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Power Concedes Nothing Without a Demand: Peace in Korea and Northeast Asia Now!

Ceremony to lower a Japanese flag and raise a U.S. flag in Seoul on Sept. 9, 1945

On September 9, 1945, US service men looked upon the lowering of the Japanese flag and then saluted the hoisting up of the US flag in its stead in Seoul, South Korea in front of what used to be the office of the Japanese governor-general. This marked the beginning of the US military occupation of what would become South Korea, despite the Korean Peninsula having been a non-combatant. Image credit: Oh Seok-min, "U.S. military releases photos of colonial Japan's surrender ceremony in 1945," Yonhap News Agency, September 9, 2020.

Dae-Han Song is the head of the Contents Team for the Seoul-based International Strategy Center and a member of the No Cold War collective.

In his New Year’s address on January 15, 2024, North Korean Workers’ Party Chairman Kim Jong-un proposed removing from North Korea’s socialist constitution the notions of South and North Koreans as compatriots and the pursuit of peaceful reunification.1 Furthermore, he argued that North Korea’s education should teach students that South Korea is the North’s main enemy state.2 While denying that this was an announcement for reunification through preemptive attack, Kim stated that if war broke out, North Korea would occupy, subjugate, and reclaim South Korea.3 This speech severed ties with the more than thirty years of peaceful reunification pursued by North Korea’s two previous leaders.

Since the early 1990s, North Korea has sought the normalization of relations with the United States and peaceful reunification with South Korea. During that time, inter-Korean relations ebbed and flowed. But North Korea’s changed inter-Korean policy moves away from peaceful reunification and toward war in the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia.

If we are to chart our way back to peace, we must understand the motivations that led to such a shift and the historical and geopolitical processes that have led us to our current moment: the failed peace negotiations with the United States, the historical and social limits of South Korean politics, and the intensifying polarization of Northeast Asia due to U.S. military escalation.

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass famously said that “power concedes nothing without a demand.”4 Peace movements must organize around a common set of demands against war: opposing the U.S. military escalation that is dividing the region into camps; overcoming the structural limitations of South Korea that keeps it dependent upon the United States; and coalescing frontline struggles within South Korea and the region into a common struggle against U.S. military escalations.

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Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Address

The 2024 New Year’s speech triggered alarm, including among longtime North Korea experts Robert Carlin and Siegfried Hecker, who penned an article, “Is Kim Jong Un Preparing For War?”5 In his speech, Kim had shifted toward open hostility by recommending the state remove language asserting that South and North Koreans are “80 million compatriots,” as well as the phrase “independence, peaceful reunification and great national unity” from North Korea’s socialist constitution. Instead, he recommended instilling the “firm idea that ROK [the Republic of Korea] is their [North Korean people’s] primary enemy state and invariable principal enemy.”6

The tone was a marked shift from the approach taken by the state over the past three decades. For reunification, Kim envisioned “completely occupying, subjugating and reclaiming the ROK and annex [sic] it as a part of the territory of our Republic in case of [sic] a war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula.” While severing fraternal relations, he clarified that the goal is not a “preemptive attack for realizing unilateral ‘reunification by force of arms.’” In effect, while he did not rule out reunification through war, he was also not proposing it. This sentiment of breaking ties but not declaring war is buttressed by the fact, often left out in the media, that over two-thirds of the speech focused on building up North Korea’s economy, as the “supreme task…is to stabilize and improve the people’s living as early as possible.” These are hardly the words of someone mobilizing for impending war.7

Yet, this shift in North Korea’s policy is also not simply a codification of the current status quo. If war is not around the corner, it is on the horizon. As Professor Jung-chul Lee of Seoul National University points out, we cannot really know the full meaning of these declarations given the current state of the world, the region, and the hardline administration of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol.8 Conflict erupting between China, the United States, and Taiwan could destabilize the Korean Peninsula. Furthermore, as the United States is bogged down in regional wars and conflicts—particularly in Ukraine and Israel’s ongoing attacks against Gaza—miscalculations or escalating responses by Yoon and Kim have the potential to ignite war in the region.

Extricating ourselves from the current situation must start with understanding the motivations behind the speech. Kim’s remarks at the December 27, 2023, Ninth Plenary of the Eighth Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea provides some context for understanding them. Kim stated that South Korea’s status as a “colonial pawn of the United States” makes it an inappropriate counterpart to discuss “reunification.”9 Furthermore, he stated that, regardless of which party is in power, South Korea’s policy of reunification has always been one of reunification through absorption and the collapse of North Korea.10 If these are the stated causes for North Korea’s shift in policy, we must look at how we got to this point. To understand, we must look back to the causes and dynamics that brought us to the situation today.

North Korea-U.S. Negotiations Collapse Again

The collapsed Hanoi Summit in 2019 marks a decisive point in shifting North Korea’s strategy. The summit was one of a long string of failed peace negotiations with the United States that started with the thawing of the Cold War in the 1980s as North Korea shifted its U.S. policy from confrontation to engagement. Revisiting the ebbs and flows of the negotiation process reveals that North Korea earnestly pursued peace with a vacillating United States, whose geopolitical stratagems and imperialist ideology not only sapped its commitment to the process, but often also actively derailed it. The book Hinge Points: An Inside Look at North Korea’s Nuclear Program by Hecker, nuclear scientist, former Director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and a longtime expert on North Korea’s nuclear weapons, offers valuable insights into the historical context of and motivations behind the negotiation process.

One of the most important elements in comprehending the negotiation process is understanding North Korea’s paradoxical pursuit of peace with the United States through nuclear bombs. This shift was precipitated by the thawing of the Cold War, which risked leaving North Korea isolated: China normalized relations with the United States and then—despite North Korea’s strong opposition—with South Korea.11 In 1988, North Korean leadership presented a plan for peaceful unification that included a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops, disarmament, and peace between North and South Korea. In exchange for respecting its autonomy, North Korea would “let bygones be bygones” and “continue to work towards improving relations” with the United States.12 North Korea’s shift in its U.S. policy from confrontation to engagement was a significant change given North Korea’s animosity toward the primary role of the United States in dividing the Korean Peninsula, as well as its near carpet bombing of North Korea.13 Furthermore, by 1992, the North was even secretly willing to accept “continuing US military presence on the Peninsula as a hedge against expanded, potentially hostile, Chinese or Russian influence.”14 Much like North Korea had played the Soviet Union and China against each other, in the post-Cold War era, when ideological bonds were weakened, North Korea was hoping to do the same with the United States as a new balancing force.15

North Korea’s approach was to normalize relations with the United States from a position of strength and not of weakness. Thus, it pursued a dual-track strategy of diplomacy and nuclear weapons “to hedge against failure in one track or the other.”16 When diplomacy failed or stalled, North Korea would switch to developing its nuclear weapons. Its survival would be ensured, whether through peace or a nuclear deterrent. Furthermore, the nuclear track could pressure the United States to return to the diplomatic track.17 As longtime North Korea experts Carlin and John Lewis observed, the best way for the United States to denuclearize North Korea would have been to “make room for the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] in an American vision of the future of Northeast Asia.”18 One such close moment was the October 2000 joint communiqué to fundamentally improve relations that emerged from U.S. President Bill Clinton’s 1994 Agreed Framework.19

Clinton’s “Grand Bargain”

In 1994, the Korean Peninsula was one decision away from being engulfed in a catastrophic war. Faced with the possibility that North Korea was extracting fissile material from its spent nuclear rods to produce plutonium bombs, Clinton contemplated the possibility of a preemptive strike against North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor. The latter would have triggered a North Korean attack upon South Korea; the ensuing conflict was expected to kill one million people.20 Former president Jimmy Carter’s visit with Chairman Kim Il-sung averted catastrophe and opened negotiations to the 1994 Agreed Framework. This “grand bargain” would normalize diplomatic and economic relations through the phased dismantling of the Yongbyon reactor and its replacement with two light-water nuclear ones.21 Heavy fuel oil would be provided during the transition.

North Korea froze operation of its graphite-moderated reactors, accepted the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring, and cooperated in the safe storage of its spent fuel. In 1998, U.S. officials stated to Congress their satisfaction with North Korea’s fulfillment of the agreement.22 The United States, however, offered neither “formal assurances, against the threat or use of nuclear weapons” nor delivered on the construction of its light-water reactors.23 As early as December 1996, a Republican-dominated Congress blocked the Clinton administration from meeting its obligations; Congress was waiting for North Korea to collapse.24 It was likely during this time, in the late 1990s, when the United States appeared split on fulfilling its obligations, that North Korea started its uranium enrichment insurance policy: a second, more technologically sophisticated (but easier to conceal and expand) path toward a nuclear bomb. In 1998, with the Agreed Framework “moribund,” North Korea launched a missile over Japan.25 Despite the provocations (or, more likely, because of them), the United States and North Korea salvaged the Agreed Framework and achieved the October 2000 joint communiqué to “build a new relationship free from past enmity.” When Clinton left office, North Korea was “at the bottom of the list of future security problems for the United States.”26

George W. Bush: Neocon Regime Change

The neoconservatives that served the U.S. State Department and National Security Council under the George W. Bush administration viewed North Korea’s diplomatic overtures as simply wanting to “buy time for its nuclear program.”27 Yet, this ideologically distorted assessment failed to hold up logically: if developing nuclear bombs had been its goal all along, North Korea would not have stopped the Yongbyon reactor or halted construction of the larger reactors, which would have produced plutonium in larger quantities.28 Ultimately, the neoconservative ideology of a post-Cold War, preeminent United States strategically promoting its values (through unilateral military action when necessary) around the world left little room for the strategic empathy that would have allowed it to engage with North Korea. Its bullish approach was emboldened after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.29 North Korea became part of the “axis of evil.” Furthermore, Bush’s leaked Nuclear Posture Review revealed that the administration did not rule out a nuclear attack against North Korea.30

The negotiation talks between Bush and Kim Jong-il collapsed in October 2002, when the Bush Administration accused North Korea of admitting to a uranium enrichment program. With hardliners in the administration such as John Bolton pushing to punish North Korea’s “cheating,” Bush stopped shipments of heavy fuel. As North Korea’s freezing of the Yongbyon reactor was predicated on the provision of heavy fuel oil, North Korea announced the resumption of the reactor and the expulsion of IAEA inspectors. As Hecker notes, the Bush administration pushed North Korea to expand its plutonium stock from maybe one or two nuclear bombs to enough for five or six.31

In his second term, Bush attempted multilateral diplomacy, expanding talks to include China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea, with China playing a central role as the mediator between North Korea and the United States. In the fourth round of the Six-Party Talks, an agreement was reached in which North Korea would abandon its nuclear weapons, its peaceful use of nuclear energy would be guaranteed, and, most importantly, North Korea and the United States would normalize relations.32 Construction of the light-water nuclear reactors would be discussed at an “appropriate time.” However, after the agreement was reached, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill read a statement from administration hardliners.33 This terminated construction of the light-water reactors, called for intrusive inspections (that North Korea had opposed), and added human rights issues and other weapons programs as issues that needed to be discussed.34 North Korea had crossed the finish line, only to see the goalposts moved up ahead.

The U.S. Treasury Department then froze North Korean funds held by the Delta Asia Financial Group in Macau. Banks around the world began to cut ties with North Korea, sharply dropping the value of its currency. As the Chinese delegation noted, the United States had just thrown a wrench into the negotiation process.35 After the derailed talks and the Delta Asia sanctions, North Korea shifted to its nuclear track and conducted its first nuclear test on October 9, 2006.

Having displayed its nuclear capability, North Korea switched back to the diplomatic track. Negotiations led to Bush sending the first shipment of heavy fuel oil in five years in September 2007. On June 27 the next year, North Korea blew up one of the cooling towers of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, which “seriously limit[ed] the [nuclear weapons] program.”36 The Six-Party Talks fell apart again when the United States moved the goalposts from the dismantling of the plutonium program (which had been tested in 2006) to also dismantling the uranium program and allowing the United States access to any site it suspected while providing all records of imports and exports of nuclear materials and equipment. Then, in a speech, Bush demanded North Korea “end its harsh rule and respect the dignity and human rights of its people.”37 The United States failed to remove North Korea from the terrorism list, and North Korea declared it would restore the Yongbyon nuclear facility.38

When Kim Jong-il became ill, it introduced a more urgent domestic dynamic that would impact the negotiations: ensuring the smooth transfer and consolidation of power to his son, Kim Jong-un, by presenting “a tough posture externally.”39 The wheels were set in motion for a second nuclear test.

Obama’s Strategic Neglect

Despite protests from the new Barack Obama administration, North Korea announced it would exercise its right to use outer space by launching a satellite. The rocket launch failed, and the Obama administration condemned it as a provocative act. North Korea responded by pulling out of the Six-Party Talks and, six weeks later, on May 25, 2009, conducted its second nuclear test. Under attack from Bush hardliners, the Obama administration shifted its approach from engagement to “strategic patience,” ratcheting up sanctions against North Korea’s alleged provocations while not engaging diplomatically unless North Korea showed a willingness to end its nuclear program.40

After revealing its uranium enrichment program to a delegation, including Hecker, in November 2010, North Korea offered to give up its uranium enrichment program if the United States recommitted to the October 2007 Six-Party Agreement.41 On February 29, 2012, the Leap Day Deal was reached. From the beginning, both countries interpreted the agreement differently, with North Korea understanding the deal as improving bilateral relations based on “respect for sovereignty and equality” and the United States viewing it as North Korea’s need to “demonstrate its commitment to denuclearization.” More concretely, North Korea would enact a “moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches, and uranium enrichment activity at Yongbyon and…allow the IAEA to monitor” the process. Furthermore, the United States would provide food aid as well as acknowledge North Korea’s security concerns and the lifting of sanctions and provision of the light-water reactors.42

The death of Kim Jong-il on December 17, 2011, prompted another satellite launch to mark the centenary of Kim Il-sung’s birthday. This was likely a decision that had been set in motion before Kim Jong-il’s death.43 Despite all parties’ attempts to stop the launch, North Korea proceeded, insisting that launching a peaceful satellite did not violate the Leap Day Deal. Still, Obama pulled out of the agreement, and North Korea responded by withdrawing and developing its nuclear program. As Hecker noted, if the United States had practiced some forbearance, it might have arrested the development of North Korea’s uranium enrichment program by having access to Yongbyon, as well as getting an agreement to freeze its nuclear and long-range missile tests.44 In 2013, North Korea carried out another nuclear test, this time with a uranium bomb. For the rest of his term, Obama maintained “strategic patience,” combining nonengagement with sanctions. As a result, North Korea continued down its nuclear track, going from enough plutonium for a handful of “primitive nuclear weapons,” with one nuclear test and no missiles to deliver them, to having enough for twenty-five plutonium and uranium bombs as well as “dozens of successful missile tests.”45

Neocons Derail Trump’s Rapprochement

Despite a rocky start punctuated by insults and threats between Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, along with escalating U.S. sanctions and North Korea’s sixth nuclear test of a hydrogen bomb and testing an intercontinental ballistic missile able to reach all of the United States, the two countries embarked again on the path of engagement. The path opened with North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics when North and South Korean teams walked under one flag. The mood was further consolidated by Moon Jae-in’s visit to North Korea and an April 27, 2018, statement that created the conditions for Trump’s meeting with Kim later in Singapore. As a gesture of engagement, North Korea destroyed its nuclear test sites (reducing the possibility of a nuclear test) and placed a moratorium on nuclear bomb and long-range missile testing.46 The June 12, 2018, Singapore statement affirmed the desire for improved relations.

Ultimately, the 2019 Hanoi Summit would be derailed through the intervention of Bolton, who demanded a “full baseline declaration of North Korea’s nuclear, chemical, biological, and ballistic-missile programs.” North Korea, in Bolton’s words, ensured that such a comprehensive picture would be ultimately given, but it could not do so at the beginning as it “had no legal guarantees to safeguard their country’s security. They had no diplomatic relations; seventy years of hostility and only eight months of personal relations.”47 The Hanoi Summit ended with no deal: Bolton had impressed upon Trump that there was no “need to be rushed” and that he could simply “walk away.”48

Bi-Partisan Pax Americana

Neoconservatives, including Robert Joseph and Bolton, have done the most to derail negotiations with North Korea. Many of these neoconservatives were associated with the Project for the New American Century, the founding principles of which espouse “American military preeminence” to consolidate its “global leadership” in the post-Cold War moment so that it can “maintain American security and advance American interests” through a “foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American principles abroad.”49 Given its impetus to challenge not just the “regime hostile to our interests” and to U.S. “values,” neoconservative policy was, from the outset, incompatible with North Korea’s dual-track approach for co-existence on an equal footing. Even as denuclearization took place, Bush accused North Korean leadership of being tyrants and dictators. For an ideology that aggressively, albeit selectively, and militarily pushes and enforces U.S. values, such labels are more than words; they are the future justifications for war and intervention.50

Yet, it was not simply the neoconservatives that impeded negotiations with North Korea; liberal hawks also did. Even as the Clinton administration engaged with North Korea, it labeled the country one of the “backlash states” that “threaten the democratic order being created around them.”51 Liberal hawks, including under the Obama and Joe Biden administrations, might differ on the means, but the Democratic Party and its foreign policy advisors are part of the same military-industrial complex and foreign policy network that extends the Monroe Doctrine of U.S. domination globally.52

The Center for a New American Security, a think tank replete with officials from the Clinton, Obama, and current Biden administrations, not only receives funding from major weapons manufacturers, it also reflects much of the same rhetoric as the Project for the New American Century.53 In the center’s first report, The Inheritance and the Way Forward, written by Michèle Flournoy (Obama’s Under Secretary of Defense for Policy) and Kurt Campbell (architect of Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” and Biden’s Deputy Secretary of State), affirms the same commitment to the United States being “the preeminent leader in the international community” so that it can “protect or advance our interests in a globalized world,” even as it restrains the more aggressive impulses of the neoconservatives.54

If North Korea viewed denuclearization as part of a larger normalization process with the United States, the United States, even in the most fruitful years under the Clinton administration, viewed negotiations not as a way to establish peace with North Korea, but as a way of disarming it. It is worth pointing out that while the world needs denuclearization, in practice, this has simply meant preventing small countries from going nuclear, while the nuclear powers, including the only country to use nuclear bombs twice, keep their vast arsenal.

Furthermore, any observer of U.S. foreign policy can infer that while friends can become foes, foes rarely become friends—unless they agree to house the U.S. military. After all, despite (or perhaps because of) having given up its nuclear weapons in 2003, Libya was attacked eight years later by NATO.55 Today, the Biden administration contains the same liberal hawks, notably Antony Blinken and Campbell, who were a part of Obama’s failed “strategic patience.”

Why Sever Inter-Korean Ties?

If the negotiations failed with the United States, why did North Korea label South Korea as its main enemy? The first and most immediate cause is the Yoon administration’s belligerent posture toward North Korea. Even during his presidential campaign, Yoon mobilized his conservative base by branding North Korea the main enemy.56 Furthermore, he proposed offering economic development for denuclearization. Differing little from the rejected proposals put forth by his conservative predecessors, the proposal was clueless at best, and disingenuous at worst.

Yet, if the Yoon and previous conservative administrations’ policies provoked North Korea, it was the failed attempts for cooperation and reconciliation by the liberals that led North Korea to sever ties. North Korea had gone along with South Korean liberals’ approach toward peaceful unification because of the openings it created in South Korean society and for normalizing relations with the United States. When South Korea’s liberals failed, North Korea shifted its approach. Ultimately, the liberals’ repeated inter-Korean failures are driven by South Korea’s contradictions, implanted at its inception. To understand the structural limitations of South Korea’s political landscape, it is important to understand that South Korea, despite its democratization movement, developed under the aegis, control, and occupation of the United States, preventing it from fully shaking off its post-Korean War anti-Communism.

South Korea’s Structural Limitations

Neither South nor North Korea existed as separate states or identities before the 1945 division by the United States. Its division has no historical, social, or cultural basis.57 After the surrender of the Japanese at the end of the Second World War, the United States drew an arbitrary line at the thirty-eighth parallel, and offered the northern portion to the Soviet Union as its sphere of influence. The differences between North and South emerged after the division. In South Korea, the United States rejected the Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence and its grassroots people’s committees that had sprouted up after Japan’s defeat. Instead, the United States propped up Syngman Rhee, an anti-Communist nationalist from the United States and surrounded him with “the smallest group in Korea”: the elites who had collaborated with the Japanese.58 In contrast, the Soviet Union allowed the People’s Preparatory Committees to remain in North Korea with Kim Il-sung, an anti-Japanese independence fighter, as its leader. The Korean War became a proxy war, the scale, destruction, death, and duration of which reflected its role as the first “hot” war during the Cold War.

In South Korea, the Korean War legitimated the rule of pro-Japanese collaborators by establishing a material basis (that is, the experience of war) for the anti-Communism that would buttress their rule and consolidate a capitalist economy.59 Despite the democratization and people’s movements, South Korean society has not yet fully cast off its anti-Communist ideology, as is evident by the fact that the anti-Communist National Security Act used to persecute dissidents as “North Korean subversives” still remains in effect.60 Furthermore, South Korea houses the largest U.S. overseas military base and its wartime operational control is in the hands of the United States.

These structural limitations have prevented even the most pro-engagement liberal governments from establishing peaceful relations with North Korea without U.S. permission. Despite the Kim Dae-jung administration’s breakthroughs in the June 15, 2000, agreement, the process could not get past Bush’s neoconservatives. Even after coming into power riding the wave of anti-Americanism, the Roh Moo-hyun administration, despite widespread protests, dispatched Korean troops to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq.61 Even after the Hanoi talks collapsed, North Korea urged Moon (nearing the end of his term) to quickly improve inter-Korean relations by asserting its sovereignty and to not be so beholden to the United States.62 Instead of accepting North Korea’s condition-free proposal to reopen the Mount Geumgang tours and the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the moment passed, with the Moon administration responding in October 2019 that it would consult with the United States.63

Ultimately, South Korean liberals fell into the role of simply cheering from the sidelines. From Kim Dae-jung to Roh to Moon, each tried to facilitate the process between both parties. On each occasion, South Koreans watched from the sidelines as the United States derailed talks. Most glaringly, the liberals, whether due to political considerations or their own beliefs, never got past the notion of peaceful economic absorption of the North by the South. They showed no indication of changing South Korea’s 1987 constitution, which claims the whole of the Korean Peninsula as South Korean (Article 3) and states that reunification will be achieved under a liberal democracy (Article 4).64 Even during the heyday of engagement, under Kim Dae-jung, reunification was based on economic (albeit peaceful) absorption of the North by the South.65

North Korea Pushed to the Russia and China Camp

Many simply take for granted North Korea joining the Russia and China camp. They gloss over the changes, and even ruptures in these relationships. Most importantly, they fail to understand North Korea’s fierce independence and the centrality of reunification as embodied in their national juche philosophy. If North Korea is severing ties with South Korea and moving toward a survival strategy through alliances with Russia and China, it is because U.S. actions are pushing it in this direction.

While the China-North Korea alliance was sealed in blood, the bonds weakened with the thaw of the Cold War in the 1980s.66 China normalized relations with the United States and its neighbors and wanted to treat North Korea like any other country.67 When China, despite North Korea’s protests, normalized relations with South Korea, North Korea was left feeling betrayed and increasingly isolated. Given North Korea’s strategic location, China’s North Korea policy has been to treat it like every other country, except in matters that threaten North Korea’s survival.68 Likewise, relations with Russia broke off when the Soviet Union collapsed. While the Soviet Union had provided much of the economic activity and trade with North Korea, in 1995, Boris Yeltsin did not renew the military alliance with North Korea and cut off aid, contributing to the North Korean famine in the mid-1990s.69 Now, with the United States, South Korea, and Japan building a NATO-like alliance, North Korea, China, and Russia are also drawn together.70

Power Concedes Nothing Without a Demand

If the South Korean movements for peace can be classified as either those pursuing peace or those pursuing reunification, then each has approached the problem of peace too generally (peace in broad strokes) or too locally (peace focused on the inter-Korean process). Today, both approaches need to come together into a coherent movement that encompasses broader universal demands to build solidarity across the region, as well as being informed by the specific geopolitical realities confronting Koreans.

Revisiting North Korea’s assessment of the situation provides a start for re-engagement with North Korea in a peace-based process. If North Korea has rejected peaceful reunification with a South Korea that is under the heavy influence of the United States and is seeking reunification based on absorption and designating North Korea the main enemy, then the key for improving conditions is a South Korea that has restored its self-determination, one that seeks peaceful engagement respectful of North Korea’s system and does not push a hostile policy. There must be, in effect, a South Korea with the independence and willingness to engage meaningfully with the North.

Yet, neither these nor the necessary broader regional peace can be achieved by standing on the sidelines of history. If South Korea is to play its role in bringing peace to Korea and the region, then its peace movements need to come together to pressure its government to rise up to the task. Discussion, debate, and mutual dialogue must allow us to come up with a common banner for peace, justice, and people’s well-being. In that spirit, I present the following demands to catalyze conversation:

  1. Peace in the Korean Peninsula. The tensions and instability of the unfinished Korean War have plagued the lives of Koreans and their neighbors. Peace in the Korean Peninsula must be achieved not by pressuring and isolating North Korea, which not only violates its sovereign right to exist, but also justifies and fuels North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. The only path to peace in the Korean Peninsula is through the normalization of relations that guarantee North Korea’s security. At its core, the United States must be pressured to normalize diplomatic and economic relations with North Korea.
  2. Peace in the Taiwan Strait. A historical and legal basis exists in which Taiwan is part of China as one country. Nonetheless, Taiwan’s period of political separation from the People’s Republic of China has resulted in the creation of its own institutions. It is also clear that Taiwan, situated barely one hundred miles from mainland China, is a red line for China in terms of its security concerns. Their differences must be resolved peacefully lest we have a war that would be catastrophic not just for China, Taiwan, and the United States, but also for the Korean Peninsula and for Japan, which would likely be dragged into it.71
  3. Northeast Asia Peace Community. While peace in the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait are key components for peace in Northeast Asia, peace in Northeast Asia is also key for peace in the Korean Peninsula. The division of the region into two separate camps strains regional stability and lays the tinder for open conflagration.
  4. Fight social problems and climate change, not war. South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan are all experiencing various levels of social problems, from low birth rates to an aging population. Furthermore, the world is faced with the climate crisis. Military spending diverts resources and energy that should be going to improve people’s livelihoods, as well as both mitigating and adapting to a world being reshaped by a rapidly changing climate.

How do these translate into demands?

  1. We must oppose the joint U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) and South Korean war games that escalate inter-Korean tensions. While labeled as routine, these exercises mobilize hundreds of thousands of soldiers and their accompanying weaponry, including nuclear capable aircraft to practice the leadership decapitation, nuclear strike, and full-scale invasion of North Korea near its own waters.
      In a moment of unintended empathy, military strategists pointed out the dangerous nature of war games aimed at China that might serve as cover for an actual invasion of Taiwan.72 Likewise, the U.S.-South Korea large-scale military exercises disrupt North Korea’s economy by forcing it to mobilize its full military in response. Some of the greatest overtures the United States has made include pausing these war games. When George H. W. Bush, Clinton, and Trump paused the USFK and South Korean war exercises, North Korea responded with diplomatic overtures. Pausing the military exercises to decrease tensions does little to threaten USFK and South Korean war readiness. Furthermore, we must pause all the other war games that are escalating tensions in the region and the world such as the Rim of the Pacific Exercise, the world’s largest international maritime warfare exercise.
  2. We must recover wartime operational control. Currently, the United States Forces Korea holds operational control over both its own military and that of South Korea during wartime.73 Regaining the authority to control its own troops during war would give South Korea greater independence and leeway on whether or not to participate in the U.S.-South Korea joint war games.
  3. We must dismantle security agreements like the American-Japanese-Korean trilateral pact, which trigger mirror accords between China, Russia, and North Korea. If the war in Ukraine was ultimately triggered by de facto NATO expansion to Russia’s borders, then the splitting of the region across the Taiwan Strait and the Korean Peninsula lays the conditions for regional conflict. We should also dispel all illusions that a multinational integrated missile defense system will make us impregnable to missiles. As the U.S. military understands it, the only “deterrent” is not a shield, but the threat of a counterforce (first strike), or, in the case of second strike capability, a massive nuclear counterattack. Interceptor missiles are useful in the first case, not the second. Much like the catastrophic impact of a levee that collapses under the growing weight of rising waters, this strategy works until mutual assured destruction is actually triggered.
  4. We must support each other’s struggles in the region. Such solidarity should not simply be centered on the struggle of one’s country, but on the larger struggle for peace in the region. It is easy to become absorbed in the immediate demands and fruits from one’s own struggle. Yet, peace in the region is interconnected and requires long-term vision and investment in strengthening our solidarity. This means actively participating in the struggles for peace across Northeast Asia, such as the annual May peace march in Okinawa, or other special anniversaries and occasions in the region, such as the anniversary of the June 15 Inter-Korean Summit.
  5. We must support struggles on the frontlines. While often war and militarization might appear to be abstract and distant issues, they are very concrete and immediate for those living in sites of struggle, such as near bases in Okinawa, or the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense installation in Soseong-ri in South Korea, or the Naval Base on Jeju Island. Many of these struggles might have started from an immediate impact on people’s daily lives. Yet, they offer political exposure that transforms people into peace activists.

We are in perilous times. Our ability to find common ground, understanding, and agreement on tactical and strategic objectives will be crucial for achieving peace in the region, improving people’s lives, and addressing the planetary crisis.

Notes

  1. Korean Central News Agency, “Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Makes Policy Speech at 10th Session of the 14th SPA,” January 16, 2024, kcna.kp.
  2. Korean Central News Agency, “Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Makes Policy Speech.”
  3. Korean Central News Agency, “Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Makes Policy Speech.”
  4. Frederick Douglass, “Frederick Douglass, If There Is No Struggle, There Is No Progress (1857),” Black Past, January 25, 2007, blackpast.org.
  5. Robert L. Carlin and Siegfried S. Hecker, “Is Kim Jong Un Preparing for War?,” 38North, January 11, 2024.
  6. Korean Central News Agency, “Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Makes Policy Speech.”
  7. Korean Central News Agency, “Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Makes Policy Speech.”
  8. Interview conducted by the author with Lee Jung-chul, April 2, 2024.
  9. Kwang-soo Kim, “National Unification Front: Peace Discourse Must Completely Reverse to a Reunification Discourse” (in Korean), Tongilnews, March 19, 2024.
  10. Kim, “National Unification Front.”
  11. Jongwoo Han and Jung Tae-hern eds., Understanding North Korea: Indigenous Perspectives (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013), 217.
  12. Han and Jung, Understanding North Korea, 164.
  13. The United States dropped more bombs in North Korea than in all of the Pacific Theater during the Second World War. A majority of cities were razed to the ground, with 75 to 90 percent destruction. Owen Miller, “Uncovering the Hidden History of the Korean War,” Jacobin, June 25, 2020.
  14. Robert Carlin and John W. Lewis, Negotiating with North Korea: 1992–2007 (Stanford: Center for International Security and Cooperation, 2008), 3.
  15. Han, Understanding North Korea, 201.
  16. Siegfried S. Hecker, Hinge Points: An Inside Look at North Korea’s Nuclear Program (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2023), 9.
  17. Carlin and Lewis, Negotiating with North Korea: 1992–2007, 11.
  18. Carlin and Lewis, Negotiating with North Korea: 1992–2007, 21.
  19. Hecker, Hinge Points, 35–36, 86.
  20. Amanda Erickson, “The Last Time the U.S. Was on ‘the Brink of War’ with North Korea,” Washington Post, August 9, 2017.
  21. Light-water nuclear reactors would produce more energy and be more difficult to weaponize than the Yongbyon graphite gas-based reactor.
  22. Maria Ryan, “Why the US’s 1994 Deal with North Korea Failed—and What Trump Can Learn from It,” The Conversation, July 19, 2017.
  23. While the first light-water reactor was expected to be finished by 2003, ground clearing did not even begin until 1996 and the “concrete for the foundation was not poured until August 2001.” In effect, this pushed completion to 2008 (Leon V. Sigal, “Did the United States Break the Agreed Framework?,” History News Network, n.d.).
  24. During this time, North Korea was suffering under the combined weight of the death of Kim Il-sung, its founding leader, and the 1995–1996 natural disasters that wreaked havoc on its economy and inflicted famine. Niv Farago, “Washington’s Failure to Resolve the North Korean Nuclear Conundrum: Examining Two Decades of US Policy,” International Affairs 92, no. 5 (2016): 1131.
  25. Hecker, Hinge Points, 87; Farago, “Washington’s Failure to Resolve the North Korean Nuclear Conundrum,” 1132.
  26. Hecker, Hinge Points, 35–37.
  27. Hecker, Hinge Points, 37.
  28. Hecker, Hinge Points, 87.
  29. In fact, September 11 was the “catastrophic and catalyzing event” that neoconservatives (in the Project for the New American Century’s 1997 report Rebuilding America’s Defenses) had identified could allow the United States to expedite the transformation of its military technology for “creating tomorrow’s dominant force” (Thomas Donnelly, Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century [Washington DC: Project for a New American Century, 1997], 50–51).
  30. Hecker, Hinge Points, 38.
  31. Hecker, Hinge Points, 40–41.
  32. Hecker, Hinge Points, 120–21.
  33. One of the hardliners was Robert Joseph, who opposed negotiations with North Korea on the grounds that they were immoral (Hecker, Hinge Points, 121, 118).
  34. Hecker, Hinge Points, 123.
  35. Jay Solomon and Neil King Jr., “How U.S. Used a Bank To Punish North Korea,” Wall Street Journal, April 12, 2007.
  36. Hecker, Hinge Points, 164.
  37. Hecker, Hinge Points, 205.
  38. Hecker, Hinge Points, 206.
  39. Hecker, Hinge Points, 224.
  40. Hecker, Hinge Points, 209.
  41. Once the more advanced technology is mastered, the uranium enrichment program has a greater potential for proliferation, as it can produce larger quantities of fissile material more secretly (Hecker, Hinge Points, 248, 250–51).
  42. Hecker, Hinge Points, 255–56.
  43. Hecker, Hinge Points, 258.
  44. Hecker, Hinge Points, 262.
  45. Hecker, Hinge Points, 281–82.
  46. Hecker, Hinge Points, 318.
  47. Hecker, Hinge Points, 339.
  48. Hecker, Hinge Points, 333.
  49. Project for the New American Century, “Statement of Principles,” June 3, 1997.
  50. Project for the New American Century, “Statement of Principles”; Francis Fukuyama, “The Neoconservative Moment,” National Interest, no. 76 (Summer 2004): 59.
  51. Anthony Lake, “Confronting Backlash States,” Foreign Affairs 73, no. 2 (March/April 1994).
  52. John Bellamy Foster, John Ross, and Deborah Veneziale, The United States Is Waging a New Cold War, Tricontinental, September 2022, 38, thetricontinental.org.
  53. Brett Heinz and Erica Jung, The Military-Industrial-Think Tank Complex: Conflicts of Interest at the Center for a New American Security, Revolving Door Project, February 2021, therevolvingdoorproject.org.
  54. Kurt Campbell and Michèle Flournoy, “The Inheritance and the Way Forward,” Center for a New American Security, June 27, 2007, cnas.org.
  55. Reza Sanati, “A Troubling Lesson From Libya: Don’t Give Up Nukes,” Christian Science Monitor, August 30, 2011.
  56. Hyuk-chul Kwon, “Yoon Suk-yeol’s Loose Security Tongue, after Preemptive Strikes Now North Korea as the Main Enemy” (in Korean), Hankyoreh, January 17, 2022, hani.co.kr.
  57. Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005), 186.
  58. Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun, 194.
  59. As Cumings notes, given that the “vast majority” of the population were poor peasants and the “tiny minority of which held most of the wealth,” there was no basis for a liberal or democratic party (Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun, 193).
  60. When the liberals both controlled a majority in the legislature and the executive under the Roh Moo-hyun administration from 2004 to 2008, and more glaringly under the Moon Jae-in administration from 2020 to 2024, during which time the liberal majority increased following the candlelight protests, they did not push for the repeal of the National Security Act.
  61. Just six months before the presidential election, on June 14, 2002, two troops driving an armored truck during the daytime ran over two South Korean middle school girls walking home from school. Their acquittal of “negligent homicide” by the U.S. military sparked anti-American protests.
  62. “Pressure on South Korea: Stop Taking Your Cue from the US and Act” (in Korean), BBC News Korea, October 5, 2021.
  63. Ji-won Roh, “Moon Jae-in Will Try to Resolve Sanctions Around the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the Geumgang Tourism’” (in Korean), Hankyoreh, October 19, 2019.
  64. As regards North Korea’s approach to unification, article nine of its socialist constitution states that its task is to achieve socialism in the Northern half and, eventually, the reunification of Korea.
  65. The Sunshine Policy is based on an Aesop fable in which the sun and the wind make a wager as to who is the stronger by making the man below them take off his coat. The wind goes first, attempting to blow the coat off the man’s back. In response, the man holds tighter and tighter onto his coat. The sun goes next. He begins to radiate hotter and hotter, and the man takes off his coat of his own volition. Likewise, the Sunshine Policy’s approach was to use reconciliation and cooperation to induce North Korea to willingly open itself up to the world. Inherent within this was the notion that North Korea would be absorbed to South Korea’s larger economy.
  66. North Koreans assisted the Chinese Communists in fighting the Kuomintang during the Chinese Civil War, and the Chinese repelled the U.S. counter-offense during the Korean War.
  67. Han and Jung, Understanding North Korea, 191.
  68. Han and Jung, Understanding North Korea, 202–3.
  69. Khang Vu, “Why China and North Korea Decided to Renew a 60-Year-Old Treaty,” The Interpreter (Lowy Institute), July 30, 2021; “The Highs and Lows of Russia, North Korea Relations,” Al Jazeera, September 13, 2023.
  70. Jeffrey Wagner and Dae-Han Song, “Trilateral Missile Defense System a Step Towards Asian NATO,” Counterpunch, December 1, 2023.
  71. Dae-Han Song, “The New Cold War Is Sending Tremors through Northeast Asia,” Tricontinental Institution for Social Research, May 21, 2024.
  72. Mark F. Cancian, Matthew Cancian, and Eric Heginbotham, The First Battle of the Next War: Wargaming a Chinese Invasion of Taiwan (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2023), 54.
  73. The conversation of regaining wartime operational control began with the Roh Moo-hyun administration amidst growing anti-U.S. military sentiment. Yet, the transfer of wartime operational control was postponed by the conservative Lee Myung Back, followed by Park Geun-hye. The transfer came back into conversation with Moon Jae-in, but failed to regain it before his administration lost power. The process has effectively halted when the conservatives retook the presidency (Johannes Nordin, “Taking Back Control: South Korea and the Politics of OPCON Transfer,” Institute for Security and Development Policy, January 2022, isdp.eu).
2024, Volume 76, Number 03 (July-August 2024)
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