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Publication in Focus: Comparing Peace Processes in Ireland and Korea

22 February 2022 - A recently published edited collection by Dr Dong Jin Kim and Dr David Mitchell of Trinity College Dublin’s School of Religion, Theology, and Peace Studies, explores the peace processes of Ireland and Korea, comparing two cases which have rarely been studied in parallel.

While the reunification of East and West Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall has long been held by researchers and public policy makers alike as a comparable model for the Korean peace process, Reconciling Divided States: Peace Processes in Ireland and Korea positions the Korean context alongside that of the Irish peace process, posing the possibility of a new vision for the Korean peninsula and learnings for both jurisdictions.

Reconciling Divided States Book Cover

Both Dr Mitchell and Dr Kim started working in Trinity College Dublin in 2015 and since then have developed a strong interest in each other’s research—Dr Mitchell as an expert in the Northern Irish Peace Process and Dr Kim with his experience of the Korean process and an interest in the Northern Ireland context—which ultimately led to a number of collaborations and academic events that informed the edited collection.

Within this volume, the editors have paired authors from Europe and East Asia to contribute to a diverse collection of chapters on aspects of peace-making in both places, from colonial legacies to the role of women and sport in contributing to peace.

Ireland as a Model for Peace

“I think Ireland is interesting to Korea because we have created better relationships on the island, but we haven't unified. We're still two different countries and I think that model of a kind of gradualism rather than absorption of the north into a southern unified country is interesting to Korea”, says Dr David Mitchell, Assistant Professor in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation at Trinity’s Belfast campus, and co-editor of the new edited volume.

Dr Dong Jin Kim, Irish School of Ecumenics Senior Research Fellow in Peace and Reconciliation Studies at Trinity, agrees, adding that while many older generations in South Korea aspire to unification, “there are not many young people who necessarily care about North Korea.” The parallels between Ireland’s recent conversations around a ‘united Ireland’ are also striking in this context. 

Photo by Jaime Casap on Unsplash  

Dr Kim, whose grandparents were originally from North Korea and internally displaced during the Korean war, also mentions the model of East and West Germany in terms of Korea’s aspiration for unification: “the key difference is that West and East Germany didn't fight against each other in a war. So they didn't actually need a peace process.”

“Currently, within the terms of the South Korean Constitution, North Korea is under the South Korean territory. It’s quite uncanny that before the Good Friday Agreement, the Irish Constitution said that Northern Ireland belonged to the whole island of Ireland. In order to be able to have a Good Friday Belfast Agreement, you need to have parity of esteem-- you need to recognise each other.”

John Hume’s idea of a peace process between peoples, rather than territory, is a key inspiration Korea can take from the Irish peace process, Dr Kim adds.

Dr Kim, who also holds the role of Good Will Ambassador for Peace in the Korean Government Ministry of Unification, says that policy makers there are keen to learn about Ireland. He estimates that approximately 200 policymakers, NGOs, civil society actors from Korea have visited Ireland on more than 12 different occasions over the last number of years. He notes that this exchange has also involved up to 50 Irish peacebuilders and academics being able to travel to Korea, visit the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, and engage in regular online meetings with their Korean counterparts.

Peace from the Bottom Up

“The overall structure of the book is based on this assumption that peace processes have to happen at all levels of society and involve all kinds of different people”, says Dr Mitchell.

Indeed, from grassroots movements all the way up to the elite diplomatic channels of power, topics discussed through the chapters include: peacebuilding and faith (Kiho Yi and Derick Wilson), sport (David Mitchell and Dan Gudgeon), constitutional and security issues (Dong Jin Kim and David Mitchell) and women’s activism (Gillian Wylie and Dong Jin Kim).

In a chapter by Dr Kim and Dr Gillian Wylie, Assistant Professor in International Peace Studies at Trinity College Dublin, the peacebuilding role of women between and in Ireland and Korea is discussed.

The overall structure of the book is based on this assumption that peace processes have to happen at all levels of society and involve all kinds of different people.
Dr David Mitchell

In 2016, as part of the many exchanges that Dr Kim organised between Ireland and Korea, a Korean women’s group called ‘Women Making Peace’ visited Ireland, participating in a conference during their trip.  With invited guests including Bronagh Hinds, a key figure in the Women’s Coalition in Northern Ireland, what followed was the building of relationships between women in both jurisdictions and what Dr Kim describes as “transnational solidarity.” 

“It's quite visible between the two different women's movement for peace that they made a huge impact on each other’s situation, despite their position many times being dismissed by male politicians”, he says.

“Inter-community work was possible because even though they had a different identity--Loyalist or Republican, Nationalist or Unionist, North and South Korean--still, they were interested in addressing the issue of women and then they were able to have a dialogue which worked because they had this focus [on inequality] rather than wanting to put people in a box.”

The role of women in building peace between communities is a key feature of many conflicts around the world, Dr Kim notes.

Confronting Legacies of Conflict

Both editors are however conscious of the academic pitfalls in comparing two different jurisdictions, and distinct contexts—differences in the scale of both conflicts in terms of loss of life, the communist-capitalist division, and the more advanced stage of the peace process in Ireland--but as Dr Mitchell argues, there are still good reasons to compare them, not least because of the generic challenges involved in all peace processes:  “people who have a history of mutual hurt, trauma, grievance, threat,  trying to overcome those divisions and find a new way to live together, to overcome their insecurities, to deal with weapons and armament, to work out who's going to be included in negotiations, and to facilitate new relationships between ordinary people.”

Koreans have historically been referred to as the Irish of the East, or “Japan’s Ireland”, and the colonial legacies that continue to make their mark on both jurisdictions are also addressed in this new edited volume. In Kyungmook Kim’s chapter on ‘The Korean War and public diplomacy: dilemmas of remembering the forgotten war’, the difficulties of how the Korean War has been both remembered and represented in South Korea and internationally, is highlighted, noting the obstacles these ‘diverging memories’ pose to contemporary peace efforts.

Photo by Daniel Bernard on Unsplash  

While Ireland confronts the centenary of partition as part of its Decade of Commemorations, North and South Korea remain divided by a heavily militarized border with tensions remaining high.

Dr Kim reflects on a poignant moment when accompanying Korean delegations to the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland—and how despite the challenges of Brexit and the Northern Irish Protocol—it prompted Koreans to ask whether this open border could also be their future.

In both exchanges between Ireland and Korea, Dr Kim, adds “our intention was that if we interact together, we might see and learn something that would benefit us.” For many Koreans, he argued, “it has been a learning experience about Korea, not necessarily about Ireland.”

Reconciling Divided States: Peace Processes in Ireland and Korea is published by Routledge.

Discover recent publications in our 'Publication in Focus' series here.

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