As US denuclearization talks with North Korea have hopelessly stalled and inter-Korea tensions are rising fast, citizen groups on both sides of the Pacific hope to convince the United States to embrace a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War. The campaigns to resuscitate US-Korean diplomacy kicked off on July 27, 67 years after US and North Korean generals signed the armistice that ended the fighting but left the country with an uneasy truce.
The Korean War “never came to a formal conclusion,” Christine Ahn, the founder of Women Cross DMZ and one of the organizers of the peace treaty initiative, declared on Monday at a “bipartisan round table” on resolving the security crisis in Korea. “It’s important to come together across the political spectrum to show consensus for ending America’s longest overseas conflict.” The forum was cosponsored by the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative.
For South Koreans, changing relations with North Korea is a matter of utmost urgency. They see a peace treaty as the best way to rejuvenate the once-promising reconciliation process initiated by President Moon Jae-in and Chairman Kim Jong-un in 2018. Those talks broke down in acrimony last year after President Moon failed to persuade the Trump administration to lift US and UN sanctions that have blocked North and South from moving ahead on the cross-border economic projects they initiated at a summit meeting in Pyongyang two years ago.
“Peace efforts on the Korean Peninsula are retreating as the hard-won agreements between the two Koreas have not been implemented properly,” 324 Korean civic groups declared Monday, as they launched an international “Korea Peace Appeal” to collect 100 million signatures favoring a treaty by 2023. “Though it is late, the governments of concerned countries should now come forward earnestly and responsibly to end the Korean War.” The coalition was organized by the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, one of South Korea’s most influential civil society groups, and several other political and religious organizations.
Their movement is partly a response to recent events. Over the last two months, Chairman Kim and his influential sister Kim Yo Jong have criticized Moon for his dependence on the United States, while their Foreign Ministry has slammed him as “nonsensical” for trying to mediate a deal with Trump. In June, the North Korean military even blew up the North-South liaison offices in Gaesong, just north of the border, to underscore its anger.
A few days later, however, the senior Kim overruled his military and called off plans to deploy more troops along the border. With his diplomacy at issue, Moon has appointed a new national security team to reach out to the North and get the peace process back on track.
That’s also the driving force for American lawmakers. A peace treaty “would go a long way to facilitate the peace process,” US Representative Ro Khanna, the California Democrat who successfully introduced a resolution (HR 152) to end the Korean War in Congress last year, said in opening Monday’s forum. “If we take the first step of declaring the end of the Korean War, it could incentivize leaders of the Korean Peninsula to take action.”
Both Moon and Kim have expressed a desire for a peace treaty or, short of that, a joint declaration by the three governments that the Korean War is over. And the fact that Representative Khanna’s resolution on ending the war has 46 cosponsors in the House reflects growing support for the idea here.
But getting the Trump administration or its successor behind a peace treaty could be difficult. Jessica Lee, a senior research fellow in Quincy’s East Asia Program, said that US opposition to a treaty—which extends through the Washington foreign policy apparatus—“comes down to three words—military-industrial complex.”
“We have to recognize that the military-industrial complex was born out of the Korean War and really thrives on a world of threats, both real and imagined,” she explained. To make a treaty possible, proponents must build “a domestic constituency that says, ‘No, these endless wars and the profiteering from war has to end.’”
Daniel Davis, a retired US Army officer who advised the South Korean military in the 1990s, made a similar argument. “The best thing for American national security is to work towards a peace agreement, because the absence of peace means that we have to continue to put billions of dollars every single year into our alliance with South Korea and for troops in Japan,” he said. “We need to move from a wartime mentality to a peacetime mentality.”
Trump, who is in deep political trouble over his handling of the coronavirus epidemic, has shown no inclination to move in that direction or to shake off the influence of John Bolton, the hard-liner he fired earlier this year from his post as national security adviser. In his self-righteous best seller The Room Where It Happened, Bolton made it clear that he despised the very idea of Moon’s engagement policies, which triggered the Trump-Kim talks in the first place.
His contempt seems to have rubbed off on Trump, who he claims threatened to withdraw all US troops from Korea unless Moon agreed to drastically increase South Korean payments for the 28,500 US soldiers it hosts. “The whole diplomatic fandango was South Korea’s creation, relating more to its ‘unification’ agenda than serious strategy on Kim’s part or ours,” Bolton wrote in his book. “It was risky theatrics, in my view, not substance.”
To the consternation of Korean progressives and the Moon government, he ridiculed Moon for “emphasizing inter-Korean relations over denuclearization.” Bolton was also critical of Moon for seeking an “action-for-action” plan that would allow North Korea to show incremental movement toward dismantling its nuclear capability in exchange for concessions from the United States on sanctions.
That never happened, of course. At their second summit in Hanoi in March 2019, Trump, at Bolton’s insistence, balked at an intermediate deal that would have involved the North closing down its large nuclear facility at Yongbyon in return for the lifting of the UN Security Council sanctions imposed on North Korean exports in 2017.
“If Trump had made that deal in Hanoi, we’d be much further down the road” toward peace, Davis, the retired US Army officer, told a June event marking the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War organized by the conservative Center for the National Interest. North Korea, he added, “sees that as a betrayal.” To get a deal, we “must build trust and acknowledge where they’re coming from.” Earlier this month, Trump sent Stephen Beigun, the deputy secretary of state and his chief negotiator on North Korea, to Seoul in hopes of reviving the talks. But the gesture was widely derided as unrealistic.
“Unless Biegun is bringing some indication that Trump is ready to give in to North Korean demands to lift sanctions in exchange for very limited moves on the nuclear front, I don’t see much basis for another summit or even for any level of negotiations,” Daniel Sneider, a specialist on US relations with Korea and Japan at Stanford University, told the Korea Times. Beigun didn’t, and the North responded, “We have no intention to sit face to face with the U.S.,” Kwon Jong Gun, a North Korean diplomat, wrote for the state-run Korean Central News Agency just before Beigun arrived in Seoul.
In his remarks on Monday, Representative Khanna suggested that Joe Biden might “take up the initiative” with North Korea if he is elected president this fall. Khanna, who backed Senator Bernie Sanders during the primaries, noted that Biden and President Barack Obama “never had Moon as a partner” during the years they were in power. With a progressive president in South Korea driving the peace process, we could “ultimately have an agreement,” he said. “There isn’t a military solution.”
So far, except for saying he might meet with Kim under certain conditions, Biden has expressed little interest in changing US policy in East Asia. Judging from his foreign policy team, he is likely to create a hawkish administration, especially on North Korea. During the debates, Biden often referred to Kim as a “thug”—not exactly a recipe for negotiations.
But, Khanna argues, if Biden carries out his promise to work more closely with US allies, he might be more attentive to South Korea and Moon, and that could make a difference. To that end, Khanna told the forum that he will be traveling to South Korea after the pandemic to meet with President Moon and offer support for his diplomatic efforts.
Clearly, a fundamental shift is needed. Women Cross DMZ and the Quincy Institute will argue in an upcoming report that both Trump’s “maximum pressure” and Obama’s “strategic patience” failed to resolve the crisis, Ahn announced at Monday’s forum. With other peace groups, they will call for a new approach based on a comprehensive peace agreement. “Peace is the precondition for denuclearization and improving human rights, not the other way around,” Ahn said.
“Our inability to end this war,” said Quincy’s Jessica Lee, “has really colored the US–South Korean alliance and the possibility of building an enduring peace in East Asia at large.”