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In a show of unity, athletes from North and South Korea marched at the Winter Olympics’ Opening Ceremony under the same flag. But the Trump administration is doing its best to thwart hopes for peace on the peninsula, says Christine Ahn of Women Cross DMZ

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AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. The Winter Olympics have kicked off with the opening ceremony in PyeongChang, South Korea, but the games are being watched this year not just for who may bring home the gold, but for whether they could help bring peace to the Korean Peninsula. In a show of unity, the athletes from North and South Korea entered the ceremony today marching under the same flag. In another historic moment, Kim Jo Yong, the sister of North Korean Leader Kim Jong-Un, shook hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
All this earned cheers from the crowd, except for one person, Vice President Mike Pence, who failed to applaud and stayed in his seat. Before arriving in South Korea, Pence announced the U.S. will impose what he called “the toughest sanctions yet” on North Korea.
Mike Pence: We will not allow North Korean propaganda to hijack the message and imagery of the Olympic Games. We will not allow North Korea to hide behind the Olympic banner the reality that they enslave their people and threaten the wider region. Let the world know this: We will continue to intensify our maximum pressure campaign until North Korea takes concrete steps toward complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization. To that end, I’m announcing today that the United States of America will soon unveil the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever.
AARON MATÉ: That’s Mike Pence speaking earlier this week. So will the U.S. stand in the way of the Korean unity on display at the Olympic Games? Joining me is Christine Ahn, founder of Women Cross DMZ. Christine, welcome. Let’s start with this display of unity today. Your thoughts on North and South Korea marching as one at the opening ceremony?
CHRISTINE AHN: Hi, Aaron. It’s incredibly heartening, and unimaginable just a month ago that the two Koreas would sit down together to agree to de-escalate tensions, agree to send athletes from North Korea to the Olympics in South Korea, and of course, march together under a one-Korea flag. I mean, it’s been done before in past Olympics. I believe there have been four times in which the two Koreas marched together. This is the first time it’s being done on Korean soil, and as you can imagine, the feeling of Koreans all around the world of seeing the two Koreas march together, it’s incredibly heartening, and it also shows the urgent situation that is facing the Korean Peninsula. They would be the most impacted, obviously. North Koreans, if there was a U.S. preemptive strike, would be devastated, but it would obviously lead to the devastation of South Korea, so they have a true incentive to use this Olympic moment to foster some kind of reconciliation and promote dialog.
And so that is an extraordinary thing, and as you noted in your opening, the only person that was essentially throwing shade on all this was Mike Pence. I think it’s a real indicator of the U.S. and how much of an outlier it is in this moment, when the world is applauding the two Koreas and their engagement and their inter-Korean peace process, and the U.S. is the one that is basically trying to derail it.
AARON MATÉ: And at these ceremonies, Pence was sitting just in front of Kim Jo Yong, who, as I mentioned, is a sister of North Korean leader Kim Jung-Un, who is visiting. She shook hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. There also is a dinner tonight where a North Korean diplomat was going to attend, and Pence has avoided meeting with that diplomat, but the symbolism there of the sister of the North Korean leader shaking hands with the South Korean President.
CHRISTINE AHN: Yes, Kim Yo Jong is the first member of the Kim family to step foot on South Korean soil, so it is really significant, and it’s not like she’s just some figurehead in North Korea because she’s part of the Kim family. She actually leads the light industry in terms of North Korea’s economy, so she’s a pretty significant figure. I think that it was a really important step for Kim Jong-Un to agree to send his sister to South Korea. It helps in some ways normalize the North Korean people, and I think that, hopefully, it is a sign of greater rapprochement between the two Koreas. I also understand that a invitation to Moon Jae-in is forthcoming from Pyongyang and that he will be, hopefully, going to North Korea later this year.
AARON MATÉ: I apologize, I missaid her name. It’s Kim Yo Jong, as you point out. Thank you for correcting me. This announcement from Pence just a few days before coming to the ceremony of the toughest sanctions yet on North Korea, can you talk about, well, what already is the reality of the sanctions on North Korea and what you think that signifies that Pence is vowing to escalate them?
CHRISTINE AHN: Well, it’s basically a policy of strangulation. We know that U.S. has sanctions against North Korea. They have had them in place since the Korean War, which ended in 1953, but these new rounds of sanctions are not smart sanctions. They are not directed at the North Korean regime in terms of luxury goods, or they’re not directed at its nuclear missile program. And so the stated aim of these sanctions is to force the denuclearization of North Korea, and we know that as the U.S. threatens a preemptive strike, its bloody nose strategy, that is going to force North Korea to hold onto their nuclear weapons even …
But what it is, is that it is having deleterious effects on the people, on the civilian population, on the most vulnerable, on the women and children in North Korea. I was just at this meeting here at the UN Church Center with civil society representatives, with medical doctors, legal scholars, political economists, that were talking about the various ways in which the sanctions are impacting North Korean people. You know, it is a dire situation. I mean, one child per day in North Korea will die because of the effect of these sanctions, and UNICEF just issued a report last month that said that 60,000 North Korean children could starve as a result of these sanctions.
So it is not the alternative to war. It is a slow war that is being waged against the people in North Korea, and we have a responsibility as a global community to push back on it. It is unethical, it is immoral, and South Korea wants to begin the process of sending humanitarian aid. My understanding was, at the meeting in Vancouver when Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha from South Korea said that South Korea wanted to resume humanitarian aid and fulfill this commitment that Moon Jae-in made at the General Assembly last September to send $8 million in humanitarian aid to North Korea, that was basically opposed by the United States, by the UK, by Japan.
I think these countries need to be called out for its draconian policies. If they want the wishful death of North Korean children, then this policy of maximum pressure is the way forward, but I don’t think that they want that kind of blood on their hands, and so it’s our responsibility as the global community to let them know how dangerous these sanctions are, and that they are, in fact, leading to the death of innocent people.
AARON MATÉ: Christine, you mentioned this so-called bloody nose strategy, apparently formulated by National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, calling for so-called limited strikes on North Korea. Now, interestingly, one person who has come out against that is Victor Cha, who was rumored to be the Trump administration’s pick to be the new U.S. Ambassador to South Korea until he came out and opposed the bloody nose strategy. And now, apparently, his nomination is off the table. What’s interesting there is he no dove. I mean, he’s known as a hawk. So I’m wondering what you think the likely withdrawal of his nomination means about the Trump administration’s thinking right now.
CHRISTINE AHN: I think it is a very dangerous sign of where this administration is heading. We have known, they have told us quite frankly, that the military option is on the table, but given that he could not be confirmed, because he could not endorse that bloody nose strategy, he could not endorse a preemptive strike, I think tells us a lot about the enormous amount of work that we must do to say, “No new Korean War. No war on North Korea,” that it would be just devastating for all the countries in the region.
And you know, we’ve known from Iraq, from Afghanistan, from Vietnam, that there is no such thing as a precision strike. And given the fact that we know that North Korea has a nuclear arsenal of at least 20 nuclear weapons, this is not going to go lightly. I think that there is this grave misperception that North Korea is a threat to the world. What we know is that the former Admiral of the U.S. Pacific Command has said, in his Senate testimony just the other week, North Korea’s not a threat. We have given way too much credit to the North Korean regime in terms of being a threat to the world.
And so I think that that is the message. I live in Hawaii, and it has been known that the Pacific Command says there’s a .01% chance that North Korea would conduct a first strike. Our job as U.S. citizen population and those concerned about a new war on the Korean Peninsula, must really urge our members of Congress to ensure that the Trump administration does not wage an unconstitutional first strike on North Korea. That’s the way to prevent a war, and obviously right now, with the incredible peace process that is underway, that has been afforded by the Olympic truce, we have to call for the continuation of this truce.
South Korea requested that the U.S. halt its military exercises that were supposed to take place during the Olympics, and the U.S. agreed, so I think that we need to call for the U.S. to continue the Olympic truce. There is a moment where things have calmed down. There hasn’t been a nuclear or a missile test from North Korea. The U.S. was supposed to test an ICBM the other day, and they decided not to. So I think that we need to continue our calls for dialog, continue our calls to extend the Olympic truce.
AARON MATÉ: Christine, very briefly, I mean this is a point that I think can’t be stressed enough, you’ve made it tirelessly, that North Korea has even offered, or floated the proposal for a freeze in its nuclear program if the U.S. froze permanently those military exercises on its border that you also just mentioned. So briefly there, the prospects for a longer-term solution if the U.S. would consider taking up that proposal from North Korea?
CHRISTINE AHN: Right. I mean, in 2015, North Korea suggested that they would freeze their nuclear and missile program and the testing, in exchange for the U.S. and South Korea halting their military exercises. By all indications, I believe South Korea would like to do that, but they are facing enormous pressure from the U.S., and the other point that I think it’s important to make, that was stressed at this meeting of civil society representatives working on North Korea, is that North Korea has said that they are committed to denuclearization, as long as the other countries, especially the countries on the Security Council, are also committed to denuclearization.
I’m not saying that’s a quid pro quo, and we should obviously be calling for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, but this is a first step, if we could get both sides to agree to the freeze-for-freeze, which has been endorsed by Russia and China and South Korea. A lot of the senior advisors in Moon Jae-in’s administration has endorsed and supported it, Moon Chung-in being the most prominent one. I think this moment of hope and brightness and possibility that is a part of this Olympics moment, we have to be continuing our global calls that this is a first step The freeze-for-freeze could lead to a longer process towards denuclearization of Korea.
AARON MATÉ: Christine Ahn, International Coordinator and founder of Women Cross DMZ, thank you.
CHRISTINE AHN: Thank you, Aaron.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.

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Aaron Maté is a former host/producer for The Real News and a contributor to the Nation. He has previously reported and produced for Democracy Now!, Vice, and Al Jazeera, and written for the Toronto Star, the Intercept, and Le Monde Diplomatique.