In a major development in the Korean peace process, South Korea, North Korea, China and the United States have agreed to declare an end to the Korean War. The announcement was made by South Korean president Moon Jae-in on Monday, December 13, who said the four parties to the Korean War agreed “in-principle” to formally declare its end, 71 years after it broke out in 1950. Speaking from Canberra, Australia, during his four-day visit to the country, president Moon Jae-in also pointed out that US hostility towards North Korea was among the reasons why peace talks were held back. North Korea has demanded an end to the “hostile policy” of the US, including sweeping sanctions and a virtual US-led blockade, as a precondition for the continuation of talks.
Since 2018, hundreds of new sanctions targeting the civilian economy have been imposed on the people of North Korea. In 2018 alone, new and existing sanctions caused almost 4,000 preventable civilian deaths. Around 11 million North Koreans are deprived of sufficient access to basic foodstuffs, clean drinking water or essential medical services. Subjected to ever-increasing sanctions, North Korea is projected to suffer a food deficit of 1.3. million tons this year, worsening the already dire condition endured by a broad swath of the population. More than 40 percent of North Korea’s 25 million people are considered chronically food insecure, and one out of every five children under the age of 5 is impacted by stunted growth.
Choe Son Hui, First Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, gave a statement to media on the 17th. The statement said: The United States has tried to make contact with us through several channels including that in New York since mid February. Recently, it requested the contact with us by e-mail and telephone message through different channels and, at the night just before the start of the joint military exercises, sent us through a third country another message for our affirmative response to the contact. However, we deem it not necessary to consent the US attempt to get time again. We declared already our stand that any DPRK-US contact and dialogue cannot be made unless the US hostile policy is withdrawn and, accordingly, will ignore such US attempt in the future.
One of the thorniest foreign policy challenges the Biden administration will need to face is a nuclear-armed North Korea. Talks between the U.S. and North Korea have been stalled since 2019, and North Korea has continued to develop its weapons arsenal, recently unveiling what appears to be its largest intercontinental ballistic missile. As a retired U.S. Army Colonel and U.S. diplomat with 40 years of experience, I know all too well how actions by the U.S. military can exacerbate tensions that lead to war. That’s why the organization I am a member of, Veterans for Peace, is one of several hundred civil society organizations in the U.S. and South Korea urging the Biden administration to suspend the upcoming combined U.S.-South Korea military exercises.
An alarming report published Monday in the Washington Post claimed that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un could fire an intercontinental ballistic missile right as Joe Biden is inaugurated. “North Korea appears to be taking steps toward a new test of a powerful submarine-launched missile, U.S. weapons experts said, as it steadily dials up the pressure on President-elect Joe Biden,” it wrote, suggesting that the Supreme Leader is, “planning a very different fireworks display to greet the incoming U.S. president.” One of the weapons experts the story relies upon is Michael Elleman, a director at the hawkish and secretive think tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), who told the Post that the Korean missiles might have a range of around 1,900 miles and have the ability to hit U.S. targets in the Pacific.
In the United States today, North Korea is the standard reference point for modern-day totalitarianism: a land of darkness that is considered a dangerous security threat because of the development of nuclear missiles capable of striking the U.S. A.B. Abrams’ new book, Immovable Object: North Korea’s 70 Years at War with American Power (Clarity Press, 2020), shows that the common perceptions in the U.S. of North Korea are mostly wrong. Though the Kim dynasty has ruled through autocratic methods, it has also adopted rational and at times intelligent policies, which have enabled North Korea to weather unprecedented outside hostility and develop into something of a military powerhouse.
The friendly interplay last week between Moon Jae-in, the president of South Korea, and Joe Biden, the incoming president of the United States, signaled subtle but important differences about how to make peace with a nuclear-armed North Korea. On Thursday, Moon, who has made engagement with the North the hallmark of his presidency, followed other world leaders in congratulating Biden for his election victory. In a 14-minute telephone call, he pledged to “communicate closely” with Biden’s incoming administration “for a forward-looking development of the alliance, the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the establishment of lasting peace.”
Tensions between the two Koreas escalated again last month after a South Korean fisheries official, possibly attempting to defect, was shot dead by North Korean army troops after he swam across their disputed maritime border known as the Northern Limit Line. A shocked President Moon Jae-in, who has made engagement with North Korea the centerpiece of his administration, demanded an explanation. Some US “experts” boldly predicted that North Korea had killed off Moon’s peace initiative. Within days, however, the tables were turned. On September 25th, Kim made an unprecedented public apology to South Korea for the “unsavory” killing, which he admitted (rightly) had “delivered a big disappointment” to the people of the South.”
But this is a false dichotomy. Meeting or not meeting with the North Korean leader hasn’t been the failure of U.S. policy. And more pressure and sanctions will not convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons arsenal. To make any substantial progress, the next administration must take a wholly new approach to achieve a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. Most urgently, the next administration should officially end the Korean War with a peace agreement. Contrary to the belief held by most Americans, the 70-year-old war never officially ended and was only halted by a fragile ceasefire signed in 1953.
Perhaps it’s time for South Korea, then, to assert more independence and become a master of its own fate. Above all, that will require a reconsideration of the military alliance with the United States. From a military point of view, South Korea doesn’t need the presence of U.S. troops on the peninsula. They serve a largely symbolic function as a concrete sign of U.S. commitment. At some point, after the resolution of ongoing negotiations, South Korea will assume full operational control of military forces. After years of arms imports, South Korea’s hardware advantage gives it a vast military superiority over the North. The United States has been an obstacle in the way of improving inter-Korean relations. And it has forced a partnership with Tokyo that Seoul finds uncomfortable. On top of that, South Korea periodically worries that it will be drawn into the conflict between Washington and Beijing.
This is not a column defending Donald Trump. Across my career I have said more positive words about the scolex family of intestinal tapeworms than I have said about Donald Trump. (Scolex have been shown to read more.) No, this is a column about context. When The New York Times reports anonymous sources from the intelligence community say Russia paid Taliban fighters to kill American soldiers, context is very important. Some of that context is that Mike Pompeo said, “I was the CIA director – We lied, we cheated, we stole. We had entire training courses.” So we know for certain that U.S. intelligence agencies lie to you and me. We saw it with WMD, and we might be seeing it again now. But that’s not the context I’m referring to.
Two South Korean government officials rejected an earlier CNN report citing an unnamed U.S. official saying Washington was “monitoring intelligence” that Kim was in grave danger after surgery, but they did not elaborate on whether Kim had undergone surgery. The presidential Blue House said there were no unusual signs coming from North Korea. An official at the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Department, which deals with North Korea, told Reuters the source did not believe Kim was critically ill. China is North Korea’s only major ally. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Beijing was aware of reports about the health of Kim, but said it does not know their source, without commenting on whether it has any information about the situation.
A recent opinion piece in the Washington Post proposing a new oil-for-food scheme, this time in Venezuela, surprisingly acknowledges that sanctions “can also end up harming the people that they intend to protect.” Okay, first off, we know there is no intention of “protecting” civilians in any of the countless countries targeted by Western sanctions. Do Western talking heads really think we’ve forgotten the half-a-million dead Iraqi children, thanks to US sanctions? Yet, ask a Western leader about crippling sanctions placed on nations which don’t bow to Imperial demands and you’ll be met with some nonsensical explanation that sanctions only target ‘regimes’ and ‘terrorists,’ not the people. I’ve lived in, spent considerable time in, or visited areas under sanctions and siege, and I’ve seen first hand how sanctions are a form of terrorism, choking civilians, depriving them of basic and urgent medical care, food, employment, and travel entitlements that many of us in Western nations take for granted.
After 18 months of on-off diplomacy with North Korea, the Trump administration seems determined now to jettison the fragile talk about peace, reverting to its earlier campaign of “maximum pressure” and hostility. It’s a retrograde move risking a disastrous war. In a visit to China this week, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Chinese leader Xi Jinping both urged for greater momentum in the diplomatic process with North Korea, saying that renewed tensions benefit no-one. The two leaders may need to revise that assertion. Tensions greatly benefit someone – Washington.
On Monday China and Russia proposed that the United Nations Security Council lift a ban on North Korea exporting statues, seafood and textiles, and ease restrictions on infrastructure projects and North Koreans working overseas, according to a draft resolution seen by Reuters. The plan comes at a crucial moment - just weeks before the deadline set by North Korea for Washington to offer more concessions - and highlights deepening divisions over how to engage with North Korea.