If you’re old enough to remember “duck and cover” drills in school, the current political climate with regard to America’s relations with nuclear-armed North Korea may remind you of the childhood terror of living through the Cuban Missile Crisis. Only this time, we have a commander-in-chief who likes to tweet whatever he has on his mind at the moment, however incendiary. International tensions vary in intensity from one day to the next; on a good day, Olympic athletes from North and South Korea carry their flag together and compete on the same team, or president Kim Jong-un indicates a willingness to have direct talks. On a bad day, the chief US diplomat to North Korea abruptly quits, or a US senator says that a new war with North Korea “would be worth it,” or a communications glitch causes a false alarm of a nuclear strike on Hawaii. It’s a combustible situation that creates severe anxiety at home and abroad (not to mention in world financial markets).
Is there anything that private individuals can do to help deescalate the current nuclear crisis? Your local Quaker congregation says yes, and several Ulster County women have stepped forward to educate New Paltz and surrounding communities about options and strategies for grassroots political action. The New Paltz Friends Meeting has been providing regular meeting space for the local chapter of the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), the US peace lobbying arm of the Religious Society of Friends.
The core group of local activists includes Orelle Feher of New Paltz, Anne Rogers of Gardiner, Brook Nam of Highland, Susan Willson of Stone Ridge and Paula Bojarsky of Olivebridge. Not all of them are practicing Quakers: “We welcome everyone,” says Willson. “This is just where we meet.”
Willson explains that each year, the FCNL, with input from local chapters, chooses a particular peace-related issue to become the focus of lobbying and education efforts nationwide. “There’s a different one every year,” she says. The national organization then marshals its resources to supply data and advocacy tools, including fliers, posters and fact sheets that can be downloaded and printed for distribution at the local level. Chapters participate in monthly teleconferences in which they share tips as to what actions have proven most effective in their communities. Local leaders also receive regular training in the non-confrontational Quaker style of lobbying public officials. “There’s a very specific way they do it,” Willson notes. “It has been very effective for 75 years.”
With tensions between the US and North Korea already escalating by the end of last year, the FCNL decided to deploy its army of peace advocates in 2018 to try to boost diplomatic solutions. The group also seeks to remind the president that the Constitution and the War Powers Act put decisions to go to war, in the absence of direct attacks on US territories or citizens, solely in the hands of Congress. Currently, two bills have been introduced in the US Senate and House of Representatives to further those ends and ratchet down hostilities, and the New Paltz-based FCNL chapter is working to mobilize popular support for S 2047 and HR 4837.
The Senate version, S 2047, the Preventing Preemptive War in North Korea Act of 2017, was introduced in October by Connecticut senator Chris Murphy and is currently stalled in the Committee on Foreign Relations. New York senator Kristen Gillibrand has signed on as a co-sponsor, but senator Chuck Schumer has not as yet. The House version, HR 4837, the No Unconstitutional Strike against North Korea Act, was introduced in January by California Ro Khanna.
Eight New York congresspersons have signed on as co-sponsors of the House bill, but New Paltz’s representative, John Faso, has not — nor is he inclined to endorse it, according to the local FCNL group, which has been cultivating an ongoing relationship with Faso, his staff and other federal officials. Willson reports that she and Bojarsky last met with the congressman in November at his Washington, DC office, and that he eventually came around to supporting the FCNL’s 2017 focal issue: a bipartisan bill mandating an audit “with actual consequences” for the Pentagon’s budget. “We found a common ground in fiscal responsibility,” says Willson, although, according to Anne Rogers, “Faso does not seem in favor of tying the hands of Trump for the war at all.”
Although the language differs somewhat, both S 2047 and HR 4837 begin with a largely symbolic reminder, reiterating the provisions of the Constitution and the War Powers Act prohibiting the president from launching a first strike without Congressional approval specifically prohibit. But Willson points out that this traditional separation of powers was somewhat weakened by the passage of the Authorization for Use of Military Force, which was meant to target Al Qaeda and ISIS in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. That bill was never revoked, and Brook Nam notes that George W. Bush added the name of North Korea to his “Axis of Evil” list “so we would not look like we’re targeting Muslims.” The teeth of both bills lie in language that specifically prohibits the appropriation of federal funding a first strike against North Korea.
A native of Korea herself, who remembers seeing people during her childhood who had lost limbs to leftover land mines, Nam stresses, “It’s important to know that this situation didn’t happen in a vacuum. There has been a long history of failed diplomacy.” She notes that the Korean War of the 1950s, which killed one in five people on the peninsula, ended with a ceasefire, not a peace treaty. While she says that the people of South Korea do not live in daily fear of the people of North Korea, she doubts that the impoverished North will readily give up its nuclear armaments when those are its only international bargaining chip. Still, serious diplomacy remains the most humane approach to current tensions by far, according to the FCNL.
The New Paltz group is now bringing its message to a variety of public forums, speaking on the radio, giving a PowerPoint presentation to the activist group UAct and planning a talk in the near future to Highland High School’s Model UN club. It has informational materials at the ready for anyone interested in the issue, including talking points about the two current federal bills, and urge local citizens to contact their representatives in support of peaceful solutions to present tensions. To find out more about how to participate, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call Orelle Feher at (845) 255-6223.