Will the United States help the two Koreas usher in a new era of peace in the Indo-Pacific region?
North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un (L) and
South Korean President Moon Jae-in (R)
Article written by Jett James Pruitt
On December 29, 2021, South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong stated that the United States and his country "effectively" reached an agreement on a draft declaration formally ending the Korean War.
“Regarding the end-of-war declaration, South Korea and the U.S. have already shared the understanding on its importance, and the two sides have effectively reached an agreement on its draft text,” Chung said at a press conference in Seoul. He further elaborated that he and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed the progress made at the latest G7 meeting in Liverpool, England, regarding this issue.
Over the course of several months, both Seoul and Washington have made substantial progress in the formulation of an end-of-war declaration. Despite the fact that the Biden administration is ambivalent towards the proposal, outgoing South Korean President Moon Jae-in has worked assiduously to formally end the Korean War.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in
Moon –– who has been serving as President since 2017 and will depart office later this year –– favors a peaceful reunification with North Korea, a platform commonly referred to as The Sunshine Policy.
While Seoul is trying to get the ball moving, Pyongyang has refrained from actively participating in talks. Kim Yo-jong, sister of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and a prominent government official, rebuffed overtures from Seoul to end the war in September.
“If [South] Korea . . . restores sincerity in its words and actions and abandons its hostility, we would then be willing to resume close communication and engage in constructive discussions,” said Kim.
North Korea's Vice Foreign Minister, Ri Thae Song, provided a more specific explanation. Among other things, he stated that Washington must withdraw military forces near the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), as well as lift economic sanctions, to signify the United States is in good faith to discuss peace.
Overall, North Korea has been relatively quiet during the Biden administration. While the country conducted several missile tests in 2021, leader Kim has yet to launch a nuclear weapon or inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) since 2017.
Moreover, as demonstrated by the aforementioned sentiment, Pyongyang has limited engagement with the United States, forcing the Biden administration to be in a "wait-and-see" mode.
North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un (L) and
Former President Donald J. Trump (R)
In short, this is a stark difference from the stance Pyongyang embraced during the previous American administration. Despite heightened tensions, President Donald Trump met Leader Kim on three separate occasions: in Singapore, Hanoi, and Korea, respectively. While efforts to de-weaponize North Korea were ultimately stalled, the summits were positively received by both Korean governments.
Of course, Pyongyang is not idle. According to the Korean Central News Agency, Leader Kim presided over the 4th Plenary Meeting of the Working Party’s 8th Central Committee in December 2021.
“The plenary meeting is to review the implementation of main Party and state policies for the year 2021 and discuss and decide on the strategic and tactical policies,” the news agency said.
Throughout the conference, Leader Kim reiterated that managing severe supply shortages was the main goal of the session. He acknowledged the “harsh situation” over the past year and set “an important task for making radical progress in solving the food, clothing, and housing problem for the people,” per the KCNA.
In addition, while Leader Kim mainly focused on domestic affairs and did not directly mention the United States or South Korea, he expressed the need for Pyongyang to continue to strengthen its military capabilities amid geopolitical tensions in Southeast Asia.
As such, international pundits suspect that the end-of-war declaration may not materialize as soon as most would like. With Pyongyang becoming more insular as the coronavirus pandemic strangles the North Korean economy, it is unlikely that the Kim administration will hold constructive talks with Washington any time soon.
A U.S. soldier questions two boys serving in the North Korean army in 1950.
To place current events into context, the Korean War began when North Korean military forces invaded South Korea in June 1950. Shortly thereafter, the United Nations denounced the offensive as an invasion, and swiftly created a force to defend the Republic of Korea from its northern counterpart. Indeed, many Western nations — mainly the United States –– deployed military personnel to help capitalist South Korea ward off communist North Korea.
Meanwhile, recognizing the need to defend a communist ally in a coveted region, the Soviet Union and China intervened on behalf of North Korea.
After the death of nearly five million people, the war came to a halt in July 1953. Top military officials from both sides signed an armistice to end hostilities. Among other things, the concordat created the Korean Demilitarized Zone, ceased military operations, and facilitated the return of prisoners.
While the 1953 armistice brought about the end of military action, it did not establish peace in Korea. The two sides have never signed a formal peace treaty, and neither recognize each other as legitimate governments.
Needless to say, U.S. relations with North Korea reverberate throughout the world.
Considering their inescapable bond given their shared borders, China and Russia play an instrumental role in the economic and political vitality of North Korea. Indeed, North Korea relies on China for more than 90 percent of its trade, and Russia permits some economic exchanges with North Korean citizens. Most importantly, the two nations revived efforts to lift U.N. sanctions on North Korea in November 2021.
As reported by Reuters, a reworked draft resolution called for the U.N. Security Council to remove sanctions “with the intent of enhancing the livelihood of the civilian population” in the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea).
This follows a 2019 attempt by both countries to lift restrictions on Pyongyang’s exports of statutes, seafood, and textiles. The 2021 resolution also pushed for permitting more North Koreans working abroad and exempting DPRK infrastructure projects from sanctions.
So, despite the fact that North Korea has been subject to U.N. sanctions since 2006 over its increased nuclear development, it appears that Moscow and Beijing are in the ring for Pyongyang.
President Xi Jinping of China (L) and
President Vladimir Putin of Russia (R)
With this considered, Washington’s actions towards North Korea indirectly influences its relationship with China and Russia. This puts the Biden administration in a very tough spot.
Sino-American relations have soured amid tensions over Taiwan, the suppression of political dissidents in Hong Kong, and the alleged genocide of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang province.
To add injury to injury, the United States has become more frustrated with Russia over tensions concerning Ukraine, the construction of the Nord Stream 2 Pipeline, and allegations of interference in the 2016 Presidential Election.
Needless to say, the U.S.’s relationship with both China and Russia is not warm — and that arguably poses a threat to peace in Korea.
So, how does the United States get itself out of this quagmire? How does it reduce tensions with two major players such as China and Russia? Will there be a peace settlement, or an outbreak of war?
The answer is easier said than done.
If the United States is to achieve stability in the Indo-Pacific Region and beyond, it must facilitate a formal end to the Korean War.
Doing so will ignite a chain reaction, demonstrating to China, Russia, and other foreign nations that it is a credible figure in international politics. Basically, if the United States can resolve tensions between Seoul and Pyongyang, it can resolve any major international issue.
After all, the disagreements held by the respective Korean governments are deeply embedded, fully ingrained in each country’s population. Therefore, if the USA can formulate a mutually-beneficial peace treaty in Korea, it can formulate an historic peace treaty with China and Taiwan, Russia and Ukraine, or another ethno-national dispute.
With the world at a precipice, it is critical for Washington to put its best foot forward.
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