SEOUL – South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Joe Biden spoke on the phone today, where they agreed to strengthen their bilateral alliance and “closely coordinate” on North Korean issues.
It was the latest in a series of key calls Biden has made to leaders around the world.
The good vibes about the alliance mark a change from the Donald Trump administration’s policies, which included a massive increase in payments from Seoul to cover the costs of US troops in Korea.
“Close coordination” also diverges from the habits of Trump, who won Moon’s approval for summiting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but whose unpredictability often appeared to catch Seoul on the back foot.
It was the latest in a series of key calls Biden has made to leaders around the world. According to a press debrief, when Moon remarked on “the America of hope” Biden responded that, “one of those hopes is Korea.”
While denuclearization is the foremost US priority in North Korean affairs, major questions hang over how or even whether that could be achieved.
Among some wonks in the US and South Korea, there are calls for the Biden administration to take a pragmatic, arms-control approach to North Korea, rather than seeking the kind of “big deal” sought by Trump.
While any downplaying of the denuclearization mantra would likely be unpalatable to the US electorate, a “small-deal” could feasibly enable step-by-step, reciprocal progress, while collaterally building bilateral trust.
One way to kick-start trust would be to sign a formal peace treaty to – finally – end the murderous 1950-53 Korean War, which halted only with an armistice. It would be a low-risk, low-energy opening move by Washington that would defuse some of Pyongyang’s paranoia and provide it with an excuse to begin scaling back its massive military.
The Moon administration has long promoted the idea. Now – with the Biden administration engaged in a policy review of North Korean that is expected to take months – there is rising traction in the US political establishment for the step.
State of play
Moon, in his 30-minutes+ call with Biden, proposed the two sides make “joint efforts” to advance denuclearization and peace-building.
In its North Korean policy, Washington has consistently focused on denuclearization – to the near-exclusion of all other matters. Yet the 2018 Singapore Declaration, signed by Trump and Kim after their historic summit, contained four commitments:
- Both parties would establish “new” bilateral relations;
- They would join efforts to build a “lasting and stable peace regime” on the Korean Peninsula.
- North Korea would “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
- And the two parties would cooperate on the return of Korean War remains.
While North Korea did return some Korean War remains, it did not denuclearize, though it offered to abandon some core elements of its nuclear programs in return for sanctions relief. That offer was turned down by Trump in his second summit with Kim in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2019.
Relations were not upgraded, and the “lasting and stable peace regime” remains vague. Trump did, however, halt spring military exercises which have consistently irked Pyongyang.
It is not clear if the drills will go ahead this year, with Covid-19 militating against.
What is clear that an end to the Korean War most certainly falls within the rubric of a “peace regime.”
South Korea was not a signatory to the Korean War armistice in 1953; Seoul, at the time, was unwilling to cease hostilities with the peninsula still divided. But Moon has urged the signatories – China, North Korea and the United States – to end the war.
Stars align in US
A global coalition of women’s peace organizations this week released a 60-page report, Path to Peace: The Case for a Peace Agreement to End the Korean War, that is winning Congressional interest from Biden’s party.
The report “makes a powerful case for the urgent need to formalize the end of the Korean War,” said Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar. “The benefits to human rights, denuclearization, and national security are clear.”
“It’s long past time for Congress to formally end the Korean War,” added Democratic Representative Barbara Lee. “Keeping this conflict on a hair trigger has left diplomatic efforts vulnerable to mistrust and miscalculation.”
Official moves in play to end the state of war with North Korea are also getting a shot in the arm.
Congressional Resolution 152 was introduced in the 116th Congress (2019-2020) and states that the House “…would welcome a statement by the President declaring the end of the state of war with North Korea.”
The resolution has got legs, said Christine Ahn, one of the co-authors of the report.
“A decade ago, on the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, only two members of Congress supported peace with North Korea,” Ahn explained during a webinar on Wednesday. “But the bill now has 52 sponsors, including one Republican.”
When the bill was first introduced amid the disappointment of the failure of the Hanoi summit, “we could only get two members of Congress to support it,” she said. But the bill now has 15 sponsors, including one Republican, Ahn explained during a webinar on Wednesday.
“We are optimistic that a new bipartisan and bicameral resolution will be passed,” Ahn said. “A Democratic Congress is just the push the Biden administration needs.”
Calling a peace treaty “revolutionary” Ahn said it is “what the moment is calling for” – referencing the fact that Democratic parties now hold power in both Seoul and Washington.
Constituencies in the US are also behind it. Ahn noted that some 200,000 Korean Americans have family ties to North Korea, and that “polls say the majority of Americans want a formal end to the war.”
The case for
On the working-level front, a peace treaty would not require major diplomatic bandwidth. The fact that a state of war has existed – at least, on paper – since 1950 is “absurd,” said Henri Feron, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and one of the report’s co-authors.
“A peace agreement can be accomplished any day,” he said during the webinar. Prickly issues that would normally require extensive negotiation – such as border setting and prisoner exchanges – were long ago dealt with, he said.
Though it is “not an end” to peninsula problems, a peace treaty would be “a first stop to build a peace regime,” said Hyun Lee, a report co-author.
In that sense, it would provide a “new framework” for tougher negotiations that lie ahead, said Catherine Killough, another co-author,
“A peace agreement that ends the wartime status quo and transforms US-North Korea relations to more normal diplomatic terms would improve conditions for negotiating a nuclear deal,” she said. “We have seen administration after administration pursue pressure-based denuclearization efforts.”
Indeed pressure tactics – military containment and deterrence, backed up by stern rhetoric and economic sanctions – have signally failed to halt Pyongyang’s acquisition of weapons of mass destruction.
Sanctions are problematic for other reasons. They “cross numerous legal lines,” claimed Feron. “Sanctions are meant to be smart and target the elite and military but we are way past that.. they make people hostage to the policies of the government.”
The long-running peninsula nuclear crisis is “informed by this ongoing war,” Killough said, referencing then-president Harry Truman’s admission that the use of “all weapons” – including nuclear arms – were under consideration. Truman’s statement was made in winter 1950, when US and South Korean forces were reeling from a shock Chinese offensive in North Korea; it chilled even US allies.
Due to the powerful strategic assets North Korea now fields – assets that can strike all parts of Japan and South Korea, as well as the US mainland – “the situation has come to a dangerous point where one must agree not to use force,” Feron insisted.
Why so long?
The avoidance of a peace agreement for so long “has a lot to do with myths that have accumulated over the years,” said Feron.
One myth is that a peace treaty would remove the justification for stationing US troops on South Korean soil. Under that rationale, South Korea would be vulnerable to attack.
However, the Moon administration has made clear that the presence of US troops in Korea is a bilateral issue for Washington and Seoul to decide – not Pyongyang. And polls suggest that the bilateral alliance is more popular with the Korean public than ever.
Even so, Hyun Lee, another co-author, said that a peace regime “should include reductions of US troops and an end to the offensive posture of the last 70 years.”
Lee noted that South Korea – which has resisted joining the loose “Quad” alliance of Australia, India, Japan and the US – “has concerns about being caught in the crosshairs in the region by virtue of being a host of US bases.”
But any drawdown of US troops in Korea could be a hard to sell to the Washington defense establishment.
For the US, locked in strategic competition with Beijing, South Korea is more critical than ever: As the only mainland East Asian soil with US boots on the ground, it provides an ideal location from which to monitor eastern China, while potentially providing the US with its first line of defense against Chinese naval assets and missiles.
“North Korea is not the only reason why the US keeps troops in the region,” Choi Jin-wook, a Seoul-based expert who formerly headed the Korea Institute of National Unification, told Asia Times. “These forces are also aligned against China as a regional stabilizer.”
The armistice-but-no-peace-treaty situation has dragged on for so long in part because of expectations and hopes among prominent US Pyongyangologists, dating back to the 1990s.
“What has been holding it back was waiting to see if North Korea would collapse,” Feron said. “This has driven US policy up to recently – maximum pressure to put North Korea on its knees and get it to surrender.”
In the event, North Korea has proven remarkably pressure resistant, and its regime currently looks as stable as ever.
The case against
But to shift from de jure diplomacy to de facto power politics: No peace treaty looks likely to alter the brutal realities of two opposed Korean states and two massive Korean armies separated by a 4-km wide DMZ and an even wider ideological gulf.
A peace treaty “is just a piece of paper,” said Choi. “The Moon government wants a peace treaty, it thinks it will make consolation between the Koreas, but paper does not make consolation.”
It is by no means certain that a peace treaty would make North Korean more amenable or easier to negotiate with, said another expert.
“There is some kind of fantasy that [a peace treaty] would bring some kind of concession and cooperation from the North,” Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based international relations expert at Troy University, told Asia Times. “I think if it is absent any change to the North Korean leadership’s ideology, identity or orientation, it is useless and dangerous.”
Within North Korea, the Korean War is widely proclaimed as a victory over America – but the “Korean Revolution” continues. As the conclusion of the latter is a unified peninsula under the rule of the Korean Workers Party, Pinkston said, any peace treaty that did not address that would simply be “fantastical wishful thinking.”
Given this, a key question in any treaty drafted, Pinkston stated, would have to be, “What are you talking about concluding?”