The revered Korean Dharma master and social activist Venerable Pomnyun Sunim (법륜스님) was invited to be a keynote speaker at the the 20th New Korea Forum, which was hosted by interfaith NGO the Korea Religions Association in Seoul on 13 July. In an insightful and perceptive examination of the prevailing geopolitical climate in the region, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim delivered a talk titled “Addressing Rising Tensions on the Korean Peninsula: Pathways to Peace.”
The New Korea Forum is a monthly conference that invites prominent social figures and leaders to address various topics related to peace and unification of the Korean Peninsula, to discuss national development, and to push initiatives working toward the establishment of peace worldwide.
“Tensions are escalating on the Korean Peninsula, and the risk of war has reached an alarming level. We need to find a breakthrough,” Ven. Pomnyun Sunim observed during an informal conversation ahead of his keynote address. “Ideally, persuading the South Korean government to address this crisis would be the best course of action. If that’s not possible, an alternative approach would be to persuade the United States to improve its relations with North Korea as a means to resolve this crisis. If that doesn’t work, we could explore the possibility of engaging in discussions with Japan.
“If the US continues its current approach of pressuring North Korea, and North Korea strengthens its cooperation with China and Russia, it will not only increase security risks on the Korean Peninsula, but also pose risks to the Asia-Pacific region as a whole.”
In his talk, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim addressed numerous concerns surrounding domestic and international powers, with particular reference to the increasing polarization of the global political landscape, the threat of nuclear conflict, and the urgent need for active steps toward accommodation, compromise, and reconciliation in the interests of preserving peace out of compassion for the millions of people whose lives hang in the balance. Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s keynote speech for the occasion is reproduced here in full:
The current escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula should not be viewed solely in terms of inter-Korean relations. From a broader perspective, it can be understood as a manifestation of the power struggle between the United States and China. In the past, the US and China maintained a cooperative relationship, which prevented the escalation of tensions between the two Koreas into full-blown war. Even if there were minor conflicts, the major powers involved prevented them from escalating. However, the current situation is reminiscent of the Korean War, as the US and China are engaged in a competition for supremacy. Even if the two Koreas attempt to cooperate, there is a backdrop of the US and China fostering conflicts. In addition, if the inter-Korean conflict intensifies, there is a high risk that local disputes could escalate into a devastating war. To draw an analogy, in the past, a match could be lit without causing a fire due to the absence of flammable material nearby. But now, with an abundance of flammable material present, even a small spark could lead to a major conflagration.
If South Korea becomes a subordinate element within the US-Japan cooperation system, and North Korea becomes a subordinate element within the China-Russia cooperation system within the framework of a global conflict, a war on the Korean Peninsula could break out regardless of our intentions. Thus, I am deeply concerned about the heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Specifically, the South Korean government’s active involvement in US-Japan military cooperation is provoking both China and Russia. Moreover, the South Korean government’s mention of providing direct military assistance to the Ukraine conflict is also provoking Russia. If Russia were to transfer its military support to North Korea, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles or nuclear technology, and if China were to actively provide economic support to North Korea, tensions on the Korean Peninsula would inevitably escalate. This would place us in a highly disadvantageous situation.
However, if we consider the situation from another perspective, a crisis can also be seen as an opportunity. We can utilize the current unfavorable situation as a blessing in disguise.
The security strategy of the South Korean government is aimed at curtailing North Korea’s nuclear expansion by employing a military cooperation framework involving South Korea, the US, and Japan. Conversely, North Korea aims to prevent invasion from the US and South Korean governments by relying on its own nuclear capabilities. This approach of both sides seeking overwhelming military superiority over their adversaries is further exacerbating the inter-Korean conflict. This security strategy does not effectively address the issue of North Korea’s nuclear proliferation, which is currently being overlooked. North Korea is progressing in terms of nuclear development, including the production and deployment of nuclear weapons, without any checks or balances. Given that China and Russia, as permanent members of the UN Security Council, are not actively participating in North Korea’s denuclearization efforts, the current negligence regarding North Korea’s nuclear proliferation poses a significant threat not only to the Korean Peninsula but also to global peace.
The most urgent action we can take is to halt the spread of nuclear weapons by North Korea. In other words, North Korea should freeze its nuclear development. This entails ceasing the production and development of nuclear materials and their deployment. To achieve this, we must be willing to accommodate some of North Korea’s demands. Over the past few decades, North Korea has consistently sought assurances regarding its security. In other words, it wants the US to abandon its hostile policy toward North Korea, thereby normalizing bilateral relations.
I believe that freezing North Korea’s nuclear program through the normalization of US-North Korea relations is a starting point for easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula and establishing peace in Northeast Asia. It is of utmost importance to find ways to persuade both the South Korean and US governments on this matter. Of course, North Korea must also be convinced. We should make them aware that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and nuclear weapons could jeopardize their system’s stability. Nuclear weapons alone cannot guarantee a country’s security. By improving relations with neighboring countries and enhancing the welfare of North Korean citizens, North Korea can ensure sustainable safety. South Korea and the US should also recognize that it is unrealistic to completely isolate and bring about the collapse of North Korea within the current international landscape. Therefore, it is necessary to improve North Korea-US relations by providing humanitarian aid that addresses the needs of North Koreans and simultaneously lifting economic sanctions. Only then can North Korea prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and nuclear weapons.
I believe that we should pursue this direction and hope that the positive influence of peace-loving individuals will have a significant impact. In particular, the economic situation in North Korea is extremely challenging. Some people argue that the collapse of the North Korean regime is imminent due to these hardships. However, if food shortages were enough to cause the collapse of the North Korean regime, it would have collapsed 20 years ago. This scenario seems highly unlikely. Instead, we should all reflect on the fact that we have been turning a blind eye to the suffering of our fellow North Koreans, who share the same ethnic background.
Despite 70 years since the armistice in Korea, the issue of separated families remains unresolved. Even those who were born at that time are now 70 years old, and considering the fact that separated family members aged 80 or older pass away each year, it is crucial to expedite reunions for separated families, regardless of political considerations.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim is a widely revered Dharma teacher, author, and social activist. He has founded numerous organizations, initiatives, and projects across the world. Among them, Jungto Society, a volunteer-based community founded on the Buddha’s teachings and dedicated to addressing modern social issues that lead to suffering, and JTS Korea, an international humanitarian organization working to eradicate poverty and hunger. Ven. Pomnyun Sunim is also the patron of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB).
In October 2020, the Niwano Peace Foundation in Japan presented the 37th Niwano Peace Prize to Ven. Pomnyun Sunim in recognition of his international humanitarian work, intensive environmental and social activism, and his tireless efforts to build trust and goodwill between communities of different faiths and cultures, toward the goal of world peace.*
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