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Lessons from the mother of all border walls: Korea's Demilitarized Zone

Lessons from the mother of all border walls: Korea's Demilitarized Zone
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Last March, in a speech to supporters in Ohio, President TrumpDonald TrumpCIA chief threatened to resign over push to install Trump loyalist as deputy: report Azar in departure letter says Capitol riot threatens to 'tarnish' administration's accomplishments Justice Dept. argues Trump should get immunity from rape accuser's lawsuit MORE said, “Look at Korea. We have a border in Korea. We have a wall of soldiers. Nobody comes through. But our own border — we don't take care of it.” 

Trump, of course, is referring to the DMZ — the 160-mile Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea since the end of the Korean War. Despite its name, it is the most heavily militarized border in the world. The DMZ is the mother of all border walls. 

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And yet, Trump is not quite correct. People do come through. Rarely through the DMZ itself (as one North Korean soldier famously did last year) — but an astonishing 1,127 North Koreans defected from their country in 2017, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification data.

Walls may be a deterrent, but they are not foolproof. Desperate people find workarounds.

Ironically, while Trump fights the Democrats in Congress on a barrier between the U.S. and Mexico, he has done much to break down barriers between the U.S. and North Korea, following the historic summit between Moon Jae-In of South Korea and Kim Jong Un of the North.

As a Korean immigrant — whose roots lie in one country but who grew up in another — I am moved by the argument that the administration would do well to consider the conditions of those living in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Using American power and influence to improve the underlying conditions that cause desperate families to flee would be as important, if not more so, than the deterrence of a wall.

Similarly, the administration should take full advantage of the opening Trump created by the historic summit with Kim Jong Un. There is now a real opportunity to improve the underlying conditions of the North Korean people — which is central to Kim’s domestic agenda — in order to leverage concessions toward denuclearization. North Korea’s diplomatic rapprochement with South Korea and the United States in 2018 was not only a historic moment in the peace process but also evidence of North Korea’s willingness to develop its nation.

In his 2019 New Year’s address, Kim Jong Un emphasized scientific and technological advancement as the key to his nation's economic development. His speech mentioned what he considered American foot-dragging on nuclear negotiations, but was heavily devoted to topics like the development of energy infrastructure and modern agriculture production.

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Realistically, Kim cannot develop a sustainable economy without help from other countries. For a country like North Korea, whose GDP is equivalent to that of Haiti, a little help can go a long way. Bear in mind that the penultimate goal of North Korea, as well as that of the U.S. and its allies, is for North Korea to be integrated into the international community and the world economy so that it can feed and develop its own people and not have to rely on nukes for its security.

I am not sure if a 1,900-mile U.S.-Mexico wall will ever get built. But I see a future in which the 160-mile DMZ lives up to its name and actually becomes de-militarized, and a peace regime take hold of the Korean peninsula. But only if American policy understands better what it’s like for those living on the other side of the border.

Sam Yoon is Executive Director of Korean Americans in Action, a national advocacy nonprofit organization working on behalf of 1.8 million Americans of  Korean descent.