At a time when Pyongyang-Washington denuclearization talks have hit a brick wall, and with strains also appearing in Seoul-Washington relations, some hope that US congressional moves toward a Korean War peace treaty can change these dire dynamics.
Although next year marks the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, no peace treaty was ever signed. Instead, an armistice has (largely) kept an uneasy peace. However, in February, the US Congress passed a bill seeking a presidential declaration to end the Korean War.
A game changer is certainly needed, given that North Korea-US talks in Sweden on October 5 – the first to be held since a Kim Jong-un-Donald Trump summit in Hanoi in February collapsed without a deal – ended without agreement. And on Sunday, North Korea, via state media, reminded the US that its patience with engagement will last only until the end of the year.
The chill in North Korea-US relations has also been disastrous for Seoul. South Korea faces a policy freeze as – beholden to its only ally, the United States – it is unable to bypass US-sponsored sanctions and engage with North Korea economically.
In this situation, anti-Americans voices are beginning to be heard in Seoul.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s long-trumpeted goal of creating an inter-Korean “peace economy” – which encompasses such promising developments as the reopening of a shuttered South Korean factory complex and a closed tourism resort in North Korea, the start of intra-Korean railway services and possibly gas pipeline connections, re-linking South Korea to the Eurasian mainland – is on indefinite, if not permanent, hold.
As a result, Pyongyang state media routinely lambaste Seoul for failing to keep its promises. Some South Koreans are also losing patience with Moon’s failure to deliver.
Closed-door talks are currently underway between Seoul and Washington on cost-sharing for the upkeep of some 28,500 US troops in South Korea. Trump is known to want his allies to pay more. Unconfirmed Seoul media reports say that Washington is demanding Seoul pay $5 billion in this round of talks, as compared with $1 billion last year.
Frustration with this situation boiled over last week when a group of 17 student activists broke into the US ambassador’s residence in Seoul, protesting the presence and cost of US forces on Korean soil.
Though nobody was injured, the situation recalled a more violent, 2015 assault – a knife slash across the face of the then-US ambassador – by a radical activist.
On Monday, a pro-unification group of civic groups in Seoul urged the government to promptly resume talks with Pyongyang on inter-Korean projects.
“For the past year, the government said it would push the projects through close consultations with the United States, citing sanctions on North Korea,” the coalition said in a statement reported by Yonhap news agency. “But it only ended up confirming the United States’ undisguised opposition.”
Last month, a small but high-profile group of female peace activists from Asia and the United States demonstrated outside the American embassy in Seoul. There, they demanded that Washington end the war, halt sanctions that impact ordinary North Koreans and depoliticize humanitarian aid.
“Most Koreans want an end to the Korean War but peace is being held hostage,” said Mimi Han, a board member of the YWCA of Korea. “We are here to call on the United States to respect the wishes of the Korean people and support inter-Korean cooperation. “
She added: “Koreans want to take a step forward, but the US is blocking progress due to its ‘maximum pressure’ campaign.”
Trump is the first US president to directly negotiate with a North Korean leader. In Singapore in 2018, he and Kim signed an agreement with four key pillars: improving bilateral relations; building a “stable and lasting peace regime” in Korea; working toward “total denuclearization” of North Korea; and recovering Korean War remains.
However, US negotiating efforts have focused on denuclearization, while Trump attempts to maintains maximum pressure – i.e. sanctions intended to force Pyongyang’s abandonment of atomic arms.
One famed activist at the demonstration characterized US policy toward North Korea of being back to front.
“The US has been singularly focused on forcing North Korea to unilaterally denuclearize as a necessary precondition for peace talks,” said Gloria Steinem – since the 1960s, one of the major voices in the US feminist movement. “This approach is backward. To convince someone to put down a gun, you first have to convince them they will not be harmed…. We need to establish peace first to create the necessary conditions for denuclearization.”
On that, Steinem has grounds for optimism: In February this year, Congress put forward House Resolution 152. The resolution calls for the president to declare the end of the state of war with North Korea, while affirming that the declaration would not impact US security commitments with South Korea.
“Americans have no idea that the Korean War never officially ended – it is the ‘Forgotten War,’” Christine Ahn, a Korean-American peace activist who heads the civic group Women Cross the DMZ, told Asia Times after the protest. “It has taken peace, faith and aid organizations to come together to put pressure on our elected officialdom; this bill embodies the spirit and will of the US people.”
The question is whether – or how long – the bill will take to pass.
“Congress has traditionally declared war; the president has ended wars,” Steinem said. “We have confidence that Congress will use its power to end this war.”
Cold War status quo
Experts in South Korea conceded that the protesters had significant points, but also pointed to challenges facing the congressional bill.
“My take is that US has a vested interest in keeping North Korea as a hostile entity: If you are secretary of defense or president, you have to hedge against long-term Chinese hostility,” Erwin Tan, a Singaporean professor of international relation at Seoul’s Hankuk University of Foreign Studies told Asia Times. “If you have a full peace treaty with North Korea, it is hard to justify maintaining a US military presence in South Korea and Japan. “
Ahn also referred to the US “military-industrial complex” as being potentially hostile toward Congressional peace moves.
And it is not just Washington that seeks to maintain the status quo in the region. Tan added that while North Korea remained a “very convenient boogeyman” for the US, North Korea was also a “convenient buffer” for Beijing, against democratic, US-backed Seoul.
Choi Jin-wook, a North Korea expert at the same university as Tan, who formerly headed research at the Korea Institute of National Unification, said the student protesters who broke into the US ambassador’s residence were voicing a frustration common among the wider public.
“I don’t know what the students were trying to say, but many South Koreans think the US is not very enthusiastic or preoccupied with the dream and goal of a unified Korea,” Choi told Asia Times. “We think the South Korea-US alliance is very important, but we want the US to make more efforts for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”
That may be a vain hope. The key mover and shaker in upgrading North Korean relations – the unconventional president himself, who frequently refers to the excellent relations he has forged with Kim – is currently preoccupied with domestic challenges, notably the threat of impeachment and next year’s presidential election.
Still, if they progress, formal US moves to end the war would certainly satisfy one of the Singapore pillars – that calling for “peace and stability.” They could also provide a major boost for another – that of improving bilateral relations.
Peace on paper vs. peace on the ground
Yet, even if Pyongyang and Washington, which signed the 1953 Korean War armistice agreement on behalf of all the free-world forces that defended South Korea during the conflict – as well as Beijing, which signed the agreement as the principle ally of North Korea – agree an end to the war, a paper declaration, might not change the facts on the ground.
There would still be two Korean states, two Korean armies and a demilitarized zone separating them. Nor would it necessarily follow that Pyongyang – which witnessed the downfalls of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which lacked nuclear arms, and Muamar Gadaffi’s Libya, which gave up its nuclear programs – would abandon its most prized weapons on the strength of a paper agreement with the United States.
At a time when hundreds of thousands of conservatives are regularly protesting against the Moon administration’s policies in central Seoul and demanding a strengthened South Korea-US alliance, some South Koreans argue that peace with a regime like Kim’s is hardly worth pursuing.
“If that kind of agreement is achieved, then North Korea can do strong propaganda to expel US troops from the Korean peninsula,” said Cho Yong-hwan, an organizer of flag-waving conservative protesters who are a growing force in street demonstrations in Seoul.
“Pseudo-pacficism, with its propaganda and euphoria, always invites war,” Cho continued. “That is the teaching of history.”