Facts, understanding and peace: reflections on receiving the Jeju 4.3 Peace prize, 2021

I can hardly express how honoured I am and how grateful to receive the Jeju 4.3 Peace Prize for 2021. It is a moment I will always treasure.

My previous post was about the massacre, torture and repression hiding under the headline, Jeju 4.3 incident. This post is a heavily edited version of the speech I gave when accepting the award.

I outlined the events, the background and the aftermath in my previous post. It was a tragedy, an atrocity and a vicious and sustained act of inhumanity, followed by half a century of lies.

The people of Jeju showed great steadfastness in the long campaign to have the truth uncovered and acknowledged. The full facts are still not all known, including the names of from a third to a half of those who were killed and the total death toll.

But we know enough. Whatever the pressures of the time, whatever the situation in Korea and in world politics, whatever the fears and insecurities, what happened was not acceptable.

Such acts can never be regarded as acceptable or civilized. When and where they happen, there needs to be accountability. When the truth is hidden, it has to be uncovered.

And if there are some who want to suppress the truth and put fictions in its place, it takes pressure and a public campaign to make it possible for the truth to emerge.

Facts matter

Without understanding problems, there is no motivation to address them and no means of identifying how to handle them. Without knowledge there is no understanding. Without facts, there is no knowledge. If we want to change the world for the better, we need to know it and understand it.

Without knowing anything about Jeju or much about Korea, the belief that knowledge and understanding are fundamental for change and progress was a big part of the reason I became a researcher.

So perhaps it is natural that I was drawn to SIPRI. When it was founded in 1966, its mission was to present sound research to the policy world, so as to improve the prospects for peace and disarmament.

Those are the two strands of SIPRI’s DNA: to do research that is as accurate as possible; and to improve the prospects for peace.

Both strands express values: on the one hand, respect for the truth, and on the other, respect for human life and dignity.

It was a central part of the research mission – and remains so today – to ensure that the fullest possible facts are available to policy makers, political leaders and the concerned citizen alike. Then they can assess how things are and decide what to do. We cannot force them to take the right decisions, we cannot even make them look at the evidence – but we can and do make the opportunity available.

The data that SIPRI deals in most of the time – military spending, arms production and transfers, nuclear and other weapons mass destruction, arms control and disarmament agreements and their implementation, peace operations, armed conflicts – tends to be more abstract and impersonal and therefore less painful than the evidence of the crimes committed in Jeju seven decades ago. But there is a connection between them. It lies in the impulse to tell the truth about how power is exercised and the belief that knowledge and understanding are essentials of progress.


As SIPRI gained a reputation for the accuracy of its data, it developed significant convening power. Over the years, there have been numerous seminars and conferences. These days we have two flagship annual events: the Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development, convened jointly with the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs each May; and the Stockholm Security Conference each November. These two events have gone online in the last two years, with thousands of participants.

In addition, SIPRI convenes smaller and quieter meetings. Discussions are confidential and off the record. We do not invite public knowledge of them in advance or while they are under way. Even after the event, we do not talk about these meetings much – and generally only in vague terms. This discretion helps the participants have the confidence to talk freely, to test out ideas. Some participants are officials but not all – though these others are nonetheless close to the policy world and to different governments. So the discussions can be important, helping to identify problems and solutions, despite everything else that divides the participants and the parties they represent.

The Korean Peninsula

One series of such meetings has concerned the Korean Peninsula. We have convened several and, as opportunity arises when the Covid-19 pandemic is over, we will do so again. We know they made a modest contribution to diplomacy and inter-Korean détente in 2018 and 2019. We hope there can be a similar contribution in the coming period.

I first became particularly interested in the affairs of the Korean Peninsula almost 30 years ago when I was honoured to meet Kim Dae-jung. It was some time before he became President. He talked then about the Sunshine Policy, long before he had the opportunity to implement it. When I joined SIPRI, this was the first time I was able to make a small contribution to the prospects for peace in this part of the world. It was an immediate priority for me.

The bigger picture

The world is facing a troubling array of security challenges. These include issues that are traditional concerns, like the risk of nuclear war, the international arms trade, disputes and conflicts, and geopolitical confrontation.

Additional issues came into focus for many observers in the 1990s, such as intrastate wars and armed violence in which no state actors are involved.

Other security challenges, such as cyber vulnerabilities, the impacts of climate change and the consequences of pandemics, are largely new in this century. Taken individually, these challenges are complex and difficult to respond to. Taken together, as they interact with other features of the social, economic and political landscape, they are even more worrisome.

A security policy that is fit for purpose in the current age would encompass many tasks. It must look after the security both of the state and of communities and people in their daily lives – state security and human security at the same time.

It has to address challenges from a wide variety of sources.

It must manage and reduce the risks that arise from interstate rivalries, and from deficiencies of governance and of leadership both in national governments and in international agencies.

It must also include responses to the pressures created by the environmental crisis of today and not least the challenge of climate change. This already generates insecurity, instability and conflict. The impact of climate change will affect our lives, our societies, our economic possibilities and our politics for at least five decades to come, even if greenhouse gas emissions are sharply reduced and global warming slows down.

In addition, security policy today has to handle pressures arising from globalization and growing global connectivity, from socio-economic inequalities, from changes in land use due to population growth and economic development. And in the coming few years, it will have to handle the social and political impact of the economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic.

These processes – the political, the natural, the social and the economic – interact with each other, with negative consequences for human security and for social and political stability.

End of war

In this dangerous world, Koreans face further issues – military confrontation at the 38th parallel, a 68-year ceasefire that does not compensate for the lack of a peace settlement that was originally supposed to follow it within three years, and the strategic and geopolitical sensitivities of the region.

If the global environment were more secure, it would be easier to make progress towards sustainable peace in the Korean Peninsula. And progress towards a sustainable peace on the peninsula could contribute to better international relations both in the region and more widely.

Even a measure as straightforward as an End of War Declaration would help – or even a statement, to be a bit less grand about it. It would be a relatively limited measure, a step beyond the Armistice but not yet a Peace Settlement with all that entails. It could open the door for further progress. In current circumstances, it is worth assessing as pragmatic step that could be a potential breakthrough in world politics and regional security.

Whether it is possible to arrive at it in the coming few months before the South Korean presidential election in early March is not clear. It won’t be easy but perhaps the Beijing Winter Olympics in February provide an opportunity – another burst of Olympic diplomacy, just like four years ago. It may not succeed but it is worth trying.

Looking ahead

The security horizon today and looking ahead is complicated, in a way that was perhaps unimaginable back in the 1960s when SIPRI was founded. Yet our mission is still to assemble and analyse  the facts, in order to generate ideas for how to arrive at a better world.

It is a lasting truth that with knowledge and understanding comes the motivation to challenge and to seek change and progress. Our greatest hope lies in well informed public movements for environmental responsibility and peaceful change.

 I am the fourth recipient of the Jeju 4.3 Peace Prize and the first who has had nothing to do with Jeju hitherto. With the honour of the prize comes a responsibility; these blogs are a step towards fulfilling it.

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