De-escalation on the Korean Peninsula

Third in a series of policy briefs laying out clear steps to re-think and re-orient US foreign policy.

By Catherine Killough

Takeaway: The US government should abandon its demand for the unilateral disarmament of North Korea, and instead pursue the formal conclusion of the Korean War. Halting the deployment of nuclear-capable assets, suspending military exercises, and adopting No First Use will further deescalate tensions.

The United States and North Korea are still at war, even if seven decades of ceasefire obfuscates this fact. Today, this long-delayed peace plays out in the nuclear crises that routinely aggravate US-North Korean relations, such as the 2017 “fire and fury” standoff. 

This unfinished war also imposes more immediate and ongoing human costs. The wartime status quo, enforced by the world’s most heavily militarized border and a strict travel ban, stands in the way of reuniting divided families. The outsized US military presence in South Korea and the region at large continues to profoundly disrupt and dispossess local communities. What’s more, the international sanctions regime against North Korea has had a detrimental impact on civilians’ livelihoods, contrary to assurances of its primary goal of advancing denuclearization.  

Nuclear weapons are at the heart of this costly standoff. For decades, Washington has pursued a combination of diplomatic isolation, sanctions, and military brinkmanship to disarm North Korea, which is now estimated to possess between 30 and 60 nuclear weapons. In spite of repeated failure and a worsening crisis, both Republican and Democratic administrations have cohered around a pressure-based approach to change North Korean behavior while acknowledging that no military action – short of renewed war – could reliably eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Even as President Trump’s personal engagement with Chairman Kim Jong Un broke with convention, his administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy has, in practice, conformed to longstanding US policy. Within this existing framework, the options for advancing denuclearization and mitigating the risks of conflict are extremely limited. 

There is a viable path forward, however, should the next administration undertake a fundamental reorientation of US policy toward North Korea.

A Path Forward: Peace, Arms Control, and Diplomacy

End the Korean War with a peace agreement. To crudely summarize the US-North Korean deadlock, the United States has conditioned peace and normalization on North Korea’s unilateral nuclear disarmament. Meanwhile, North Korea has cited insecurities stemming from the ongoing war as grounds for nuclear armament. Only by prioritizing the resolution of the Korean War can US policy on North Korea progress past its impractical bid to disarm Pyongyang. The next administration should take a cue from the growing transnational peace movement to negotiate a peace agreement and forge new relations with North Korea.

Shift to an arms control approach. Peacemaking is not a refusal to work toward denuclearization, but a long-overdue process that would significantly improve the capacity and potential for both sides to address mutual security concerns. It bears emphasis that the security crisis is also shaped by the US nuclear posture, which has loomed over the Korean Peninsula since the outbreak of the Korean War and grown increasingly dangerous under President Trump. Shifting to an arms control approach would deescalate the risk of military conflict and enable a more stable footing to advance denuclearization. The next administration can start by halting the deployment of nuclear-capable assets, suspending military exercises, and adopting a No First Use policy with respect to nuclear weapons.

Harmonize policy with South Korea. In contrast to the United States, the South Korean government has pursued  peace and disarmament simultaneously rather than conditioning one on the other – a distinction that has come into sharp focus in recent years. This was painfully evident during the Trump administration’s early loose talk of war, which prompted President Moon Jae-in to affirm that military action could only be decided by South Korea. At a minimum, coordinating North Korea policy in alignment with South Korea would correct for the unequal burden of risk. The next administration can go further to address outstanding alliance issues, such as the delayed transfer of wartime operational control to South Korea and rising US cost-sharing demands, that undermine South Korea’s sovereignty. This will become increasingly urgent as Sino-American tensions grow and pit South Korea against its largest economic and military partners.

Concrete Steps to Minimize Suffering

Taken together, these policy measures aim to go beyond reducing the risk of conflict and lay the groundwork for a comprehensive settlement that would minimize human suffering overall. Specific benchmarks to meet these goals include: 

  • Jumpstarting negotiations with North Korea, using the commitments outlined in the US-North Korea Singapore Joint Statement (June 2018) as a springboard
  • Adopting military confidence-building measures, such as the suspension of large-scale joint military exercises, in exchange for a formalized return to North Korea’s moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing 
  • Facilitating the reunion of divided Korean Americans with their relatives in North Korea and easing travel restrictions that inhibit people-to-people exchanges
  • Lifting sanctions that adversely impact the humanitarian and human rights situation in North Korea
  • Replacing the Armistice with a peace agreement that formally ends the Korean War and begins the normalization of US-North Korean relations

The incoming administration has a unique opportunity to not only build on the previous administration’s engagement with Pyongyang but also work with a willing partner in South Korean President Moon, whose term will last until 2022. An early, proactive engagement strategy could significantly curb human suffering while taking the first step in the long path toward the disarmament of the Korean Peninsula.

Catherine Killough is the Advocacy and Leadership Coordinator of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement led by women mobilizing for peace on the Korean Peninsula and an end to the Korean War.

3 thoughts on “De-escalation on the Korean Peninsula

  1. I’m really curious about reuniting Korean Americans with their family in North Korea. This seems high risk and, sure, high reward; but, doesn’t this increase the chance that Kim would simply hold hostage the returning Korean Americans? I don’t understand how this is done at all.


  2. Pingback: A Peace Agreement in Korea Can Model US Commitment to Human Security – Fellow Travelers

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