Pee-Wee Peacemakers

Kids who want to be diplomats.

Jonathan Lee

This hasn’t been a good year to lobby North Korea or protest in China.

North Korea is always volatile, but the country has been more explosive than usual in 2010, a year marked by a brewing transfer of power, the shelling of South Korean island Yeonpyeong, the sinking of South Korean warship Cheonan, and the WikiLeaks revelation that even China is growing weary of its dangerous antics.

Meanwhile, China has instituted a hard-line crackdown against dissidents, following the news that Liu Xiaobo, an activist who has been imprisoned since 2008 for his role in the pro-democracy Charter 08 movement, is the 2010 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. China’s angry response included arresting a woman who tweeted her intention to wave a banner that said “Congratulations, Uncle Xiaobo!” at a protest.

In this tense climate, 13-year-old Jonathan Lee, who lives with his parents in Mississippi, has been campaigning to turn the DMZ into a “children’s peace forest.” Over the summer, he visited North Korea, where he was disappointed not to be able to meet with Kim Jong-il. Then, last month, just outside Tiananmen Square, he dramatically unfurled a banner calling for the establishment of a “nuclear free DMZ children’s peace forest.” Less than a minute later, according to press accounts, a plainclothes officer detained Lee, who left the country that night.

If Lee were of legal voting age, we probably wouldn’t pay the slightest attention to his dream of replacing the DMZ’s land mines with trees. Indeed, the coverage of Lee’s effort melds admiration for his naiveté with a smack of condescension. “His is a simple child’s-eye view of one of the most complex and thorny international problems of our time. … This one-boy peace mission might just offer a small dose of hope,” the BBC said before his North Korea excursion.

Lee isn’t the first to carry out a one-child peace mission. He’s following a pre-Internet model in which an American kid reaches out to the leader of a country that seemed on the verge of hostilities with the United States. Even then, the trips weren’t really successful; they certainly didn’t lead to better diplomatic relations. But they were covered in a much more serious, “Is this good for the United States?” manner. While Lee has been the subject of a few vaguely disdainful human-interest stories, Samantha Smith and Sarah York received news headlines and editorials.

In 1982, Samantha Smith, then 10 years old, wrote to Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Yuri Andropov, saying, “I have been worrying about Russia and the United States getting into a nuclear war. Are you going to vote to have a war or not? If you aren’t please tell me how you are going to help to not have a war.”

Inconsiderate pen pal that he was, Andropov didn’t reply. But Pravda published her note. After Smith wrote to the Soviet ambassador to the United States to ask whether Andropov would ever respond, a chastened Andropov wrote back, compared her to Tom Sawyer’s friend Becky, assured her that he didn’t want war, and invited her to visit the Soviet Union. She went and became “America’s youngest ambassador,” a darling to many and an object of derision to others who eye-rolled at the oversimplification of international geopolitics and, in particular, at the way Smith was used by the Soviets. In Time, Charles Krauthammer smirked at her “well-photographed sojourn during which she took in a children’s festival at a Young Pioneer camp (but was spared the paramilitary training).”

When she returned home, Smith became a child star, dabbling in acting, hosting a Disney Channel special on the 1984 presidential election, and publishing a book. But in 1985, she and her father died in a plane crash. The Soviet coverage of her death was mournful, with the Communist youth paper writing, “‘Frightening, scalding news has come across the ocean: Samantha is no more.”

A few years later, America found another young diplomat. Sarah York’s international-relations career began in 1988, when she was 10, after her father took a shine to the hat Panamanian ruler Manuel Noriega wore when he discussed the drug-trafficking charges against him on 60 Minutes. The family decided that Noriega might be more inclined to send them a hat if the request came from a child. York’s initial letter led to a lengthy exchange, culminating in the youngster traveling to Panama as Noriega’s guest in 1988, just a year before the United States invaded and ousted him from power. Like Smith, York returned home to criticism that she had been used by a dictator to shore up his image and to needle the United States by using one of its own children for propaganda purposes, an accusation that she still bristled at 15 years later in an interview with This American Life.

What Lee’s, Smith’s, and York’s attempts at international diplomacy have in common—besides a failure to accomplish very much—was the fuzziness of their goals: peace, the establishment of a “peace forest,” the acquisition of a hat. Despite the media attention given to these pee-wee peacemakers, their adventures amounted to little more than enriching experiences for the children. Imagine the college essay Lee will be able to write some day.

Still, there is a certain space for kids who have a precocious interest in international causes. Take the example of Craig Kielburger, a 28-year-old Canadian activist who has spent more than half his life advocating for the rights of children. At 12, Kielburger read a newspaper account of young Pakistani Iqbal Masih. Masih was sold into indentured servitude in the carpet industry when he was 4; after he escaped at 10, he worked with worldwide organizations to bring attention to child slavery. But two years later, he was killed in Pakistan. Masih had received death threats from the carpet industry, but no one was ever convicted of his murder. Horrified by the death of a fellow 12-year-old, Kielburger and his friends decided they wanted to help. But when they tried calling charities, Kielburger says they were rebuffed. One woman asked them, “Do you know where your parents keep their credit cards?”

So they raised money to start their own group, now called Free the Children, and they traveled to Asia to see the conditions of child laborers firsthand. While in New Delhi, Kielburger, who had learned that Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was also in town, staged a guerrilla press conference on the advice of a security guard, complete with two recently freed child slaves who talked about the abuses they endured. The stunt embarrassed Chrétien and earned Kielburger praise from Oprah, 60 Minutes, and others.

Today, Kielburger is still working to empower children, but his mission has evolved. “Originally, we set up Free the Children to free children overseas from exploitation, from slavery. But now the majority of our work is in North America, to free children from thinking they are too young to make a difference.” The real way to make an enduring difference isn’t a flashy trip—even one that embarrasses a country’s ruler—but to create a generation of engaged global citizens through education. Then the kids can begin to raise awareness and funds.

Kielburger says that in the past, kid activism meant one kid on a mission whose story was broadcast by the media. Today, though, that child can make a difference without a trip couched in controversy. Now, Kielburger says, “that young person isn’t waiting for the media. He’s … using technology to go to the audience, which is young people.” In other words, Jonathan Lee might be more likely to bring about change, however small, with a Facebook page promoting his plan for a “peace garden.”

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