A New Year’s resolution for diplomacy

A New Year’s resolution for diplomacy

By Charissa Zehr

The relationship between the U.S. and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) proved ever more volatile in 2017, with much public and political anxiety as rash decisions and name-calling of leaders came from both sides. There was renewed focus on the meaning of nuclear deterrence and authorization to use military force, both in Congress and the administration.

In August, President Trump issued an executive order outlining travel restrictions for U.S. citizens visiting North Korea. Concerned this would hamper our humanitarian efforts, Mennonite Central Committee U.S. (MCC) wrote a letter to the U.S. government expressing the value of building relationships in DPRK despite political hostilities. Thus far, our travel requests for project monitoring have been approved. In addition to restricting U.S. citizens from visiting North Korea, people from North Korea were included in the latest version of the administration’s travel ban, further affecting the ability of North Koreans to travel to the U.S.

As the calendar pages turn, our government could choose to turn the page on a tumultuous year of disengagement with North Korea. Beginning dialogue and discussion on less controversial humanitarian issues is one way to start a new chapter.

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. MCC 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 Korean society.

MCC Photo, U.S. Capitol building

Congress needs to hear support from their constituents for dialogue and diplomacy—encouraging ourgovernment to pursue a new path toward peace in this new year. Convincing the administration that dialogue with North Korea is not a “reward,” but in fact the only way to find a peaceable solution to nuclear stand-off is paramount. MCC continues to suggest creative ways the U.S. might engage North Korea, including through people-to-people exchanges; however, the current travel restrictions for North Koreans and U.S. citizens make this challenging.

Despite many tense moments between the U.S. and DPRK governments throughout 2017, there are still off-ramps that both governments can take to avoid further confrontation. We continue to advocate for diplomatic solutions to reduce tensions, working to find issues of common interest that could allow both countries to take small steps towards engagement. Creative diplomacy will be required, but let us continue to hope, pray and advocate for this to be part of our government’s New Year’s resolution list.

Charissa Zehr

Legislative Associate for International Affairs
Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office