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Peace Building on the Korean Peninsula

Frank Jannuzi (President and CEO, The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation)


The divided Korean Peninsula is one of the last vestiges of the Cold War. Seventy years since the beginning of the Korean War, the combatants have yet to make peace. The Korean people find themselves separated by a 2.5-milewide strip of land 150 miles long ironically called the “Demilitarized Zone.” The DMZ breaks asunder a people who have long shared a common territory, language, culture, and history.


Despite breakthrough summit meetings in 2018 between North Korean leader Chairman Kim Jong Un and his South Korean and U.S. counterparts, President Moon Jae-in and President Donald Trump, the prospects for peace and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula remain bleak. North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Son-gwon commemorated the second anniversary of the Trump-Kim Singapore Summit by issuing a scathing denunciation of the stalled peace process, underscoring the commitment of the DPRK to bolster its nuclear deterrence in response to what it sees as an undiminished United States’ military threat.  And although both President Moon and President Trump have pledged to keep the door to diplomacy open, the looming leadership transition in the United States and the pending transition in Seoul call into question whether the parties can summon the will to implement the commitments made in Singapore and Panmunjom and launch a meaningful peace process.


The fragile diplomatic situation is not helped much by the resilient, yet increasingly anachronistic, 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement. The Armistice has done nothing to curtail the North’s destabilizing pursuit of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. It cannot paint over the animosity and mistrust that still characterize relations between the combatants.


It may help the incoming U.S. administration to break the challenge of building peace on the Korean Peninsula down into its component parts:

●Declaring an end to the state of war;

●Launching a comprehensive effort to create a robust, sustainable peace regime, to include meaningful progress toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula; and finally

●Formalizing/solemnizing the peace with a binding treaty agreed by the combatants and guaranteed by key external stakeholders.


Achieving any one of these objectives would be beneficial, but the parties to the Korean War should pursue all three tasks with a sense of urgency. The first step – declaring the war to be at an end – could arguably be accomplished swiftly and should not be trivialized. The state of war has effectively blocked many steps in North-South reconciliation that might otherwise have been initiated. Ending it could change the atmosphere and catalyze the peace process. Step two – building a peace regime – will not be a simple undertaking. Assembling the components of a meaningful peace mechanism – halting the production of fissile material and dismantling the North’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, establishing confidence and security building measures, normalizing diplomatic relations, expanding economic relations, regularizing communication and people-to-people contacts, promoting humanitarian projects – will take years, if not decades. The 20-year process of normalizing U.S.-Vietnam relations suggests progress will be made gradually through dogged diplomacy, and only if all the parties remain committed to the task. The US Institute for Peace has drafted an excellent roadmap for such an undertaking, enumerating many of the key tasks that lie ahead.


As for negotiating a peace treaty, that challenge is likely beyond the grasp of the parties, at least for now. The U.S. Constitution stipulates that treaties can only be ratified by a two-thirds vote of the Senate – a high bar even before the more recent divisive period in American political history. But the real obstacle to negotiating a treaty is not securing Senate ratification, nor even the problem of agreeing on language. The main obstacle is the absence of trust among the parties. If forging genuine peace on the peninsula were easy, it would have been accomplished by now. Still, the job of diplomats is to turn the impossible into the implausible. The difficulty of the journey ahead only underscores the importance of beginning reciprocal tension reducing and confidence building measures as soon as possible.


A War Without War


One the many ironies of the Korean Peninsula is that an agreement designed as a temporary measure to keep the peace while the parties worked out a lasting solution to their differences has endured nearly 70 years. The Armistice has reduced the likelihood of hostilities and provided a mechanism to resolve disputes that might otherwise escalate. In this, it has been remarkably successful and resilient. The Armistice has contributed to what the Norwegian scholar Johan Galtung referred to as “negative peace” – the absence/reduction of violence of all kinds.


Nonetheless, the structures created through the Armistice -- the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) and the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC) -- are increasingly archaic and dysfunctional. With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the DPRK gradually took steps to neuter the NNSC and stopped participating meaningfully in the MAC.  Neither structure gets at the nub of the issue at hand – ending the war and building a lasting peace. The fault lies not with the MAC or the NNSC, but rather with the Armistice itself. For all of its specificity on the deployment of military forces, boundary lines, and dispute resolution mechanisms, the Armistice is actually quite vague about how to actually end the Korean War. Article IV of the Armistice states only that the countries concerned should within three months hold, “a political conference of a higher level…to settle through negotiation the questions of the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Korea, the peaceful settlement of the Korean question, etc.”   


Among the more significant agreements flowing from a multitude of aborted efforts to resolve the “Korean question” are the 1972 North-South Statement on Reunification, the 1992 Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the 1994 Agreed Framework, the June 15, 2000 Pyongyang Joint Declaration, the Six-party Talks Joint Statement of September 19, 2005, the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity, and Unification of the Korean Peninsula, and the U.S.-DPRK 2018 Singapore Joint Statement. A close reading of the above declarations reveals certain common characteristics:


●The parties seek to establish a new form of relations, transforming a state of war and hostilities into a condition of peace;

●The parties agree not to interfere in each other’s internal affairs;

●In agreements prior to the North’s first nuclear test, the parties pledge not to produce, possess, or test nuclear weapons, and to abide by their commitments under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT);

●In later agreements, the parties promise to implement the September 19 Six Party Talks commitments on denuclearization and to “work toward” the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”


In many instances, the parties pledge to replace the Armistice with a lasting peace regime, acknowledging that the Armistice provides an inadequate scaffolding to support construction of a robust, positive peace mechanism. This gets to an important reality: the Armistice marked the end of major hostilities, but it did not mitigate the underlying animosity and mistrust among the parties. The absence of war is not the same as the positive construction of peace.  


From Negative Peace, to Positive Peace


The world has gradually adjusted to the semi-permanence of an Armistice that was designed only as a temporary measure to give time for the parties to seek a final political settlement of the Korean War. This may account for why many countries recognize the Armistice as a de facto peace treaty and have normalized diplomatic relations with both the DPRK and the ROK. Among the former warring parties, the U.S., ROK, and DPRK are notable as the holdouts against the trend toward accepting the Armistice agreement as a sufficient framework for normalizing relations. Washington, Seoul, and Pyongyang all find that the Armistice fails to create what Galtung called, “positive peace” – not just the absence of violence, but the creation of “…a cooperative system beyond ‘peaceful coexistence,’ one that can bring forth positively synergistic fruits of the harmony.” 


The logical remedy to this deficiency in the Armistice is to agree a statement positively ending the war and affirming the desire of the parties to forge a meaningful, lasting peace regime. North and South Korea have long discussed the possibility of declaring an end to the Korean War as a way of catalyzing the peace process. President Moon has openly pushed for such a declaration, and the DPRK and ROK agreed in April 2018 not only to replace the Armistice but to declare an end to the war before the end of that year. Support for an end of war declaration initially garnered less enthusiasm in Washington, but in recent years the idea has gained some traction. President Trump reportedly considered issuing such a declaration at both the Singapore and the Hanoi summits, and 51 Members of Congress introduced H.Res.152 welcoming a declaration ending the state of war with North Korea. The 117th Congress will surely revisit the issue, and President Biden will have to decide whether to lend his support to the effort.


The idea of a peace declaration has both critics and proponents. The skeptics argue that a peace declaration would legitimize the DPRK government and dissipate any remaining U.S. leverage to convince the DPRK to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons. They also worry that sustaining U.S. troops on the peninsula will become more difficult to justify if North and South Korea are technically at peace, even if the actual military threats posed by the DPRK have not been attenuated. Proponents point out that ending the war would change the atmosphere on the peninsula and make it more difficult for the DPRK to blame U.S. hostility for its refusal to denuclearize. As for the danger of legitimizing the DPRK, the world has already been living with a nuclear-armed DPRK for 14 years and no nation broke diplomatic relations with the DPRK in response to its nuclear tests. Declaring an end to the war would not vitiate the UN Security Council Resolutions condemning the North’s nuclear programs and imposing sanctions on the DPRK for its illicit activities. The DPRK would remain a heavily sanctioned nation – just one with which the U.S. and the ROK were no longer at war. Finally, a peace declaration would not itself alter U.S. commitments under the mutual defense treaty between the United States and the ROK. The future of the alliance in peace time – its role and missions – would be subject to negotiations between Seoul and Washington.  


From the perspective of the United States, the advantages of declaring an end to the war now appear to outweigh the disadvantages. A peace declaration would not by itself terminate the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program, nor would it alter or replace the antiquated structures governing the Armistice. Almost all of the hard work of building a lasting peace regime would begin after a peace declaration. It is also true that a peace declaration would not have the force of law. The DPRK has often failed to adhere to the letter or spirit of such non-binding agreements. Just last June the DPRK demolished the Kaesong liaison office built to facilitate North-South dialogue in accordance with the Panmunjom Declaration. But even treaties do not offer ironclad assurances of permanence. They bind the parties only so long as the parties are willing to be bound.


Most of the weaknesses associated with a peace declaration are also strengths. A peace declaration would in no way prevent future measures on peace and denuclearization, nor would it foreclose the later adoption of a comprehensive peace treaty. Indeed, for the United States, it would make the ratification of a peace treaty more likely, as the Senate would be able to judge the North’s past performance on matters of vital concern – especially denuclearization – as a predictor of future performance. Also on the positive side of the ledger for Washington is the fact that the ROK strongly supports declaring an end to the war. U.S. policies on the peninsula are always more effective when they are closely aligned with those of its treaty ally.


Like any international compromise, an agreement to declare an end to the Korea War and launch a peace building process would require concessions from all parties. Concrete, meaningful, transparent, easily verifiable steps by the U.S., the DPRK, the ROK, and China should accompany a declaration ending the war. This is the formula recently recommended by Frank Aum and George Lopez, who note that a peace declaration should be implemented alongside, “…specific unilateral initiatives that demonstrate its credibility and will be understood by the foe as meaningful concessions.”  These steps need not include any significant diminution of the ability of the formerly warring parties to deter aggression. Indeed, reciprocal moves aimed at tension reduction are more credible when they fall within the boundaries of what a state recently at war with its neighbor might reasonably do to signal non-hostility.


Perhaps the most persuasive argument for declaring an end to the war is that it would unlock a tool box that contains many devices which are themselves necessary to construct a durable peace regime. For example, ending the war would make the establishment of reciprocal U.S. and DPRK liaison offices in Pyongyang and Washington much more likely. This has long been an objective of U.S. diplomats who hope that more regular, close, and personal interactions with their DPRK counterparts will expedite the peace and denuclearization processes. An end to the war would also take tension out of the relationships – a welcome de-escalation that would pay tangible economic benefits, from lowering insurance rates to encouraging foreign direct investment and trade across Northeast Asia.


Building a Lasting Peace Regime 


If declaring an end to the Korean War is to yield meaningful progress toward peace, the parties must agree on what the broad parameters of genuine peace and reconciliation look like. They must not content themselves with the negative peace of avoiding war, but seek to build self-reinforcing positive peace structures. On this issue, the three main parties view the current situation – and what must change – differently.


For the DPRK, peace means the removal of the U.S. “hostile policy,” variously described as military pressure, economic sanctions, and what Pyongyang judges to be a U.S. determination to overthrow the North’s political system. The North also seeks an end to Washington’s harsh criticism of the DPRK’s human rights practices, its illicit activities (drug smuggling, counterfeiting, cybercrimes), and its arms sales to so-called “rogue states.” The North has sometimes called for the removal of all U.S. forces from the peninsula as a necessary ingredient of any meaningful peace regime, but DPRK diplomats have also hinted that such a withdrawal would not be required if the United States and the DPRK were indeed at peace with one another.


Since the mid-1990s, the United States has identified the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program, including not only its facilities to manufacture fissile material and nuclear bombs, but also the delivery systems for such weapons, as a primary objective of any peace process with the DPRK. This laser focus on the North Korean nuclear threat is driven not only by U.S. concerns about the viability of its extended nuclear deterrent, but also by well-founded concerns that the DPRK might proliferate nuclear weapons technology to third parties. Broadening the U.S. goals to include more attention to the human dimension of the Korean Peninsula peace equation would bring the United States into closer alignment not only with the objectives being pursued by the DPRK, but also by Washington’s ally. Expanding the scope would also allow the United States to bring its soft power to bear as it attempts to persuade the DPRK to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions.


For its part, the ROK, particularly under progressive governments, has tended to define peace in the context of normalizing North-South relations, with the main focus being on securing benefits for the Korean people. Seoul has placed a premium on spurring economic growth (or realizing a “peace dividend”), establishing people-to-people ties, and gradually lifting restrictions on communication, movement, and trade. The ROK’s current vision for peace sets aside the question of unification, focusing instead on fostering a spirit of mutual respect and reconciliation in a non-coercive environment. Moon Chung-in outlined President Moon’s objectives when he described a peace process based on three pillars:

●Peace First (e.g. no military coercion, and strict adherence to the Armistice);

●No Nukes (i.e. the Korean Peninsula must ultimately be free of all nuclear weapons); and

●No Regime Change (a peace rooted in mutual respect and acceptance of each state’s sovereignty).


Importantly, this rough roadmap aligns reasonably well with the core interests of the United States, as it acknowledges that South Korea, “cannot peacefully coexist with a nuclear armed North Korea and that Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions must be stopped.”


Ultimately, building peace will require a patient process that addresses the core priorities of all the parties. A regime that prioritizes only the interests of one or two of the key stakeholders will not succeed. Understanding this is essential if the parties are to make progress. The parties must cultivate peace through the daily exercise of policies and practices designed to foster peace, security, and reconciliation. It is through the repetition of small acts of kindness that lasting friendships are forged, and through the accumulation of modest promises, made and fulfilled, that trust can be built.


While an early end of war declaration can catalyze peace efforts, sustaining momentum will require patient effort across the broad landscape of security, diplomatic, economic, people-to-people, and humanitarian dimensions of the conflict. Determining the sequencing and phasing of reciprocal steps will be job one for those attempting to build an enduring peace regime.


As detailed in a recent roadmap issued by the U.S. Institute of Peace, peace-building will need to proceed along five parallel pathways:

●Security (both denuclearization and conventional confidence and security building measures);

●Economic (not only sanctions relief, but also fostering DPRK global economic integration);

●Diplomatic Normalization (to include opening liaison offices and eventually embassies)

●Normalizing Cross-Border Communication and Travel

●Human Dimension (to include humanitarian assistance, remains, resolution of the Japanese abduction issue, and human rights dialogue)


The final point above reflects the necessity of addressing the human dimension of the divided peninsula, not only because all nations have a moral duty to defend universal human rights, but also for a more practical political reason: the fate of any effort to sign and ratify a peace treaty between the United States and the DPRK will likely depend on the DPRK’s trajectory on human rights and its progress toward addressing the most serious of its systemic human rights violations. 


Patience as a Virtue, not a Liability


The creation of a peace regime on the Korean peninsula will be a gradual process, happening incrementally over many years. It will require patience. This is consistent with other peacebuilding examples, even those that began, as the U.S.-Vietnam process began, with a treaty document. The case of Vietnam demonstrates that it is less important how a peace process begins – with an end of war declaration or with a treaty – than how it ends. The formalities of the peace are less important than the substance of the peace mechanism and the  political commitment of the parties to forging genuine reconciliation. The key ingredients are political will, mutual trust, and commitment to a step by step process. These lessons are especially salient on the Korean Peninsula, where the technical challenges associated both with denuclearization, as well as with signing and ratifying a treaty to end the war, are more complex than those associated with ending the Vietnam War.


Don’t Bank on a Treaty


Solemnizing the end of the Korean War with a peace treaty might at first glance seem an essential capstone component of any peace regime. But however desirable it may be, a peace treaty should not be elevated to top priority. The U.S. President must secure support from two-thirds of the members of the U.S. Senate to ratify any treaty, an almost unimaginable threshold given the current state of politics in the Congress. Unless and until the DPRK verifiably completes denuclearization, it seems unlikely that any U.S. President would even dare to submit a treaty to the Senate for its consideration. The difficulty of ratifying a peace treaty to end the Korean War should not in and of itself be especially discouraging. Treaties are only worth the institutional weight behind them - that is, a treaty is simply words on paper unless all parties are truly committed to abiding by its provisions.  The final element of a Korean a peace regime could be a peace treaty, but it is frankly less important than the composition it frames.


Conclusion: Painting Peace With the Right Brushes


All of the positive peace-building pathways described above – security, diplomatic, cross-border travel, economic, and humanitarian -- are predicated upon transforming the peninsula gradually from a state of war to two nations living side by side in peace to two states working together for their mutual benefit. As President Moon said last June when prodding the DPRK to resume dialogue: “We will continuously search for routes that are mutually beneficial for both Koreas through peace.” He added, “Before speaking of unification, I hope that we can become friendly neighbors first." Given the extraordinary difficulty of even ending the state of war, no one should take lightly the daunting challenges which the parties must overcome to reach the end goal of a formal peace treaty. The parties will need to be clear at the outset that they recognize certain boundaries, succinctly summarized by former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s “Four No’s”:


●No regime change;

●No regime collapse;

●No accelerated reunification of the Korean Peninsula; and

●No U.S. forces north of the 38th parallel. 


Although his position was swiftly and decisively undercut by National Security Adviser John Bolton, Tillerson’s attempt to provide a measure of strategic reassurance to both Pyongyang and Seoul nicely captured the essence of Pyongyang’s minimal demands to launch a peace process.  


Washington and Seoul are still awaiting a statement of equal clarity coming out of Pyongyang. The Singapore Declaration falls short in this regard, as the North promises only to “work toward” the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, without clarifying when and under what conditions it might be prepared to finish that job. But the difficulty of solving the nuclear question should also underscore the value of creating a multi-faceted peace regime, one that can build mutual confidence in some areas even as others remain mired in mistrust. It will be better to adopt a pointillist approach reminiscent of the French painter Georges Seurat – a canvas filled with thousands of individual points of color, the subject becoming clear only over time and from a distance – than to paint sloppily with too broad a brush out of haste. A lasting peace regime will be composed of many colors, each distinct, but in their totality, revealing what Stephen Sondheim described in his Seurat-inspired musical “Sunday in the Park With George”: a work of beauty marked by, “order, design, tension, composition, balance, light, and harmony.”

1) Johan Galtung, Carl G. Jacobsen, and Kai Fritjof Brand-Jacobsen. 2002. Searching for Peace: The Road to TRANSCEND. London: Pluto Press


2) Snyder, Scott , “The Illusion of Peace and the Failure of U.S.-North Korea Summitry” (Blog Post, Council on Foreign Relations)  (2020). https://www.cfr.org/blog/illusion-peace-and-failure-us-north-korea-summitry  


4) Moon, Chung-in, “President Moon Jae-in and the Korea Peace Initiative,” Global Asia, Vol. 14. No. 2, (June, 2019).

5) Aum, Frank, et. al. “A Peace Regime for the Korean Peninsula,” U.S. Institute of Peace. No. 157. February, (2020).


6) For a step-by-step denuclearization process, see Hecker, Siegfried & Carlin, Robert, “A Comprehensive History of North Korea’s   Nuclear Program,” Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University, (30 May, 2018) https://cisac.fsi.stanford.edu/content/cisac-north-korea

7) Rennack, Dianne E., “North Korea: Economic Sanctions,” CRS Report for Congress (17 October, 2020)

8) For more on this theme, see Dalton, Toby, “From Deterrence to Cooperative Security on the Korean Peninsula,”  Journal for Peace and Disarmament. Volume 3, Issue 1. (2020).