User Menu

Divided Korea can learn from Northern Ireland’s peace process

Histories of hurt and trauma link Ireland with two Koreas and may show way forward

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un: interest in the Northern Ireland peace process is growing in Korea, especially among those who prioritise improved inter-Korean relations over political unification. Photograph: KCNA/VIA KNS/STR/AFP

Two news stories simmered through the summer months, between which few people likely saw any connection. One was the crisis surrounding the Korean peninsula. The other was the Brexit negotiations and the unknown fate of the Irish Border.

At first glance, the issues seem as far apart as Strabane and Seoul. The borders in question could hardly be more contrasting – Ireland’s, imperceptible; Korea’s, impregnable. But a closer look reveals some interesting similarities.

The modern histories of both Ireland and Korea have been shaped by colonisation by a larger, more powerful neighbour. Both have a bitterly contested past, and a legacy of mutual hurt and trauma. Both, in the late 20th century, experienced peace processes with some comparable elements but very different outcomes. Both remain divided.

Indeed, a little known fact in Ireland is that Koreans have been called “the East’s Irish” – by early western missionaries and by contemporary commentators, including Francis Fukuyama – due to cultural and historical parallels.

But in terms of conflict scholarship and policymaking, Ireland and Korea have rarely been set alongside each other. For Ireland, Israel-Palestine and South Africa have been the most frequent comparison cases. For Korea, divided Germany has offered the most obvious “model” – a cold war creation in which estranged capitalist and communist parts successfully reunited.

However, interest in the Northern Ireland peace process is growing in Korea, especially among those who prioritise improved inter-Korean relations over political unification. Just as it does in Ireland, the idea of Korean unification as a peace solution raises a further, divisive problem: what type of unified state?

Civil society peacebuilding

Ireland circumvented this issue, pursuing an “agreed Ireland” with imaginative, interlocking institutions, mutual recognition of identities and constitutional reforms. These were overseen by strong British-Irish commitment and regional stability in the form of the EU, and given legitimacy by the Belfast Agreement and by grassroots civil society peacebuilding.

All of this may have some relevance to Korea where a coherent, sustainable, domestically and regionally supported peace process has failed to take root. As the recent crisis has shown once again, Korea is surrounded by powerful states with conflicting and changing interests. And, of course, there is the nature of the North Korean regime.

Decommissioning is not denuclearisation, but the two issues do bear resemblance in terms of the dynamics, perceptions and mutual anxieties surrounding their negotiation. North Korean denuclearisation has been made a precondition for talks, effectively excluding the regime. This makes progress extremely difficult.

In fact, given the history of American military intervention, and that, during the Korean War, the United States openly considered using nuclear weapons on North Korea, the latter’s determination to develop nuclear capability to guarantee its survival is not beyond reason.

As in Northern Ireland, and in every peace process, leadership is crucial – the kind of leadership that can both reach out to opponents and reassure supporters, offering a compelling vision of the mutual advantages of transforming conflict. That leadership is lacking in the Korean situation. In the militarised and state-centric Korean context, avenues for civil society intervention are few.

Symbolic march

However, there have been bold initiatives in the past. Starting in the 1980s, South Korean and world ecumenical movements organised several meetings between South and North Korean church leaders. From the late 1990s, South Korean NGOs worked on development projects in North Korea. These enabled the kind of people-to-people contact which is now so difficult but key to a sustainable peace process. In 2015, a group of international women activists, including Nobel Prize winner Mairead Maguire from Ireland, organised a symbolic march from North to South Korea.

Despite Brexit and the current political stalemate at Stormont, the Northern Ireland peace process is still considered internationally as one of the most successful in the world. Korea, too, has made significant steps towards peace in the past. Sharing experiences between peacemaking arenas which are, in different ways, still unfolding, may be a valuable source of learning and inspiration, enabling sharper understanding of the universal, and unique, challenges of resolving conflict.

Peace processes are not linear but winding, halting and uncertain. But the times of threat and setback are surely those in which talking, sharing and learning are most important.

Dr David Mitchell is assistant professor in conflict resolution and reconciliation and Dr Dongjin Kim is adjunct assistant professor at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin

The Irish School of Ecumenics will host Peace Processes and Borders in a Changing Geopolitical Context: Ireland, Korea and Beyond in the Ulster Museum, Belfast on September 18th and 19th