For years, a wall of isolation between the United States and North Korea has been steadily building. The Korean War never officially ended, and it has been followed by decades of economic sanctions and frozen diplomatic channels.
An executive order issued by President Trump in August outlined travel restrictions that limit U.S. citizens from visiting North Korea — one more layer of bricks in the symbolic wall between our two countries.
But despite the escalation of tensions between leaders, it is important to highlight some cracks in this wall — places where isolation has been interrupted by relationships.
Humanitarian engagement that facilitates face-to-face exchanges between people living in the U.S. and North Korea is one of the most important signs of hope in these troubled times. Mennonite Central Committee has worked in North Korea for more than 20 years, interrupting the narrative that our country has no interest in relationships with North Koreans. Through disaster response, assistance to orphanages, care centers for the elderly and people living with tuberculosis and hepatitis, MCC demonstrates concern for the most vulnerable in North Korea.
Getting to know North Koreans disrupts stereotypes and has paved the way for deeper relationships and understanding between MCC and North Korean counterparts. This is a missing link that could move diplomacy forward.
Despite raising these ideas with U.S. officials, there seems to be little appetite for pursuing genuine engagement. While the Secretary of State recently divulged that the U.S. does have a few limited channels for talking to North Koreans, this glimmer of progress was swiftly undermined by rash statements from the president. The Trump administration should be looking for every possible avenue for communication with North Korea to reduce tensions and find issues of common interest, allowing us to take even small steps toward renewed engagement.
Educational exchanges between U.S. citizens and North Koreans could be a place to start. MCC has facilitated numerous exchanges between people in the U.S., Canada and North Korea but is unable to do so presently in the U.S.
Another possibility is to resume operations to retrieve the remains of soldiers missing from the Korean War, a vital issue for families still waiting for closure. Operations could be restarted if the U.S. designates the recovery of remains as a humanitarian issue.
MCC has learned that constructive engagement in North Korea requires hours of conversation and a genuine interest to reach across ideological divides and connect with people. It isn’t rocket science, but this long, slow work of trust-building must precede diplomacy — and any talk of stopping rocket launches, for that matter.
With tensions between the U.S. and North Korean leadership threatening to destabilize the Asia-Pacific region and beyond, voices pushing for diplomacy and engagement must be taken seriously. There are real lives at stake, inside and outside of North Korea.
For people of faith, engaging North Korea may not follow the logic of political realities, but it does follow the kingdom logic of a “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:16-21), a hope that can interrupt fear and hostility.
Charissa Zehr is a legislative associate for international affairs at the Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office.