The Debate | Opinion | East Asia

An Opportunity to End the Korean War: We Can’t Let This Slip Away

The chair of South Korea’s legislative foreign affairs committee argues that diplomacy with North Korea must remain a priority for the US, regardless of who wins the upcoming election.

By Song Young Gil for
An Opportunity to End the Korean War: We Can’t Let This Slip Away
Credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

Otto Von Bismark, the first chancellor of Germany, once said, “The statesman’s task is to hear God’s footsteps marching through history and to try and catch on to His coattails as He marches past.” To put it in other words, Bismark urges statesmen to “exploit your opportunity.” Bismark himself lived up to his declaration and did not miss the chance to reunify Germany when the opportunity came.

The Korean Peninsula is home to the only divided country in the world, which remains as a relic of the Cold War. There have been many ups and downs in the history of the Korean Peninsula, and tensions on the peninsula have escalated often due to North Korea’s nuclear weapons development.

The Agreed Framework between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) resolved the first North Korean nuclear crisis in 1994. However, in early 2002, tensions worsened after the Bush administration designated North Korea part of the “axis of evil.” In February 2005, Pyongyang declared that they had developed nuclear weapons, and without any positive outcome from the Six Party talks, the framework broke down. Although the Agreed Framework failed, there was still an opportunity to fix it through a last resort — summit talks — as the agreement in 1994 was led by diplomats from the U.S. and DPRK, Robert Gallucci and Kang Sok Ju, and not the leaders of the two countries.

During the U.S. presidential election in 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama announced a pledge to resolve the North Korean nuclear weapons issue by meeting with then-supreme leader Kim Jong Il in person. Hillary Clinton, another Democratic contender in 2008, criticized his remarks as rash, made without any experience in foreign policy. After Obama’s inauguration, for the next eight years, the Obama administration turned a blind eye to North Korea’s nuclear weapons issue, despite his pledge to hold a summit with Pyongyang, with a so-called policy of “strategic patience.” Subsequently, this failed policy contributed to the rapid development of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal.

The Trump administration’s attempt to have direct talks between the United States and DPRK is significant. The Singapore summit in 2018 saw the halting of further nuclear tests and long-range missile tests by the DPRK. Before the Singapore summit, North Korea declared itself a nuclear-armed state in its constitution and announced that its nuclear capabilities are off the table. Thus, the result of the Singapore summit — that the DPRK pledged to pursue the path of denuclearization — is meaningful progress from Pyongyang. 

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Of course, there are a lot of difficulties in the actual process of denuclearization. According to former U.S. national security adviser John Bolton’s recent memoir, the second U.S.-DPRK summit in Hanoi ended fruitlessly in part due to Bolton’s opposition. Trump at the time pointed to the ongoing hearings of lawyer Michael Cohen as a contributing factor. After the less successful summit in Hanoi, Trump held a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at Panmunjom on June 30, 2019. He was the first U.S. president to talk across the military demarcation line.

However, despite the three U.S.-DPRK summits, there has not been any substantial progress on the implementation of denuclearization. At the same time, the Trump administration’s negotiation with the Kim regime is becoming less of a priority with the 2020 U.S. presidential election right around the corner. Also, inter-Korean relations are deteriorating as Pyongyang has halted its communications with Seoul and destroyed the inter-Korean liaison office located in the Kaesong Industrial Complex on June 16, 2020. Fortunately, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has suspended additional military measures. Still, there remains a risk of provocations such as the launch of long-range missiles or SLBMs, which were metaphorically threatened as “Christmas gifts” by Pyongyang last year.

Pyongyang is hesitant about a new U.S.-DPRK summit at a time when Trump’s re-election is uncertain. Also, Trump does not want to take on additional political risk before the upcoming election amid the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, a new U.S.-DPRK summit as an “October surprise” seems unlikely. 

However, if we do not do anything, all the efforts so far will be ruined. 

Recently, I had a video call with U.S. Senator Cory Gardner and Representative Brad Sherman, chairs of sub-committees that have jurisdiction over the U.S. Congress’ policy toward the Asia-Pacific. At that time I suggested reopening the dialogue between the U.S. and DPRK by inviting First Vice Director Kim Yo Jong to Washington, D.C. or dispatching Senior Advisor Ivanka Trump to visit Seoul so that they can hold a meeting on behalf of their nations.

On July 10, Kim Yo Jong — Kim Jong Un’s sister — expressed skepticism about another summit with the U.S. in a statement. However, she also mentioned that personal trust between Chairman Kim and President Trump remains intact. Kim also said that she wants to personally receive a DVD containing the footage of the U.S. Independence Day celebration, stating that she received permission from Chairman Kim Jong Un. This gesture can be interpreted as a sign of her willingness to engage with the U.S. on behalf of the regime. 

The Trump administration should consider this opportunity carefully. A meeting between Kim Yo Jong and Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, will keep the momentum alive and keep the trust between the leaders intact. If a meeting were to happen, it could pave the way for resolving North Korea’s nuclear weapons issue and the normalization of U.S.-DPRK relations after the presidential election.

I want to propose a similar idea to presidential candidate Joe Biden. The World War II hero Dwight D. Eisenhower vowed to end the Korean War if he became president ahead of the November 1952 presidential election. After he was elected, as promised, he visited South Korea as president-elect on December 2 of that year. After that, cease-fire negotiations were actively pursued and a cease-fire was established. Keeping Eisenhower’s actions in mind, I would like to ask candidate Biden to take similar steps to end this long-lasting international security risk.

Whoever takes charge of the White House should send a special envoy to North Korea after the election, and strive to end the Cold War-era war situation, possibly through a presidential visit to Pyongyang. It is time to be creative to address North Korea’s nuclear threat to the U.S. mainland. Through diplomatic means, such as a peace treaty and normalization of U.S.-DPRK relations, it is possible to turn North Korea into a friendly state, much like Vietnam. However, neglecting North Korea’s nuclear weapons issue will only allow Pyongyang to acquire a full capacity to launch an ICBM attack against the U.S. mainland — although they signed an armistice, the two countries are still at war, technically. This is why the next U.S. president should make North Korea a top priority. Bearing Chancellor Bismarck’s words in mind, a statesman’s duty is to not miss their opportunity.

Song Young Gil is a five-term Democratic lawmaker and the chair of National Assembly Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee in South Korea. He previously served as the chair of Presidential Committee on Northern Economic Cooperation in 2018 and Mayor of Incheon Metropolitan City from 2010 to 2014.