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March 1, 2018

From Pyeongchang to the Vatican

By Hunter Estes (SFS'19)

Over the last two weeks, the world watched with anticipation as countries competed for gold in the Winter Olympics which were held in South Korea. This great event unites countries and cultures, while cultivating a common spirit of competition. However, as we approached this year's games, a nuclear fog hung over the Korean Peninsula. Over the past few months we have seen a rekindling of existing tensions, as North Korea attempted to test its new nuclear capacities and display them to the world. The Olympics brought renewed tension to one of the most critical issues of our time.

Ultimately, the rising tensions forced both sides to the table, and discussion produced a remarkable outcome. North Korea and South Korea marched under the same flag into the Olympics. The gesture alludes to the once united Korean peninsula which has since been divided for more than 60 years. The move provides a spark of hope, as we look toward a future where nuclear weapons are not needed or desired in any part of the Korean peninsula.

The conversation over nuclear policy which emerged during the last few weeks has brought to mind an opportunity which I had last November. I was blessed to have the chance to attend a conference on nuclear disarmament at the Vatican. The incredible event brought together the Pope, cardinals, Nobel prize winners, ambassadors, diplomats, professors, activists, and a few students. 

Catholic Social Thought offers the follower of international relations a foundation upon which to approach discussions over nuclear policy. In the past year, the Vatican has made its goal to eliminate nuclear weapons quite clear to the world. It has been one of the primary leaders of a bill in the United Nations calling for global nuclear disarmament. Hence the conference was a continuation of the Vatican's global leadership on this issue. His Eminence Cardinal Peter Turkson, as the prefect of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development, chaired the two-day conference.

I flew into the conference excited for the opportunity to engage in discussions over this important issue, and furthermore, to do so at the Vatican. With much anticipation, I combed through the incredibly impressive list of speakers. The conference was quite small with about 150 attendees. The event was really made to be a conversation between experts, and yet thanks to the generosity of the Vatican, students had the blessing to sit in on this historic discussion.

Over the course of two days, speakers from a variety of backgrounds spoke and offered testament to nuclear disarmament. Leaders of past United Nations treaty efforts, peace deal negotiators, and professors reflected on the history of the effort to rid the world of nuclear weapons and the steps necessary to move forward. They detailed how there is currently a treaty moving through the United Nations which calls for a complete ban on nuclear weapons.

The highlight of the conference had to be when the Pope addressed us in the Vatican Palace. As Pope Francis entered the room, the crowd fell into complete silence and every individual sat on the edge of his or her seat, ready to hear from the bishop of Rome. Pope Francis generously took the time to address the crowd and gave the group a call to action on the issue of nuclear disarmament. He spoke to a vision of peace, hope, and optimism, which he hoped could take hold of in the world. Just as we anticipated his departure, Pope Francis chose to begin greeting individuals. My fellow Georgetown students, professors, and I believed that he may just be greeting the Nobel laureates who had made the journey to attend the conference. Instead Francis took the time to greet every single individual in the room. As I walked up to the front of the room, I looked around at the intricately decorated walls and up at the man who stood in front of me as the leader of my Church. The moment felt like a dream, my feet glided effortlessly up through the line. When it came my turn, I shook Pope Francis' hand, introduced myself, and asked him to pray for Georgetown.

I left the meeting and the conference inspired and energized for further discussions on nuclear policy. The Catholic Church is attempting to continue its role as a global leader on this issue. It is attempting to hold true to the message of universal human dignity which lays the foundation for Catholic Social Thought. I feel because of this event that I am more prepared to discuss this important issue which is often at the fray of international attention. The tensions over nuclear weapons in the Korean Peninsula have served to remind the world, once again, that we need to be committed to nuclear disarmament and continue to have discussions about this issue.

Hunter Estes (SFS'19) is a junior in the Walsh School of Foreign Service studying international politics.