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Seeing North Korea Through My Mother’s Eyes

Words: Catherine Killough
Pictures: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

In the shadow of an ‘Olympic Truce,’ one could be forgiven for thinking that North and South Korea are not, technically, at war. For South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, that was precisely the point. But for all of Moon’s efforts to project a vision of peace at the 2018 Olympics, skepticism from his constituents, critics, and US counterparts has obstructed the view.

Depending on where you’re seated in this sports-turned-political arena, Moon’s engagement with North Korea takes on a different meaning. To the benched South Korean ice hockey player, it’s a free ride for the other team. To the South’s conservative faction, it’s a distraction. And from the hawk’s perch in Washington, it’s a wedge that fundamentally threatens to split an “ironclad” alliance.

But, from where I sit, I can’t help but feel that an important perspective is missing: my mother’s.


Like Moon, my mother was raised in the shadows of the Korean War—or, as it’s often called in the US, the Forgotten War. It’s a fitting, if not ironic moniker these days, when Kim Jong Un, missiles, and nuclear weapons all but dominate the headlines. Absent from US coverage of North Korea is how we got here, why we are still “over there,” and when, if ever, our relationship with the North will cease to be a problem.

For my mother, the Pyeongchang Olympics offered one corrective to a difficult and divisive past. Her generation grew up in the aftermath of a war that severed the country in half, displaced hundreds of thousands of families, and claimed millions of lives. In the place of a peace treaty stands an armistice—one that, since 1953, put the war on a very long pause.

Call it what you will, but ‘armistice’ is just another name for an agreement to stop fighting. In other words, a truce. That’s odd to think about in the context of the ‘Olympic Truce,’ a resolution that South Korea formally submitted to the United Nations in November 2017 that gained 157 signatories, including the United States. We are now witnessing it in action.

While the United States and North Korea continued to trade insults and dangerous rhetoric, their athletes marched together and played on the same team, by the same rules, in the ice rink. In fact, the joint Korean women’s ice hockey team was comprised of South Koreans, North Koreans, and even Americans.

Some might analyze this jarring confluence of politics and sport as propaganda, manipulation, and war masquerading as peace. But when I see it through my mother’s lens, the aperture widens. She’s doesn’t see charm offensives or nuclear posturing. An avid figure skating fan, she was eager to watch the young North Korean pair, Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik, make their Olympic debut. She was also keen to know whether their parents would be in the stands. They were, after all, the only North Koreans to compete in the Games as technical qualifiers.

The compassion my mother extends to those athletes is unobscured by political intrigue. She doesn’t view them as a distinct category of enemy, but as Koreans whose lives, by an arbitrary twist of fate, are restricted and diminished. It serves as a constant reminder of the seventy years that great powers fully allowed the prospect of war, not peace, to determine the course of Korea’s future.

Korea, the country that is often described as a “shrimp among whales,” has long served as a hotbed for great power competition. Japan’s oppressive 35-year occupation, which ended at the close of World War II, led to further occupations by the ideologically-opposed Soviet Union and United States. Since that time, the pursuit of a “balance of power” in the region has tipped largely in favor of the US, which continues to maintain a substantial military footprint in the South. It is a little known historical precedent that, from the late 50s through the early 90s, the US wielded unparalleled power over North Korea. Long before North Korea acquired a nuclear weapon, the United States had deployed as many as 950 nuclear warheads in the South.

Despite all this power, control, and ability, the United States neglected to seriously pursue lasting peace in Korea. That is perhaps the reason why, as my mother sees it, there is no military solution to this crisis.

Maybe Kim Jong Un really does have self-serving interests. Maybe the Moranbong ‘army of beauties’ was just an extension of the brutal regime’s propaganda. But I fear that such assertions leave little room to humanize a conflict that has, for far too long, forgotten what’s really at stake.

If the United States truly seeks “a permanent and peaceful solution to avert a future crisis” with North Korea, then it must open itself—as South Korea has—to the long, hard process of repair. Putting an end to the escalatory cycle of provocations will require that we start from a place of empathy—not for Kim Jong Un’s regime, but for the people who occupy both sides of one of the most heavily militarized borders in the world.

We could all gain perspective from my mother’s viewpoint. If we were to allow ourselves to imagine that an ‘Olympic Truce’ is not just a one-off event, that every gesture toward unity is not mere performance, we might be able to prioritize, and begin, a genuine process of reconciliation in Korea. Withholding a vision of peace only makes permanent the status quo.

Catherine Killough is the Roger L. Hale Fellow at the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation.

Catherine Killough

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