide much needed humanitarian support to the DPRK. Second, to build trust between the two nations by circumnavigating the political arena and maintaining fragile links of engagement and diplomacy through tumultuous times. And third, to provide a foundation for and an example of peace-building to policy makers and those inclined towards military solutions. Only very recently however, has AFSC made the implicit explicit; by articulating our goal to normalise relations, meaning the resumption of peaceful relations, between the US and the DPRK. Now this forms a conscious part of our work and we have been able to develop and resource an astute strategy[ii].
Our involvement with Korea started following the armistice agreement, signed July 1953, which ceased hostilities but did not officially end the Korean War. AFSC responded to U.N. calls for refugee assistance and began working to improve conditions for over 33,000 displaced Koreans. AFSC became involved specifically and intentionally as a US organization offering reparation. In response to the devastation wreaked by three years of heavy US bombing, AFSC initiated a “Houses for Korea” campaign, providing materials for and training in reconstruction efforts, and went on to provide agricultural and livelihoods tools and supplies. AFSC withdrew in 1958 as we observed improved conditions.
Although conditions improved within the DPRK for a while, international relations soured over the next two decades, along with the disintegration of the Soviet bloc. AFSC returned in 1980, as tensions increased between the US and the DPRK, becoming the first US public affairs organization to enter the troubled country. Through collaboration with the Korean Committee for Solidarity with the World’s People (KCSWP)[iii] on exchanges, we arranged peace delegations to the DPRK and hosted North Koreans in the US, work we would like to undertake today, but are unable to because of the US stance of non-engagement towards the DPRK.
In 1994, alongside economic deterioration in the country, the DPRK began to suffer a severe famine, and in 1995 AFSC became one of the first international organizations calling for humanitarian aid to alleviate the impact of this. This action was taken based on the understanding that human need and suffering, and responding to that need and suffering can transcend contentious politics. Our response, again in partnership with KCSWP, was to develop an agricultural assistance project providing food security, a collaboration which has been maintained, without break, ever since.
Today we work with four cooperative farms, the Academy of Agricultural Sciences, and Kye Ungsang College of Agriculture of Kim Il Sung University, to raise productivity and implement sustainable agricultural practices. We also organize education and training opportunities in Asia for North Korean citizens, institutions, and government agencies on various topics.
The success of AFSC’s current project is primarily due to the strength of the partnership built with KCSWP over 37 years, through sharing pragmatic, sustainable agricultural practices that are field-tested on partner farms. AFSC’s history and work with KCSWP is conceivably the most continuous example of a successful relationship between a US and North Korean organization, despite ongoing political turmoil and tense international relations. The partnership has been at the forefront of identifying and addressing some of the most urgent humanitarian needs in the DPRK[iv].
Contextual history from the DPRK perspective
I was fortunate to interview Mr. O Ryong Il[v], a presidium member of The Korean National Peace Committee on a recent visit to the DPRK. Listening to him describing the events leading up to the current tense situation was illuminating. I was curious to hear the history of the DPRK from a North Korean perspective, and Mr. O Ryong Il created a dynamic impression of a proud, yet vulnerable country, surrounded by super-powers pursuing their own interests on the broken peninsula.
It is crystal-clear that the DPRK’s key goal is to maintain and protect North Korean sovereignty. It is felt that without self-determination, there is little reason to survive. Recent history shows that the DPRK has been exploited and colonised repeatedly, and there is a sense that only since Kim Il-Sung came to power in 1948, after the overthrow of Japanese rule, has the sovereignty of the DPRK been truly protected, with self-reliance being at the very core of the country’s Juche philosophy.
It may be that the key threat to the DPRK today is the US, but the DPRK wants to deflect imperialism from any quarter, and is determined not to become a puppet for others in the region. Therefore, the DPRK prioritises military defence at the cost of human development, and only when the country feels secure, will attention and resources address internal needs.
The Korean National Peace Committee is working for peace on the peninsula and in the region, and central to this is unification of the Koreas. This can only happen if the intimidating presence of the US diminishes in the ROK. The DPRK proposes that those countries who fomented the Korean War have a responsibility to be part of the solution. The US should take steps to normalise relationships with the DPRK, and, as the DPRK presented to Obama, without response, a first step would be to stop the annual provocation of the war games between the US and the ROK[vi]. The US’s response to this request was to increase the ferocity of the military exercises in March this year, which involved more than 300,000 troops[vii].
According to Mr. O Ryong Il the DPRK clearly recognises the value to the US of vilifying the DPRK in the media, thereby justifying the US bases and 28,000 US troops in the ROK, as close to China’s doorstep as possible, and not far from Russia’s. The DPRK also observes that when signs of engagement between the DPRK and the ROK are apparent, the US and others become alarmed and intervene. For peace on the peninsula, the DPRK and the ROK need the overpowering presence of other states, specifically the US, to step back and give some breathing space. a space that could be created if the ROK reviewed its close alliance with the US. Mr. O Rong Il says ‘US troops in South Korea are the biggest obstacle to reunification. They are under the power of the US military. South Korea should think of becoming independent from US control’[viii]
Mr. O Ryong Il painted a picture of what he would like to see, saying “Peace is for all countries in the region. They should have the same rights as a human being — they may be of different size, population and economic development, but they should have the same rights — every nation should trust and agree with other nations’ rights and sovereignty. In the region, there will be a peaceful environment for common prosperity, which the people of the region expect, without interference from outside forces. Now the people would like globalisation of the world, but every nation has its own cultural background, and we should trust and respect each other. One nation should not threaten the other nation with military means, we should not oppress the other with sanctions, or as a big country. Then there will be a good environment”[ix].
Mr. O Ryong Il’s words highlight some aspects of AFSC’s concept of shared security, which is based on the simple understanding that shared problems require shared solutions. All our interests are best served when we foster peaceful and just relationships and protect the natural resources we all depend on. This begins with the way in which parties engage with each other. Peaceful and just ends are most easily achieved through peaceful and just means. Violent engagement is proven to perpetuate violence[x]. We should treat others as we wish to be treated and this can be understood at an individual, community, national or global level.
A Shared Security Approach
AFSC suggests that to enable sustainable peace there needs to be shared access to fair and accountable public institutions and support designed to protect all, including the most vulnerable, not just those who are the most vocal and powerful. In addition, lasting peace requires a commitment to healing breaches caused by destructive acts.
Whether an act of violence is perpetrated by a person, group, or state, steps need to be taken to ensure root causes are addressed to prevent further violence and destruction. Restorative approaches to justice are proven more effective than punitive, retributive approaches.
Finally, recognition of our shared communities, regions, and planet is elementary. We are all affected by degradation of our shared environment, infrastructure, and social systems in our interconnected world. No person or state can afford to act for their own interests alone, if they aspire to a just peace.
Working with these principles, shared security joins the concepts of “collective security,” which emphasizes cooperation among nations, and “human security,” which focuses on the dignity and well-being of communities. To enable the adoption of a shared security framework for conflict resolution at regional and global levels, a change of narrative is needed. We need a new narrative allowing for analysis of shared problems and root causes, encouraging the capability to rise above short-term opportunism, and to acknowledge, yet put aside, less critical historical slights, and so begin to build trust through words and actions.
Failures of the Traditional Security Model
The relationship between the DPRK and the US exemplifies a classic ‘traditional security’ approach, as presented in the diagram above, and is beset by unconstructive posturing. From problem analysis to the current US strategy with the DPRK, to the tools used, it is apparent there is little hope for just peace and security to emerge. The US DPRK relationship is entrenched in ‘us versus them’ rhetoric and accompanied by an absence of neutral trusted institutions to act as peace-brokers.
With the central focus of this zero-sum game on the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program, the US continues, in effect, to refuse engagement. US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, on his March visit to the ROK declared ‘the policy of strategic patience[xii] with North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs has ended’. This could have been interpreted optimistically. However, he also warned that military action would be ‘on the table’ if Pyongyang elevated the threat level. The reality is that the US has nothing to supersede strategic patience, recognises the risks of military intervention, but still continues to “up the ante” with its ultimatums to the DPRK.
From the DPRK perspective, denuclearization has long ceased to be an option. ‘North Korea has perceived external security pressure and has not been successful at acquiring a security guarantee, despite having attended different forms of peace talks’[xiv] says Fu Ying, China’s former vice minister of foreign affairs. She also notes that the DPRK’s observation of US interventions in countries such as Libya has not instilled confidence. Journalist Peter Beinart reminds us that following January’s nuclear test, the DPRK official news agency said “the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and the Qaddafi regime in Libya could not escape the fate of destruction after being deprived of their foundations for nuclear development and giving up nuclear programs of their own accord… History proves that powerful nuclear deterrence serves as the strongest treasured sword for frustrating outsiders’ aggression.”[xv] The DPRK has little reason to trust that, without weapons, it would be permitted to survive as an autonomous state. The DPRK feels forced to secure safety within its own borders, the US intensifies the pressure, and as the traditional model of security identifies, neither approach is conducive to the development of sustainable security.
Compounding the tensions, the DPRK does not have access to fair and accountable public institutions to support negotiations, and perceives the UN as following a western agenda. The flying of the UN flag over the ROK side of the Korean DMZ presents a good metaphor for this.
Further, Ed Royce, Chairman of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, convened a meeting in June entitled ‘Advancing US interests at the United Nations’ thus indicating the prevailing sentiments in DC around the acceptability of influencing the UN to follow a US agenda, and so, over-riding the UN’s potential as peace-maker. He commended Ambassador Nicki Hayley for her work to date, especially in relation to DPRK, and in fact said ‘I was pleased to see Ambassador Haley’s prepared testimony recognize that “human rights and conflict are directly connected.” Regimes that don’t respect the citizens over which they hold power… won’t respect their neighbors or international agreements’.[xvi] The UN has not convinced the DPRK of its impartiality, and the US assumes entitlement to bend the UN to follow its own agenda specifically in relation to the DPRK.
The rights agenda has been used as a form of coercive diplomacy, though more so by the US than the UN. There are a number of critical reports and papers on the DPRK, ranging from the 2014 Commission of Inquiry report[xvii] to papers on the rights of persons with disabilities in the DPRK[xviii], based in part on unverified data. Such reports have inflamed the relationship between the West, namely the US, and the DPRK, have done nothing to protect the rights of DPRK citizens, and have exacerbated tensions. There are more balanced reports, which provide verified information on the situation of the rights of persons with disabilities[xix] in DPRK for example, to counter the dominant narrative, but these are rarely referenced in western mainstream media.
What is interpreted by the DPRK as the UN’s partiality has impaired the DPRK’s faith in the multilateral body, in spite of ongoing aid and support delivered by UN agencies in DPRK. Positively, the new Special Rapporteur to DPRK is genuinely committed to trust building and engagement with the DPRK and is appreciative of the engagement between humanitarian organizations and the DPRK, as indicated in his first two reports[xx], but it will take time, effort and will from both parties to build on these good intentions, as well as indications that the UN is not a puppet for the US. The rights of individuals in the DPRK should not be overlooked and the UN urges the Security Council and other parties to seek peaceful and political solutions, whilst also keeping political and humanitarian concerns separate. The UN is doing its utmost to promote diplomacy, and to protect citizens’ rights.
Since the success of the six-party talks, which brokered a second pledge from the DPRK in 2005 to abandon “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs”, there have been numerous actions from both the DPRK and other parties undermining conditions for trust building and positive engagement. Now, deadlocked strategy, toughening of sanctions and escalation in militaristic rhetoric indicate the traditional approach is not bearing fruit. Relations between the US and the DPRK are at their lowest point for decades, and nearly all prior steps in building trust have been completely eroded. The only genuine option for the US is to commence engagement with the DPRK without the pre-condition of denuclearisation, in order to break the deadlock, and to de-escalate tensions as soon as possible. If the US continues to keep its preconditions on talks, the policy will continue to drive the US and the DPRK towards war, precisely what the policy purportedly aims to prevent. For the US to change its stance and commence diplomatic engagement is clearly a more constructive and mature approach than deferring the responsibility to China, and pressurizing the ROK to be militarily complicit with the US.
Shared Security and the DPRK: The only viable option
There are many signs of interest in alternatives to the traditional model of security from the EU, from China, now more audibly from the ROK, and various voices in the US. The ideas presented in articles, such as Beinart’s, quoted earlier, suggesting the Democrats need to develop a strategy for engagement and challenge the Republican’s tired approach, are becoming more acceptable and mainstream. Trump has given an assurance to the DPRK that the US ‘is not seeking a regime change’[xxi] and though this may be treated with some skepticism, it does suggest an attempt to build trust. President Moon Jae-in, who took up leadership in the ROK on 10th May, said at the G20 summit in July, “We do not wish for the collapse of North Korea, and we will not pursue any form of unification by absorbing it. We will not pursue unification by force”. President Moon may also change course on the THAAD missile protection system, also opposed by Russia and China, giving the DPRK more space, and reducing threats on its immediate borders. Similarly, the UN is promoting engagement with the DPRK and trying hard to listen to the DPRK and civil society voices. Finally, there are some indications from the DPRK that there is an appetite for engagement and diplomacy if some assurances of protected sovereignty can be provided.
To quote Mr. O again, ‘The Korean people are thinking the sovereignty of the nation is really valuable. That is why, when you are talking about security, the other nations, the US, should trust the Korean nation’s feelings and needs to acknowledge the DPRK’s sovereignty. It means the first step comes automatically — the US should approve the reality of the situation on the peninsula and agree with the DPRK itself, as a member of the UN. The US has to talk to the DPRK on the same level, as another nation’[xxii].
Building trust between the DPRK and the US through humanitarian support in the form of an agricultural programme, work that has been undertaken by AFSC, is vital. Such engagement can become the foundation that enables politicians and policy advisors to meet with some historical, positive reference points. This allows more open relationships, encouraging understanding between parties who otherwise do not know how or where to begin. Because of the extended stand-off, neither party has had first-hand experience of the other, and both are highly aware of negative propaganda, lacking recourse to examples of positive engagement.
The next steps to help develop a shared agenda could include the resumption of the US-DPRK project, abandoned by the US in 2012, to return the remains of over 8,000 US service people to the US. The DPRK is open to re-engagement on this and it is a mutually beneficial conversation starter.
The US and the DPRK could work together on the reunification of families separated by the 38th parallel. There is general support of Moon’s proposal for the two Koreas to resume reunions of families separated by the Korean War. As Ambassador Joseph De Trani, US former special envoy to the six party talks, has said, “family reunions are a good humanitarian issue that I support. This transcends nuclear and political issues”. AFSC agrees that this work transcends politics, but also believes such engagement provides a potential gateway to diplomatic discourse on political issues.
Another opportunity for tentative steps toward engagement between the US and the DPRK is through supporting people to people exchanges — a process that has been a precursor for more peaceful relations between the US and other countries such as China, USSR, Myanmar, Cuba, Iran and Vietnam in the past. Congress approved funds for exchanges in 2004 and although those funds still exist, they are being diverted into indirect and one-way forms of communication, such as broadcasting in the DPRK.
All these initiatives are described in greater detail in the AFSC publications Engaging North Korea volumes I and II[xxiii], and we believe they could provide significant steps towards diplomatic, normalised relations between the US and the DPRK, which in turn could lead to a de-escalation of military one-upmanship and could aid the development of peaceful relations in the region.
[i] Chenoweth, Erica, and Orion A. Lewis. “Unpacking nonviolent campaigns: Introducing the NAVCO 2.0 dataset.” Journal of Peace Research 50, no. 3 (2013): 415–423. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0022343312471551?journalCode=jpra
Chenoweth, Erica, and Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham. “Understanding nonviolent resistance: An introduction.” Journal of Peace Research 50, no. 3 (2013): 271–276.
[ii] Peters, Mark, “What does it mean to ‘normalize,’ exactly?”, The Word, November 17, 2016, https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2016/11/17/what-does-mean-normalize-exactly/nsvIiXsSwh5aDDW3lsBnTO/story.html.
[iii] KCSWP is a DPRK Government Committee with whom AFSC has partnered since the 1980s to date.
[iv] See: Jasper, Daniel, “Engaging North Korea”, American Friends Service Committee, June 2016, https://www.afsc.org/document/engaging-north-korea, for a fuller account.
[v] Interview conducted May 22, 2017, in Pyongyang, DPRK.
[vii] Beinart, Peter, “Why Won’t the Democrats Challenge Trump on North Korea?”, The Atlantic, July 6, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/07/democrats-north-korea/532770/.
[viii] Interview conducted May 22, 2017 in Pyongyang, DPRK.
[ix] Interview conducted May 22, 2017 in Pyongyang, DPRK.
[x] Daniel Bar-Tal, The Encyclopedia of Peace Psychology, Volume 1 (2012), 193.
[xi] “Shared Security: Building peace in an interdependent world”, American Friends Service Committee, accessed August 21, 2017, p.5, https://www.afsc.org/sites/afsc.civicactions.net/files/documents/Shared%20Security%20booklet_WEB_0.pdf.
[xii] A term meant to demonstrate to the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that his country will not receive any international recognition as a nuclear-weapons power or experience the benefits of being a full member of the international community unless and until the DPRK lives up to its earlier commitments on denuclearization. If Pyongyang wants help from the world, according to the strategy, then it must show the world upfront that it is willing to suspend its nuclear activities and genuinely work toward the “verifiable denuclearization for the Korean Peninsula” that it signed up to in 2005. See: DePetris, Daniel, “Enough Strategic Patience: Time for a New US North Korea Policy”, The Diplomat, September 13, July 2016, http://thediplomat.com/2016/09/enough-strategic-patience-time-for-a-new-us-north-korea-policy/.
[xiii] Kristensen/Norris, “Estimated Global Nuclear Warhead Inventories 2017”, Federation of American Scientists, last modified July 8, 2017, https://fas.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Inventories2017-2.png.
[xiv] Fu Ying, “The Korean Nuclear Issue: Past, Present, and Future a Chinese Perspective”, Brookings, May 2017,
[xv] Beinart, Peter, “Why Won’t the Democrats Challenge Trump on North Korea?”, The Atlantic, July 6, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/07/democrats-north-korea/532770/.
[xvi] “Royce Remarks at U.N. Hearing with Ambassador Haley”, Foreign Affairs Committee, June 28, 2017,
[xvii] United Nations Human Rights Council, Report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (A/HRC/25/63), February 7, 2014, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/CoIDPRK/Pages/ReportoftheCommissionofInquiryDPRK.aspx.
[xviii] Lord, Janet, E. “Nothing to Celebrate: North Koreans with Disabilities”, Foreign Policy in Focus, December 3, 2013, http://fpif.org/nothing-celebrate-north-koreans-disabilities/.
[xix] Zellweger, Katharina, People with Disabilities in a Changing North Korea, Shorenstein APARC Working Paper, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University, 2014,
[xx] United Nations Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, A/HRC/34/66, February 22, 2017,
“Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”, United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, accessed August 21, 2017, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/SP/CountriesMandates/KP/Pages/SRDPRKorea.aspx for links to further reports.
[xxi] “Trump finalizes 4-point strategy on N. Korea: lawmaker”, Yonhap News Agency, May 26, 2017, http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/news/2017/05/26/0200000000AEN20170526000251315.html.
[xxii] Interview conducted May 22, 2017 in Pyongyang, DPRK.
[xxiii]Jasper, Daniel, “Engaging North Korea”, American Friends Service Committee, June 2016, https://www.afsc.org/document/engaging-north-korea; and,
Jasper, Daniel, “Engaging North Korea — Volume II”, American Friends Service Committee, June 2017, https://www.afsc.org/document/engaging-north-korea-volume-ii.
Lucy Roberts, Regional Director, Asia of American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)
Lucy Roberts is a Humanities graduate, with an MA in Development Studies from the University of East Anglia, UK. She has been working in Asia for over 15 years, initially in development and later moving into the peacebuilding field. She has worked with INGOs, the UN, and for the past seven years, the British and American Quakers, currently holding the position of Regional Director, Asia with American Friends Service Committee, working from Phnom Penh. Lucy first visited, and engaged with the DPRK as a Regional Advisor for Handicap International in 2009, and now supports AFSC’s DPRK programme as part of AFSC Asia’s regional portfolio of work.