The Korea Herald


[Lee Kyong-hee] From brittle armistice to permanent peace

By Korea Herald

Published : July 6, 2023 - 05:31

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Seven decades after an armistice halted massive death and destruction throughout the Korean Peninsula, the South and North remain technically at war. With leaders of both sides ramping up belligerent rhetoric, a formal peace agreement is as elusive as it was in 1953. Talking about peace right now seems naive, or for some even like leftist pro-North propaganda.

Unification looks even farther off. The older generation still misses family members and friends who ended up on the opposite side in the chaos of war. But the young generation has no emotional connection. Unification would be welcomed, of course, but there are more realistic possibilities to aim at.

This year also marks the 70th anniversary of the ROK-US Mutual Defense Treaty, which is hailed as the linchpin of the alliance between Seoul and Washington. The two sides celebrated the success of the alliance during President Yoon Suk Yeol’s state visit to Washington in April. But despite the South’s amazing economic development combined with its democratic progress, the success seems incomplete, given the current security situation on the peninsula and relations between Washington and Pyongyang.

The main roadblock to enduring peace is undoubtedly the North’s continuous advances in nuclear armament. Pyongyang’s nuclear program dates to the 1950s. Its controversial Yongbyon facility was built with Soviet assistance in the 1960s, under an agreement that it would be used for peaceful purposes. But when the Cold War ended, Pyongyang fast-tracked nuclear arms development.

The motive is widely viewed as a means of securing the survival of the North’s communist regime and leveraging dealings with the United States. The regime has survived through successive descendants of Kim Il-Sung, who triggered the Korean War, but the price has been hefty: international isolation and a general population constantly struggling for food and other necessities.

The past three decades have witnessed policy failures on the part of Seoul and Washington in dealing with the North’s nuclear ambitions. Soft and hard-line measures to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear arsenal have fallen apart with the North alternating between negotiation and isolation.

The present stalemate began in 2019, with the rupture of the second summit between then US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The North has since kept all dialogue channels closed and heightened its condemnation of the South for its failed role in brokering a deal with Washington. The inauguration of conservative President Yoon in May 2022 signaled the escalation of Pyongyang’s provocations -- both in words and action.

Last year alone, the North launched a record number of at least 95 missiles, including a long-range ICBM capable of hitting the American mainland. The tally has reached 26 so far this year. A nuclear test, the seventh by Pyongyang and its first since 2017, is also expected. Although the North’s real capabilities and intentions remain uncertain, one thing has become clear: sanctions and pressure alone cannot convince the North to peacefully relinquish its nuclear and missile program.

What should be done? Doing nothing is not effective, as experience shows. The administration of President Joe Biden, dubbed by some as “Strategic Negligence Season II” when it comes to North Korea policy, is advised to move ahead to start dialogue on smaller issues rather than Trump's “grand bargain" or “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” in a single stroke. In this way, Washington might be able to convince Pyongyang to engage. From there, trust may accumulate.

The very first step in this endeavor needs to be offering what the North wants most: ending what the North perceives as “hostile policy” against it. “Diplomacy with North Korea must factor in an understanding of the Kim regime’s fears and insecurity,” says Patrick M. Cronin, the Asia-Pacific security chair at US think tank the Hudson Institute, in his 2021 report, “Fear and Insecurity: Addressing North Korean Threat Perceptions.”

“Because war and peace involve international relations between two or more actors, national goals must consider other actors’ core interests, concerns and aspirations. US policy must rest on the most accurate and complete view of North Korea’s threat perceptions possible,” Cronin says. He explains the report seeks to stimulate creative policy options to help Washington and Seoul decision-makers manage one of Asia’s significant flashpoints.

“Perceived threat” was one of the factors that helped transform Lim Dong-won, a former South Korean unification minister and national security adviser, from an anti-communist military strategist to a key player in Kim Dae-jung’s “Sunshine Policy” to engage North Korea.

“Given the huge gap in national power between North and South, an unfavorable development of the international environment for the North and its bankrupt economy, North Korea is seeking survival amidst fears of absorption by the South,” Lim wrote in his book, “Peacemaker” (Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, 2012). “We should have the right assessment of North Korea. With confidence, we should build the right environment for the North to change. We should peacefully manage the division.”

In the same book, Lim recalled how former US President Bill Clinton regretted canceling his visit to Pyongyang in 2000. “If I had one more year in office, the fate of the Korean Peninsula would have been different,” Clinton told President Kim when he visited Seoul five years later. Lim has repeatedly stressed that the United States is the only country that can resolve the North Korea nuclear issue because it fundamentally stems from what the North perceives as Washington’s “hostile” policy against it.

Biden may revisit the Clinton administration when Seoul-Washington coordination in Norea Korea policy enjoyed its peak years. He may consider how to formally end the Korean War. Then attention could shift to removing fears of resumed conflict and possible arms reduction, convincing the North that disposing its nuclear weapons would open the door to economic transformation and ultimately lead to a stronger existence.

Lee Kyong-hee

Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.