After a harrowing downward spiral in which President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un carelessly exchanged threats and engaged in provocative military actions, we are seeing a ray of hope. PSR chapters and members have advocated for direct negotiations between the United States and North Korea as the only viable solution to the nuclear-armed standoff. Now, following a thaw in North-South Korean relations after the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and intense diplomatic work by South Korea, these direct negotiations are likely to happen. South Korea and North Korea are planning a summit meeting in April, to be followed by a summit meeting of President Trump and Kim Jong-un in May.
The planned summits mark a stunning change of course. On March 12, South Korean President Moon Jae-in told his cabinet, “That we were able to create this opportunity is not because of a coincidence but because this is the right path and the entire world wants peace, not war; a diplomatic solution, not a military one.” North Korea has pledged to refrain from testing ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons while talks are underway and indicated a willingness to discuss giving up its nuclear arsenal. South Korea and the United States are proceeding with joint military exercises in April involving 300,000 soldiers, but the U.S. has announced that this year’s drills will exclude aircraft carriers.
Health professionals and peace advocates are extremely concerned about the outcome of these summits, especially since a shake-up of President Trump’s cabinet will bring in two well-known “hawks”: Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State and John Bolton as National Security Advisor.
The outbreak of armed conflict on the Korean peninsula would be a humanitarian catastrophe with long-term consequences for public health. In a November 2017 report, the Congressional Research Service estimated that any U.S. military action against North Korea would cause mass civilian casualties, and North Korean retaliation could kill an estimated 300,000 people within the initial days of fighting. From a public health perspective, military action—either conventional or nuclear—must be taken off the table. Diplomacy is the only viable solution to avert catastrophe.
PSR health professionals and advocates are asking members of Congress to weigh in and actively promote diplomacy. PSR has endorsed legislation introduced by Representative Ro Khanna and Senator Ed Markey requiring authorization from Congress before attacking North Korea first. Last year, Representative Ted Lieu teamed up with Senator Markey for legislation to revise current policy that confers “sole authority” over nuclear weapons decisions to the president, and restore the Constitutional authority of Congress to declare war.
The Trump administration cannot afford to foul up this opening. They must seize this opportunity to pursue an agreement that will stop the threats and posturing, produce a permanent peace treaty to end the Korean War after 65 years, and normalize relations between the United States and North Korea.