As President Obama left office in 2016, he warned the incoming President Trump that North Korea would be “the most urgent problem” that he would face. That problem remains today, and in many ways has worsened. The United States still faces a hostile nuclear power, which now has intercontinental ballistic missiles that could potentially reach anywhere from Los Angeles to New York. With every day that passes, North Korea continues to focus on improving its armament. It is urgent to end this endless conflict.
There is no military solution to the standoff. There is little guarantee that an order of military strikes could take out North Korean nuclear capabilities without avoiding the very outcome that it is supposed to prevent: a nuclear escalation with potentially millions of deaths. As a U.S. ally, South Korea has also strictly opposed strikes, being first in the line of retaliatory fire.
There is also little chance that sanctions would persuade Pyongyang to surrender its weapons. U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats assessed that “North Korea will seek to retain its [weapons of mass destruction] capabilities and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival.” Sanctions have certainly hurt North Koreans. But the country’s economy is unlikely to collapse, as it is built on a model of self-reliance that has already withstood decades of sanctions. The economy has also been supplemented by regular aid from its Chinese military ally, a trend intensified by rising U.S.-China tensions.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has made clear he has no intention to disarm, as he sees a risk that the U.S. could take advantage of the country’s subsequent vulnerability. In his January 1, 2020 report of to the Workers’ Party Central Committee, he stated: “we cannot give up our future security just for visible economic results and happiness and comfort, given that there has been no change in our external environment owing to the U.S.-gangster like acts … and that hostile acts and nuclear threat and blackmail are still being intensified.” He vowed to continue military development “until the U.S. rolls back its hostile and a lasting and durable peace mechanism is in place.”
The long-standing U.S. policy focus on forcing North Korea to denuclearize through pressure-based diplomacy has hence hit an impasse. Robert O’Brien reflected on the challenge of nuclear talks with North Korea in the following terms: “when you are asking a counterpart in negotiation to do something that could result in their demise, that’s a … very difficult negotiation to have.”
The South Korean government’s preferred approach under the current Moon Jae-in administration has been to reduce the security threat through cooperative engagement with Pyongyang. This culminated in 2018 in agreements for economic cooperation and military trust-building. The Trump administration, however, insisted that the implementation of inter-Korean cooperation should progress in “lockstep” with progress in denuclearization. Seoul held off on many key areas of implementation, to Pyongyang’s ire. North Korea ended up symbolically destroying the inter-Korean liaison office, accusing the South of disavowing inter-Korean agreements and of being complicit in U.S. pressure.
Seoul nevertheless held onto the conclusion that it was necessary to engage the North in order to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis. A critical part of this plan is to formally end the Korean War, as the Armistice concluded in 1953 was technically a mere ceasefire that was never replaced with a peace agreement that would have settled it once and for all. The two Koreas called in 2018 for the conclusion of a peace agreement in talks with the United States and possibly China, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in has in recent months increased his calls to start by declaring an end to the War.
A peace agreement is the most solemn way of demonstrating the sincerity of all sides in seeking a peaceful resolution of the crisis. The first step in resolving an armed standoff is to agree to not use violence to resolve it. A binding peace agreement including the United States and the two Koreas would constitute a formal recognition that wartime rights to use force have ended. This would create critical political momentum for making this peace sustainable through the realization of a lasting and stable peace regime, a goal all sides support. The reduction of military tensions would create invaluable space for all sides to agree on ways to stop and reverse the extreme militarization of the Korean Peninsula.
The United States has long seen a peace agreement only as a potential bargaining chip to achieve North Korea’s denuclearization. The core problem of this instrumentalizing approach is that it changes the nature of peace talks. Insisting on one side’s disarmament as a condition for peace will be perceived instead as a demand of surrender. A peace agreement can help disarmament or at least arms control in the Korean context, but this is a process that can come only after trust has been established. Parties to an armed standoff are unlikely to holster or discard their weapons before they are confident they will not need them.
Agreeing to peace may appear as such an evident step that one might wonder why it has not yet happened. The absence of peace is partly due to long-standing misconceptions about implications for U.S. and South Korean interests.
One misconception is that peace would entail recognizing North Korea as a nuclear power. To be clear, it is a fact that North Korea has had nuclear weapons for years now. Moreover, making peace with North Korea does not entail recognizing the legality of these weapons. It is, rather, a pragmatic step towards reducing the likelihood that they will be used, improving both U.S. and South Korean security.
Another misconception is that peace would entail the end of the U.S.-ROK alliance or the presence of U.S. troops in Korea. The Mutual Defense Treaty, the legal basis of the alliance and the troop presence, is in reality not predicated on the war. Article VI makes clear the Treaty is concluded for an indefinite time period. The U.S. and South Korea would be free to maintain these arrangements even after a peace agreement.
Of course, we should not lose sight of the fact that peace will be much more sustainable if all sides then make a cooperative, reciprocal, and sustained effort to reduce the militarization of the Korean Peninsula. A peace agreement would nevertheless represent, all things being equal, a net progress in improving the security of all sides involved. Ending the endless “Forgotten War” is hence a critical first step in deescalating the unsustainably dangerous standoff in Korea.