This paper describes a virtual workshop on envisioning peace on the Korean Peninsula for youth from the United States, North Korea, and South Korea that was conducted over three days in January 2021. The workshop was designed, organized, and facilitated by the United States Institute of Peace, and participants were selected in partnership with Liberty in North Korea and the International Student Conferences' Korea-America Student Conference.

Summary

In January 2021, USIP convened a three-day virtual workshop for youth from the United States, North Korea, and South Korea to share perspectives on envisioning peace on the Korean Peninsula. Twenty-five university students and recent graduates (ages 18 to 30; nine from the United States, eight each from North and South Korea) engaged in various activities that allowed them to share their perspectives regarding peace and security on the Korean Peninsula, explore the conflict dynamics involved, and generate ideas for potential solutions for each country. The interactive exercises encouraged participants to think creatively and critically about how to meet each country’s needs and interests peacefully.

The participants’ assessments of the historical events that shaped peace and security on the Korean Peninsula underscored the different societies and educational systems in which they were raised. At the same time, their perspectives, as a whole, generally revealed a bias toward the centrality of their own governments’ actions, toward recent events rather than earlier ones, and toward the significance of high-level political engagements rather than cultural or civil society exchanges.

The participants’ views diverged when addressing each country’s needs and visions for peace. Participants exchanged different perspectives on the challenge of defining “peace” on the Korean Peninsula, the trade-offs between encouraging regime change in Pyongyang and maintaining regional security and stability, and the sequencing of promoting human rights, achieving denuclearization, and improving diplomatic relations. In addition, participants found it important to distinguish the needs and interests of a country’s government from those of its people, and cautioned against viewing any group—whether “North Korea” or “young people”—as monolithic and unified. Recognizing the discrepancy between the perspectives of the youth participants and those of their governments regarding the core needs for achieving peace on the Korean Peninsula may be key to understanding this generation.

On the other hand, there was near-consensus from all three groups on a desire for better diplomatic relations between Washington, Seoul, and Pyongyang; more stable, consistent communication and exchange among the officials and citizens of the three countries; and greater access to information and understanding of the conflict for the people. Beyond these policy-level insights, this workshop also provided an example of engaging youth through virtual interactive peacebuilding workshops with an emphasis on trust building and story- telling. The workshop revealed that given the lack of opportunities for young people from the three countries to hear and learn directly from each other, there remains great potential to continue and expand this kind of programming, through both virtual and nonvirtual platforms.

About the Authors

Paul Kyumin Lee was a senior program specialist for youth programs at the United States Institute of Peace, where he worked to strengthen the capacity of young leaders to build sustainable social change in their communities and contribute to the field of youth, peace, and security. Frank Aum is the senior expert on Northeast Asia at USIP, where he focuses on ways to strengthen diplomacy to reduce tensions and enhance peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in the region.

This research was jointly funded by the USIP Applied Conflict and Transformation and Asia Centers, which are solely responsible for the accuracy and thoroughness of the content.

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