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North Korea’s announcement Saturday of a test that showcases its surprisingly advanced nuclear capabilities is deeply disturbing, and needs to be answered. However, a hastily conceived, bluster filled unilateral American reaction that doesn’t take into account the best interests of the Korean people could have disastrous consequences for them, for us, and for the world.

President Trump responded Sunday morning by threatening an end to a free trade agreement with our ally South Korea, because he apparently believes that their approach has not been confrontational enough. He also fired off an impetuous tweet criticizing China for lack of effectiveness in reining in North Korea. And he self righteously decries the “inaction” over many decades in the conduct of previous administrations, which he believes led American foreign policy nowhere in the Koreas. Everyone else is wrong, and Trump believes that he is the only person with the right answers. And, in a complicated and highly incendiary crisis with no easy solutions, that’s a very dangerous approach.

We need a strong leader. But we don’t need one who is acting like a junior high school bully, who wields tactics of intimidation to get others to do things his way, rather than being a responsible and strategic thinker who knows how to work with others in common cause. In the small space of the Korean peninsula, a “fire and fury” approach could result in the deaths of millions of people, a renewed war on a scale that could dwarf the devastating destruction of the 1950s Korean conflict, even if it were conducted only with conventional weapons. And it could very well spread much further, with consequences for much of east Asia and the rest of the world.

Analysts on the Sunday morning news programs are pointing out once again the complicated realities here. and our allies. No, their actions are irresponsibly abhorrent, and are by no means justifiable. But responding in kind is not the answer.

My father and many of his lifelong friends traveled to South Korea as missionaries in the mid 1950s, in the days following the armistice, in a country where 90 percent of structures had been decimated and millions of people had been wounded and killed. There they helped administer disaster relief and worked alongside courageous Koreans in building a labor movement and in mobilizing international support for Korean democracy movements. Both Koreas were then among the poorest nations on earth, facing countless fundamentally daunting struggles. And yet my dad and his colleagues would tell you that the communitarian and welcoming spirit of the Korean people in the 1950s greatly inspired them. These Koreans had little in the way of material wealth but still had so much to offer, both individually and culturally, and this gave them great hope both for the path that needed to be taken there, but also for the potential of the path toward peace worldwide. Those often conflicting foreign interests have squeezed Korea like a vise, and have led not only to tyranny in the North, but also often to despotic regimes in the South, driven to these excesses in the name of national security (sound familiar?). In recent decades, Korean democracy movements have put the South on a much better path, and at times, have laid the groundwork for new dialogues and initiatives with the North that might eventually lead toward peace, and perhaps even eventual reunification. (Sounds impossible,
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but who would have guessed in 1985 that the reunification of Germany would happen just a few years later?) That work is ongoing, and if we find a way to move past the current crisis, could still could reap tremendous dividends.

A largely ahistorical Trump has argued that everyone else has failed in Korea because they were not tough enough. His fire and fury rhetoric has escalated tensions, and is causing distrust and fear not only among our enemies, but also among our allies.

Understandably, at times of impending conflict, Americans tend to rally around their president. In the recent past, when the tyrannical actions of a Khomeini or a Gadhafi or a Saddam took the form of threats to American citizens, we tended to write our president a blank check, no matter where they took us. But with a leader as impetuous and narcissistic and ego driven as is Trump, we’d be well advised to find ways to slow down this train, because his immediate emotional satisfaction would have dire consequences for us all.

Trump’s short sighted revisionist notion of history says things are the way they are in Korea because past leaders were half hearted in their approach and weren’t tough enough.

Folks who know Korea, its people, and its history, believe differently. They believe that past efforts may indeed have been half hearted, but that stronger efforts were needed instead on the path to peace. These were efforts that were ultimately stifled by the leaders of the four powers, and those Korean leaders who acceded to them.

It’s a time of great crisis, but also, in the bigger picture, a time of great opportunity, because it’s a time when longstanding problems and solutions have come into a sharper focus. Perhaps now is a time when the Korean people, Korean leaders, and other world leaders and citizens can come together in the spirit of peace, in all of its deeper meanings. Officially, the Korean War never ended, and the consequences of this lack of peaceful resolution have festered in ways that have countless negative implications for the present day. The stalemate represented by the status quo isn’t working, for either the people of the South or the North. Or for the rest of the world community.

Ultimatums, and the escalation that comes with them, have never worked. all need to be at the table with both Koreas in any diplomatic efforts moving forward, and the United Nations can and should also play a pivotal role. But the needs and aspirations of the Korean people must be front and center. It’s time to finally put this conflict to rest, in ways that hold up hopes for the peaceful future of the Korean people on both sides of a DMZ that represents a wall that must come down. War is not the answer. An approach that embraces peace in the broadest meaning of that word is needed now more than ever.

John Quinlan is a 40 year resident of Madison. He received the city’s Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award in 2008, and is a past president of the United Nations Association’s Dane County and Wisconsin chapter,
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and an emeritus member of the UNA’s national council.