“What does Sunim do for fun?”
2023.9.22. Casual Conversation with Ven. Pomnyun Sunim (23) Maryland
Today is the twenty-third lecture of Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s overseas Dharma talk tour in 2023, which is taking place in Maryland, near Washington D.C. This is the final Dharma QandA of this year’s overseas tour.
Before Dharma QandA, Sunim met Mr. Frank Jannuzi, the President of the Mansfield Foundation in the United States. Mr. Frank Jannuzi warmly welcomed Ven. Pomnyun Sunim.
Mr. Frank Jannuzi served as the Director of the East Asia and Pacific Policy Office for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and also held the position of Korean Peninsula Policy Team Leader in the Obama presidential campaign. He has served as an advisor in the areas of security, politics, economics, and human rights in East Asia to Joseph Biden and to former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairmen during the John Kerry administration.
After not meeting for the past four years and exchanging greetings about how they’ve been during that time, they began the conversation with the topic of peace on the Korean Peninsula. Sunim quickly followed up with a question:
“Why hasn’t there been any progress in North Korea-U.S. relations and the Korean Peninsula issue since the Biden administration took office?”
“I am also frustrated because there is no progress. The Biden administration is currently only seeking dialogue on dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program. We need to broaden our horizons.”
“The way to make progress is simple. You just need to take on the role of the person in charge. It will take someone like you, an expert on this issue, to take responsibility and find a solution.” (Laughs)
After sharing a light-hearted laugh, Sunim went on to discuss how to halt North Korea’s nuclear proliferation and how to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula and East Asia.
“I agree that from the perspective of the United States, the North Korean issue may seem relatively minor. With the ongoing Ukraine conflict and tensions between the United States and China, it may be challenging to prioritize North Korea as the top concern. However, it appears that the Biden administration is currently placing too little emphasis on the North Korean problem. North Korea is home to 25 million residents who are living in extremely difficult conditions. It has been nearly 30 years since the famine. Without easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula even slightly, there is no way to alleviate their suffering. I believe that the American values of putting people first should be greatly respected. From this standpoint, we should work together to find ways to alleviate the suffering of North Korean residents.
What are the ways to alleviate the suffering of North Korean residents?
First, the United States tends to view North Korea’s leadership negatively while overlooking the North Korean people. I don’t think that’s a desirable attitude. Second, we should consider what the greatest threat is currently in the Korean Peninsula and East Asia. That is the unchecked proliferation of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction. They are increasing their nuclear materials, progressing towards miniaturization for actual warhead use, developing long-range missile technology, and even working on nuclear-powered submarines as the final stage. Allowing this situation to continue is not an option. The United States is, in fact, exacerbating the proliferation of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction by strengthening trilateral military cooperation with South Korea and Japan.
Therefore, I believe the United States should lead an agreement to freeze North Korea’s nuclear proliferation in the near future. What can the United States offer to make North Korea stop its nuclear development? In the past, the normalization of North Korea-U.S. relations was seen as the final step in denuclearization. However, the situation has changed significantly. It has become much harder to move North Korea with anything else. With the current U.S.-Russia and U.S.-China confrontations, it is as if North Korea has gained the upper hand. They may feel there is no reason to cling to dialogue with the United States. They may even consider that they can coexist without resolving the issue.
In that sense, North Korea is unlikely to actively engage in dialogue with the United States now. Therefore, to prevent North Korea’s nuclear proliferation, the United States needs to take a more proactive stance. To do that, they need to make a bigger proposal. The United States should propose the normalization of North Korea-U.S. relations as a condition for freezing the nuclear program. This would not be detrimental to either party. The United States would incur no costs as they only need to engage in dialogue. North Korea wouldn’t have to worry about having nuclear weapons on its territory. We need to approach it not as ‘freeze your nuclear program, and we’ll normalize relations,’ but as ‘we’ll normalize relations, so freeze your nuclear program.
North Korea is currently reliant on Russia and China out of necessity, but from North Korea’s ideology, there is a contradiction in this. We should leverage this point. The United States and Japan need to normalize relations with North Korea while preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This is how we should work to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
In the past, when North Korea took a tough stance, the South Korean government responded appropriately. However, now the South Korean government is also taking a tough stance. In the past, when North Korea took a tough stance, Russia and China intervened. But now, there is a risk of North Korea being abandoned due to the confrontation among major powers. Given Russia’s current attitude, there is even a risk of technological support for North Korea’s nuclear development. So, I see the risk of war as greater than ever.
Considering these issues, I hope the U.S. government can think of a bigger picture. If the U.S. government finds it difficult to take the lead, the Japanese government could step in as one option. Japan did not play a substantial role in the Six-Party Talks. Now is the best opportunity for Japan to play that role. There is still potential for underwater dialogue between North Korea and Japan. Furthermore, North Korea’s solidarity with Russia poses a significant threat to Japan’s security. So, if the United States finds it challenging to act, Japan could consider taking the initiative. I believe that if the United States opens the door to dialogue, it can bring about significant tension reduction on the Korean Peninsula.
Mr. Frank Jannuzi is the person I know who is closest to the Biden administration among Americans. That’s why I came here.” (Laughs)
“I am grateful because I always learn a lot from you. Even in difficult situations, you do not give up and continue to pursue justice. I am always moved by that. However, even if the United States proposes normalization of North Korea-US relations to North Korea, it is highly likely that North Korea will not accept it.”
“Yes, I am well aware that resolving the North Korean nuclear issue is extremely difficult. However, if we continue to neglect nuclear proliferation as we are doing now, the risks will only increase. So far, the strategy has been to delay as time goes on, predicting that the situation will become more favorable for the United States and less favorable for North Korea, under the guise of ‘strategic patience.’ But the global landscape has shifted, and it is currently in North Korea’s favor.
Why the United States should not neglect the current situation
As you just mentioned, Mr. Frank Jannuzi, I agree that there is a high likelihood that North Korea would not accept a proposal for normalization of North Korea-U.S. relations even if the United States were to make such an offer. North Korea is lacking nothing at the moment. It is in a position where it can freely produce weapons of mass destruction. However, North Korea also has vulnerabilities. If the Ukraine war were to end quickly, Russia would no longer need North Korea’s assistance. Currently, Russia is short on ammunition for the Ukraine conflict, which could potentially draw North Korea into the conflict in exchange for providing military technology. If this war were to continue for another two years, North Korea could acquire most of the military technology it desires. Therefore, I believe that the United States should promptly engage in negotiations with North Korea to achieve a nuclear freeze.
Additionally, if the United States could disrupt North Korea’s relationship with Russia, it would also be advantageous in the Ukraine war. We cannot be sure whether North Korea would deploy troops to Russia, but the likelihood of sending workers is very high. In the end, Russian citizens would enlist in the military, and North Korean workers could fill those vacancies, essentially making it equivalent to deploying troops.
So, I think the U.S. policy of ‘strategic patience’ is causing us to miss the right timing. The cost we will have to pay will only grow. What I am proposing is not disadvantageous to the United States. It is also beneficial for countering China’s strategy, Japan’s security policy, and even for maintaining and stabilizing the U.S.-South Korea-Japan cooperative relationship, even if the government in South Korea were to change. If we neglect such a good proposal, I believe it wouldn’t be the right security strategy.
If you, Mr. Frank Jannuzi, could become a policy maker or persuade policy makers, wouldn’t that be the way to go? We have been working to resolve this issue for nearly 30 years.” (Laughs)
“Yes, I know. I’m trying too. I’m sorry it didn’t work out. It should have been resolved by now…”
“While the United States claims to care for North Korean citizens, it seems that they are turning a blind eye to the suffering of these individuals. No matter how negatively we view the North Korean regime, we should alleviate the suffering of the North Korean citizens living under it. Currently, North Korean citizens are enduring hardship due to a lack of food and medicine. We have the willingness and capacity to support them, but we are blocked from providing assistance. Wouldn’t we be able to try anything only if North Korea-U.S. dialogue takes place first?”
“For the first nine years, I also played the role of an analytical scholar. Analysis was conducted even when all U.S. policies toward North Korea failed. I think I was exhausted after that too.”
“Rather than simply criticizing North Korea, we should research how to handle such a North Korea. We should aim to become problem solvers, not just analysts.” (Laughs)
Sunim’s proactive proposals and persuasive efforts deeply moved Mr. Frank Jannuzi as well. He promised to do his best if it could be of any help.
Today’s Dharma talk is taking place at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington in Rockville, Maryland.
As Sunim took the stage to a round of applause, he began his opening remarks.
“People live their lives in a way they believe to be good, but suffering arises. For example, people celebrate when they get married, but they suffer in their married life. They are happy to get a job, but they struggle in their work life. They open a store with great joy, but they suffer while running it. Isn’t that contradictory? Can we really live without suffering?
2600 years ago, Gautama Buddha said, ‘Humans can live without suffering.’ He was born a prince but renounced his throne and lived a very austere life. However, he found greater freedom and happiness in his simple life as a monk than he did as a prince. He also provided guidance on how others could live similarly. We can all live happily. Today’s topic of conversation is ‘Can we live without suffering in any situation?’ You can ask questions on any topic and share your opinions. Let’s get started.”
For two hours, ten people raised their hands and asked Sunim questions, engaging in a conversation. Among them, one person introduced himself as the spouse of a Sunim’s fan and asked Sunim how he finds joy in life through his ascetic lifestyle.
“You don’t even eat samgyupsal (pork belly), so what do you find enjoyable in life?”
“Hi, my wife is a big fan of yours. She listens to your lectures, and when she shares with me, I find I almost always agree with your analysis of the human situation. My question for you, what in life is fun for you? Considering, as I know, monks, no sex, no drinking, no smoking, no gambling, simple diet, no samgyupsal (pork belly), and according to my wife, not really interested in art, music, sports, or games. So what is fun in life?”
“Nothing particularly interesting. Does it have to be fun? To put it accurately, there isn’t much that isn’t fun for me.”
“Because otherwise life is just work. You work and work and work. You have to have fun.”
“It means there’s not much I find unenjoyable. So, I do whatever comes my way. Because there’s not much that I find particularly unenjoyable. There’s also nothing particularly interesting about it. You don’t have to do anything. So there is no big problem.
Smokers might think, ‘If I don’t smoke, what’s the point of living?’ Drinkers might say, ‘If I don’t drink, what’s the point of living?’ People who exercise might say, ‘If I don’t exercise, what’s the point of living?’ But animals live well without doing those things.
It’s all about habits. Once it becomes a habit, you have to do it. If you don’t, you’ll feel bored or experience suffering. This is what we call ‘karma.’ Living according to each person’s karma means finding enjoyment based on each person’s karma, which also leads to suffering. However, if you become free from karma, there’s nothing particularly enjoyable or unenjoyable.
However, even without doing such things, there are plenty of things to do in this world. Give it a try sometime. You don’t have to do everything the questioner mentioned right now, and it won’t be a problem.”
“You’ve made comparison animals for a few times. Are we just animals? Are we the same as animals?”
“Some aspects make humans worse than animals, while there are also slightly better aspects compared to animals. For example, birds build nests and live in them. They may build a new nest the next year, and it doesn’t matter if another bird comes to live in the old nest. However, humans, even if they live in a new house, lock the door of their old house and prevent someone who is homeless on the street from entering. That’s why we are worse than animals. Additionally, birds build nests and live there, but they never agree if another bird suggests living together. Sometimes they feel a threat to their lives and escape, but they never compromise. However, humans sometimes provide shelter for those who are homeless without a house.
If something is at a lower level than that of animals, it can be called ‘evil.’ If you go a little higher than that, it can be called a ‘good’. At least we should not do anything worse than animals. And it’s not a bad thing if you don’t do something better. Stopping bad behavior is a necessity, but engaging in good behavior is a choice. You may choose to engage in good behavior, but it’s not mandatory. Engaging in good behavior earns you praise from others.
However, in today’s society, actions worse than animals are often rationalized. A lot of energy is devoted to such negative actions, leading to a more miserable life. We often say that someone is greedy like a pig, but pigs, when full, don’t intervene when other animals come to eat. Humans, on the other hand, do not share their food even when they have plenty, and others are starving. Such behavior is absent in the animal kingdom. These actions are ecologically and unnaturally harmful. We refer to such behavior as greed. Greed brings suffering.
However, humans can also behave differently. Sometimes, even when we are hungry, we share our food with those who are even hungrier. Such actions are absent in the animal kingdom. Good and evil are not biological but rather mental concepts.
Our mental processes have both positive and negative aspects. Much of the suffering and stress we experience is a result of the negative aspects of our mental processes. The practice involves reducing the negative aspects and increasing the positive ones.”
“Okay! I like that. Thank you!”
After the conversation, Sunim concluded with these words.
“Did you find the conversation interesting?”
“Please, do not overestimate life. Humans are not exceptionally precious beings. Nor are they inherently evil. They are simply a part of the natural world. At this time, they are shaping the mainstream of the Earth’s ecosystem.
When the climate crisis intensifies, initially, smaller life forms will perish. However, as the ecosystem begins to deteriorate, mainstream life will face extinction. Such events have occurred multiple times in the history of Earth. Mammoths went extinct 100 million years ago. Similarly, climate change poses a significant existential threat to humanity. Current climate change is not simply a natural occurrence. It has arisen due to excessive production and consumption driven by consumerism. Such consumerism is akin to drug addiction. Therefore, for humanity to engage in sustainable survival on Earth, just as one would quit smoking or give up drugs, they must overcome consumerism. We must find a path to happiness by consuming less and living modestly. Otherwise, it is only a matter of time before humanity faces extinction.
Why you shouldn’t envy overconsumption.
Especially those of you living in the United States consume excessively. Do you really know how much you consume and waste? When I visit restrooms in the United States, I often see people pulling out several sheets of toilet paper without realizing that just one sheet is enough. People use disposable items everywhere. Even in hamburger joints, people take multiple ketchup packets when only one or two are needed, discarding the rest.
In the era of climate crisis, such overconsumption should be classified as a criminal act. Excessive consumption should not be something to envy; it should be seen as a major offense. We must change our way of thinking. Without this change, overcoming the climate crisis will be difficult. Technological solutions may delay the onset of the crisis, but fundamentally, the direction of our lives needs to change.
In times like these, the life and teachings of Buddha offer us a new path. I hope that all of you will take a greater interest in Buddha’s teachings, not necessarily changing your religion, but opening your eyes to the path of truth within your existing faith. By doing so, your personal happiness will grow, your relationships will improve, and you will contribute to the preservation of the natural environment. Not only for ourselves but also for our descendants, I hope we can walk this path together.”
With a resounding applause, the Dharma Talk concluded. Today marked the 23rd and final Dharma QandA of the overseas Dharma talk tour, which began in Frankfurt, Germany, on September 1st and continued with daily lectures in 21 cities, concluding today in Washington, D.C., USA.