Korea: A View From the 38th Parallel

July 29th, 2021 - by Jessica J. Lee / Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

After 68 Years, It’s Time to End America’s Longest War

Jessica J. Lee / Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Me at the DMZ in Gangwon Province on the eastern coast of South Korea, where I walked along the peace trail with a delegation of U.S. and South Korean experts

 (July 27, 2021) — I’ve just returned from the Korean DMZ — the last bastion of the Cold War. As I walked along the barbed wire, I saw first hand the harsh reality of division that separates the two Koreas — and families. 

Sixty-eight years ago today the war between the United States, North Korea, and China was frozen in time, with the signing of an armistice agreement that was intended to be a placeholder while a formal peace treaty was negotiated. Instead, the U.S.-North Korean talks stalled, resulting in the original “forever war.” 

Quincy Institute views ending this war as key to promoting peaceful relations and denuclearization on the Korean peninsula. Watch this video, featuring Quincy Institute president Andrew Bacevich, Congressman Ro Khanna, Congressman Andy Kim, South Korean Minister of Unification Lee In-young, and me.

To find out more, read my latest article in Responsible Statecraft. [Posted below — EAW]

We are all in on this effort. Earlier today, I spoke at the Korea Economic Institute about how an end-of-war declaration could catalyze a broader peace and denuclearization strategy on North Korea. And in the coming months I will co-lead a “peace game” simulation exercise to explore the potential issues, challenges, and opportunities that could arise. Quincy is partnering with the U.S. Institute of Peace and the South Korea-based Sejong Institute on this diplomacy-centered initiative. 

As Americans, we sometimes forget how real war can be for people whose lives are upended by it, years or decades after fighting has ended. 

Thank you for supporting the Quincy Institute as we work to end endless wars and promote practical diplomacy.

Jessica Lee, Senior Research Fellow on East Asia

Why the Renewed Hotline between South and North Korea Is a Big Deal 

The Move Will Mitigate Crises and
Open the Door to Resolving Wider Issues Diplomatically

Jessica J. Lee / Responsible Statecraft

(July 27, 2021) — On July 27, 2021 at 10 AM Korea Standard Time, South Korea and North Korea announced that their direct hotline has been restored in a move that could signal thawing of bilateral relations. The Biden administration should encourage such moves, as greater communication between the two Koreas better protects U.S. interests in the region than passively waiting for North Korea to initiate dialogue. 

The announcement was important for several reasons. 

First, the fact that the two Koreas timed the reopening of direct channels on the 68th anniversary of the Korean War armistice agreement indicates their desire to draw international attention to the unresolved Korean War. According to the Senior Secretary for Public Communication Park Soo-hyun of South Korea’s Blue House, “the two leaders of the South and the North…shared an understanding to recover mutual trust and again push the countries’ relationship forward.” The North Korean state media Korean Central News Agency affirmed this news, noting that these communication lines will play a “positive role in improving and further developing inter-Korean relations.” 

The strategically timed and well-coordinated nature of the move suggests that South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had agreed in advance on the content of the announcement and its timing. Indeed, the Blue House noted that Moon and Kim had exchanged personal letters on several occasions since April. Exploring what is possible away from the public eye is a good way to build the trust and confidence needed to get to the negotiating table, and the United States should explore similar possibilities with the help of South Koreans.

Second, inter-Korean diplomacy will likely reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula far more effectively than through military threats such as joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises and pressure-based campaigns, neither of which have stopped North Koreans from building nuclear weapons. 

To be sure, ending the Korean War will require political and diplomatic finesse, rather than solely relying on the threat of force to change Pyongyang’s behavior. As Quincy Institute President Andrew Bacevich noted, “the U.S.’s continued reliance on military deterrence to prevent the resumption of hostilities is both costly and fraught with risk.” This includes not just the threat of military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula but the risk of underestimating North Korea’s insecurities, which lead to an increasing reliance on nuclear weapons for regime survival, thereby making renewed conflict more likely. 

Third, resumption of North-South direct talks could lead to an eventual resumption in U.S.-North Korea talks, which has been at an impasse since October 2019. Pro-engagement policies under South Korean Presidents Kim Dae Jung (1998-2003) and Roh Moo Hyun (2003-2008) led to progress in multilateral negotiations such as the Six-Party Talks that led to the September 2005 agreement, whereby North Korea agreed to denuclearize in exchange for certain commitments, such as affirmation by the United States that it will not attack or invade North Korea with nuclear or conventional weapons. 

Unfortunately, the 2005 agreement eventually broke down when the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Banco Delta Asia for hosting $25 million of the Kim regime’s funds, and it became clear that the light water reactors for energy generation that was promised to Pyongyang under the Agreed Framework would never materialize. In June 2006, North Korea launched six ballistic missiles in violation of a moratorium on long-range missile launches.

Fifty years ago, the first inter-Korean hotline opened in Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone. These direct channels of communication have historically served as an important tool for confidence-building and crisis management, as well as facilitating delivery of humanitarian assistance between the two Koreas. When there are no direct communication lines, inter-Korean relations are strained, often with deadly results

At a minimum, yesterday’s resumption of the inter-Korean hotline will provide a much-needed channel for crisis communication and in improving inter-Korean relations. A more forward-leaning way of reading the latest development is that North Korea may soon be ready to talk with the United States. When that time comes, the Biden administration should be ready to negotiate, rather than simply “leave the door open for dialogue,” as Secretary of Defense Austin noted. For upholding the Singapore Declaration, as President Biden has pledged to do, will require taking a broader view of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula to include formally ending the Korean War, however belatedly.

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