By Hyun Lee
Even after President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreed to establish “new US-DPRK relations” in Singapore on June 12, Washington seems in denial that the summit ever took place. The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), signed into law this month, says the “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” is still the “central foreign policy objective of the United States” and affirms U.S. commitment to its extended nuclear deterrence to South Korea. It makes no mention of the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” stated in the Singapore agreement. The latter requires the eventual removal of all things that pose a nuclear threat to the peninsula, including U.S. military exercises that routinely simulate nuclear strikes against North Korea and its nuclear umbrella.
Washington is singularly interested in North Korea’s irreversible denuclearization and wants it done now. But let’s ask ourselves: does eliminating North Korea’s nuclear weapons guarantee peace? What about U.S.’ nukes in the region? Even before North Korea went nuclear, Korea was the center of one of the most heavily militarized regions in the world. What about the threat of conventional war, which the Pentagon estimates would result in 20,000 deaths per day in South Korea?
The only way North Korea in its right mind would irreversibly get rid of its nuclear weapons is if the United States were to give a security guarantee that is just as irreversible. That would require a fundamental change in the political relationship between the two countries, which, for the past seventy years, have been hurling insults and threatening to annihilate each other. A change in their relationship won’t happen overnight and would need a combination of political, military and diplomatic efforts that could take years.
The most practical approach to the peace process, therefore, is a gradual plan: a step by step process whereby all parties take mutual steps to move towards peace. North Korea has already taken concrete steps: halting its nuclear and missile tests, dismantling its nuclear test site, releasing American prisoners and returning the remains of U.S. servicemen. The United States should now make reciprocal moves.
Instead, the Washington establishment seems determined to undermine the peace process. The NDAA also states that after a denuclearization deal is reached with North Korea, the Secretary of Defense should report to Congress on “the number of nuclear weapons, other weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological weapons, and ballistic missiles verifiably dismantled, destroyed, rendered permanently unusable, or transferred out of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” In other words, not only does Congress assume denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula to be a one-sided process solely focused on disarming North Korea, it also imagines the dismantlement of other weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical and biological weapons.
What Washington doesn’t seem to fully understand is that the Singapore statement signed by Trump and Kim Jong-un was a political agreement between two nuclear powers. The United States would never think to demand that China, Russia or even India abandon all their nuclear, chemical and biological weapons without offering commensurate concessions. Why does it assume it can do so with North Korea?
If the peace process started by the Singapore summit succeeds, North Korea will likely allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to conduct routine safeguards inspections of its nuclear facility in Yongbyon and verify the dismantlement of key nuclear facilities. But as we saw back in 1993 when North Korea walked away from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) over U.S.’ insistence on “anytime, anywhere inspections,” similar demands for verification at undeclared facilities and the inclusion of non-nuclear materials such as chemical and biological weapons, as Congress calls for in the NDAA, is the surest way to shut down any possibility of reaching a nuclear deal with North Korea.
The agreement reached in Singapore outlines a much more productive path. Points one and two of the agreement say the United States and North Korea commit to establishing “new relations” and “building a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.” The statement addresses denuclearization, but its scope is much broader. At its core, what was agreed to in Singapore was a fundamental change in the two countries’ relationship to one of cooperation for genuine peace.
Genuine peace means establishing normal relations and creating the conditions for all parties to reduce their troops and weapons of mass destruction so that they can shift their resources to building their economies and improving the lives of their people. For that, we need to first resolve the Korean War and turn the 1953 armistice into a peace treaty.
Harry Harris, the new U.S. ambassador to South Korea, says it’s “too early” to end the Korean War. But Koreans have lived with constant threats of the resumption of war for sixty-five years. How much longer should they wait? When is it not “too early” to talk peace?
Trump’s “Indo-Pacific” Strategy and the Fate of U.S. Troops in Korea
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared when she advocated the U.S.’ “pivot to Asia” in 2011:
Harnessing Asia’s growth and dynamism is central to American economic and strategic interests and a key priority for President Obama. Open markets in Asia provide the United States with unprecedented opportunities for investment, trade, and access to cutting-edge technology. Our economic recovery at home will depend on exports and the ability of American firms to tap into the vast and growing consumer base of Asia.
The Pacific has historically been an important theater for the United States, because Asia is of vital strategic interest. Maintaining an upper hand militarily is a key part of U.S.’ strategy for securing its economic and political interests in the region. But two factors have posed a challenge to U.S. military power in the Pacific: North Korea’s new status as a nuclear power and China’s military expansion in the South China Sea.
Just one year ago, when North Korea was still developing an effective nuclear deterrent, its relationships with its neighbors and the United States were at their all-time worst. It was on the brink of war with the United States; inter-Korean dialogue had been shut down for close to a decade, and China was actively endorsing UN resolutions to impose sanctions for its nuclear weapons program.
All that changed, however, when North Korea became a nuclear power by successfully testing the Hwasong 15, an ICBM that can deliver a nuclear weapon to the US continent. Trump sat down with Kim Jong-un to work out a peace deal, and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in wants economic cooperation with the North. The relationship between China and North Korea couldn’t be better; Xi Jinping will go to Pyongyang next month to celebrate North Korea’s seventieth anniversary, and the two countries have declared their alliance as “forged in blood.”
In just one year, North Korea has completely altered the geo-political conditions in the region and its relationships with key countries. Perhaps that was North Korea’s goal all along: to leverage its status as a nuclear power to change the region’s balance of power in its favor.
In the South China Sea, China has been rapidly expanding and militarizing artificial islands to cement its claim to the disputed waters. Wary of China’s rapid growth as a regional power, the United States has been conducting what it dubs “freedom of navigation” maneuvers—routine shows of force to contest China’s claim to the South China Sea. It has also fanned centuries-old territorial disputes in the sea to align China’s neighboring countries against it. Undeterred, the Chinese navy conducted its largest-ever exercise to date in April and announced plans to conduct monthly military exercises in the South China Sea. And U.S.’ strategy of pitting smaller countries against China is failing as two key countries that had asserted claims to the contested waters—the Philippines and Vietnam—recently decided to settle their disputes with China bilaterally—perhaps a sign that they also realize the balance of power in the region is tilting towards China’s favor.
The United States does not have the capacity to respond to two strategic threats in the region simultaneously, and it’s clear that Trump has made a decision to butt heads with China while settling his conflict with North Korea. In its National Security Strategy announced in December 2017, the White House redefined the “Asia Pacific” region as “Indo-Pacific”—indicating its plan to strengthen its alliance with India—as well as Japan and Australia—to contain the rise of China. Then in March of this year, Trump threw down the gauntlet by signing the “Presidential Memorandum Targeting China’s Economic Aggression,” declaring the U.S.-China trade war that has become the latest expression of the two countries’ long-standing competition for hegemony in the Pacific.
To confront China head on, the United States needs to resolve its long-standing conflict with North Korea. Trump, therefore, decided to sit down with Kim Jong-un to work out a deal. He should know by now that at the core of resolving the U.S.-North Korea conflict are ending the Korean War and withdrawing U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula. The US-ROK alliance was established in accordance with the Mutual Defense Treaty in 1953, and the USFK’s ostensible mission was to defend the South from northern aggression. Should all parties come together to end the Korean War and replace the armistice with a peace agreement, the US-ROK alliance loses its raison d’être.
There are, of course, powerful military industrial complex interests vested in maintaining the US-ROK alliance, so Washington drags its feet. The NDAA insists, “The presence of United States Forces on the Korean Peninsula should remain strong and enduring” and prohibits the Defense Department from using any funds to reduce the number of U.S. troops in South Korea below 22,000 unless the Secretary of Defense certifies that a reduction is in the U.S. national security interest and would not significantly undermine the security of U.S. allies in the region.
Trump’s signing statement on the NDAA notably objects that the provision on the limitation of use of funds to reduce troops in Korea may intrude upon the “President’s exclusive constitutional authorities as Commander in Chief and as the sole representative of the Nation in foreign affairs.” In the quickly-changing regional context—where the United States feels its strategic footing slipping— keeping troops in Korea may no longer have the strategic value it once did.
Toward a Non-aligned Unified Korea and Global Nuclear Disarmament
The Singapore declaration between Trump and Kim Jong-un in June affirmed the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration signed between the two Korean leaders, who agreed to actively pursue “during this year that marks the 65th anniversary of the Armistice,” a four-party conference including the two Koreas, the United States and China “with a view to declaring an end to the War, turning the armistice into a peace treaty, and establishing a permanent and solid peace regime.” This would pave the way for normal and peaceful relations between the United States and North Korea, and between the two Koreas. This, in turn, would create the conditions for the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” as agreed to at the Singapore summit—i.e. getting rid of all things that pose a nuclear threat to the peninsula, including North Korea’s nuclear weapons and facilities as well as U.S.’ war games and its nuclear umbrella. It would also enable the two Koreas to finally begin the long-overdue process of peaceful unification, starting with linking their railways and reuniting separated families.
A unified Korean Peninsula with no foreign troops on its soil could declare neutrality in the U.S.-China conflict. This, for the United States, is preferable to a strategic China-North Korea alliance that blocks its ability to project power in the region and likely the best outcome it can hope to achieve.
In the long run, North Korea seems to have an even more audacious goal. At its third plenary meeting on April 20, 2018, the Seventh Central Committee of North Korea’s Workers’ Party passed a resolution on the use of its nuclear weapons that went completely unnoticed in the western media. The central committee resolved to stop all nuclear and inter-continental ballistic missile tests and dismantle the country’s nuclear test site “to transparently guarantee the discontinuance of the nuclear test.” It also said:
The DPRK will never use nuclear weapons nor transfer nuclear weapons or nuclear technology under any circumstances unless there are nuclear threat and nuclear provocation against the DPRK.
It furthermore resolved:
The discontinuance of the nuclear test is an important process for the worldwide disarmament, and the DPRK will join the international desire and efforts for the total halt to the nuclear test.
As soon as it became a nuclear power, North Korea resolved to support “worldwide disarmament.” Having acquired the technology and hardware that assure its status as a member of the exclusive nuclear club, North Korea seems interested not in joining but dismantling it to tear down the world order that has for so long terrorized it and other weaker nations with threats of nuclear annihilation. The corporate media’s demonization of North Korea fuels mistrust and contempt for the country, but in time, the world may come to learn that North Korea intends to use its new status as a nuclear power to demand no less than global nuclear disarmament.
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