When Far-Away Conflicts Hit Close to Home

When Far-Away Conflicts Hit Close to Home

When most people think of North Korea, if they think of it at all, they think first of nuclear missiles. Sometimes the infamous dictator Kim Jong-un comes to mind, or Trump’s tweets of "fire and fury," or maybe even the movie ‘The Interview’ that stirred up controversy a few years ago. They’re mostly dispassionate, impersonal thoughts. However, I don’t have the luxury of thinking about the North Korean conflict that way, and never have.

My mother is South Korean, which is a distinction from North Korean that a surprising number of people have been confused by - I’ve actually been asked what the difference between North and South Korea is before by acquaintances and classmates. One person even went so far as to ask me, in hushed tones, which one was the ‘bad one’ when I confided my heritage in her. I also have close friends and family friends who live in South Korea who deal every day with the increasingly present threat of war, and have even visited South Korea myself. My brother worked there for over a year, and during his time, my family and I grew on edge every time a new missile was tested, fearing that this test might finally be the one that sparked a conflict we couldn’t come back from.

With all of this baggage attached, I felt some trepidation when hearing that North Korea was one of the topics to be addressed. Sometimes people can be callous or even careless when addressing the topic of North Korea simply because it feels so far away. The same people who advocate for fire and fury don’t always consider how very close to my friends and sometimes family that fire might be falling, and what kind of retribution against our South Korean allies might be provoked by such an action.

To my relief, the panelists at this past Friday’s Simpson-Mineta Leaders Series addressed the topic in manner that not only eased my fears, but helped me gain new perspective on the issue. Both panelists spoke at length about the United States’ need to establish a willingness to assist allies and to confirm our reliability in the minds of those allies. When our president tweets it can be easy to feel safe when our own country is out of North Korea’s range. However, countries like South Korea and Japan don’t enjoy that luxury, and we need to consider the effect that our actions have either concretely or symbolically.



Moderator Steven Clemons with William Cohen and Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

One panelist touched briefly on one of the reasons why it can be difficult for Americans to accept that sometimes, America’s best interest is also in the best interests of other countries. Both panelists explained in different ways that essentially, many Americans view foreign actions and aid as a zero-sum game. Any aid that goes to Africa or Syria is dollars that Ohio or Michigan miss out on, in their minds. As an Ohioan, I often get the sense that Ohio’s citizens feel that they have sacrificed enough and are reluctant to sacrifice any more for what they view as another country’s gain.

However, thinking in this way is dangerous, no matter how instinctual and natural the idea might feel. Supporting infrastructure in other countries ultimately helps build the stability of our own. Conversely, creating instability with North Korea is a threat to America, whether or not the missiles North Korea has can reach us. America cannot stand alone; isolationism has been proven time and time again to be an ineffective strategy. In order to have a strong country, we need strong allies. Global stability brings benefits to us all.

Once again, I left SMLS wishing that every American had been sitting in the audience with me. Despite possibilities of differing approaches, the act of having conversations like SMLS has never failed to broaden my perspective, and I feel that it could do the same for all of America.


Read Colleen's previous blog posts

Experience a Day in the Life of an Intern at The Washington Center

Learn More