By Hyun Lee
In the wake of North Korea’s recent ballistic missile launches, President Biden was asked about his “red line” on dealing with Kim Jong Un and the North Korean government. Biden responded that any diplomacy between his administration and Kim’s “has to be conditioned upon the end result of denuclearization.” Demanding North Korean denuclearization as a prerequisite for talks is a road the US has been down before, and it only leads to increased tensions. If the US continues pursuing this failed framework, it is doomed to repeat the sins of the past.
There is, however, another way forward. Rather than continue with the failed policy of demanding North Korea’s unilateral denuclearization, the Biden administration should first pursue a peace agreement that replaces the fragile Korean War armistice and formally ends the 70-year-old conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Replacing the armistice with a peace agreement would allow all parties to the ongoing conflict — the US, North and South Korea — and possibly China, which had fought alongside North Korea in the war, to begin building trust. It would also address other detrimental costs associated with maintaining a large military presence on the Korean Peninsula.
The Psychological Cost of Constant War Preparedness
Among the many virtues of finally ending the Korean War would be the opportunity for the US to re-envision its alliance with South Korea. The alliance, which began two months after the Korean War armistice, is explicitly rooted in a need to defend against “Communist aggression.” Seven decades later, after the inter-Korean agreements for peace, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and normalization with China, the US-South Korean alliance remains frozen in time, an anachronism of the Cold War. It is fraught with contradictions, and serves more to raise tensions with modern North Korea and China than to deter the specter of creeping Communism.
Last month, for example, the US and South Korea wrapped up military exercises that rehearse war with North Korea. The details of this year’s exercise have not been made public, but these exercises are based on an operation plan that reportedly includes preemptive strikes and decapitating the North Korean leadership.
Not surprisingly, with the Korean War still unresolved and US diplomacy still rooted in bellicose rhetoric, Pyongyang sees the exercises as a real threat. Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s sister and Deputy Director of the Publicity and Information Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea, condemned the recent military drills and warned of possible retaliation: “If [the US] wants to sleep in peace for the coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step.”
This is not an empty posture from North Korea’s leadership. The North Korean public suffers from the indefinite extension of the Korean War. On a peace delegation to North Korea in 2011, a young woman I met at a cooperative farm outside Pyongyang explained matter-of-factly that everyone in the country, including civilians, are always in a state of readiness for the possibility of war. She was no more than 17 years old. Everyone, including girls, she said, receives basic self-defense training on a regular basis and has a personal emergency backpack of basic essentials to grab and go in the event of an external attack. I wondered about the psychological toll of growing up in a place where, for the past 70 years, people have lived with the constant reminder that one’s life could be disrupted at any moment by aerial bombardment.
With the US and South Korea still committed to these exercises as a result of their dated alliance structure, it is hard to see how they will break out of this cycle of recrimination with North Korea without reimagining their relationship to each other.
The Human Cost of Maintaining War Readiness
The war footing of the current US-South Korea alliance also carries enormous political, social, and economic costs for the people living on the Korean Peninsula. I witnessed this firsthand in 2006 when I visited Pyeongtaek, South Korea—home to Camp Humphreys, which is now the world’s largest overseas US military base. At the time, the South Korean government was pressuring a small group of elderly farmers to relocate from their land to clear the way for expansion of the base. The villagers refused to leave, however, and every night at the village schoolyard they lit candles, sang songs and gave speeches of defiance.
One elderly man told me about a place next to the base, which the villagers referred to as “oil bridge.” At one point, so much gasoline leaked out of the base that it pooled under a small footbridge, he explained. The villagers would collect the oil in buckets and take it home to use as kerosene. No one knew what went on inside the base, but the steady leak of gasoline under the footbridge was a constant reminder of land contamination caused by the base. Despite their efforts, all the villagers, including the man who told me about “oil bridge,” were eventually displaced from their homes and farmland in 2007.
Besides environmental pollution caused by oil leaks and toxic chemicals from US military bases — which South Korea is often left responsible for cleaning up — another cost to the current US-South Korea alliance structure is the ongoing requirement for South Koreans to pay for the privilege of hosting the US military. The Biden administration clinched a deal earlier this month that commits South Korea to paying around $1 billion annually to support US basing in the country—a nearly 14 percent increase from the previous agreement. The payments will likely increase to around $1.3 billion by 2025. South Korea’s contribution to the US military in Korea has increased ten-fold in the past 30 years—it was $98 million in 1991.
The South Korean public also footed 90% of the $10 billion construction bill for upgrading and expanding Camp Humphreys. Given the base’s environmental and political impact, that would be frustrating enough, but there is reason to believe South Korea overpaid for the job. US Forces Korea (USFK), the joint headquarters for all 28,500 US troops in Korea, has a history of holding onto unspent funds from South Korea’s contribution and depositing them in US banks to collect tax-free interest. Between 2002 and 2012, the USFK accumulated a total of $675 million in unspent military construction costs provided by South Korea.
A New Foreign Policy Approach Needed for Peace in Korea
We in the US don’t hear the stories of the North Korean girl who must always be prepared for war or the South Korean farmer displaced from his land to make way for a US base. The story we most often hear is that US presence in Asia is intended to defend freedom and democracy from authoritarian regimes that threaten global peace. But after nearly seventy years, continued US military presence in Korea and the region actually raises the probability of conflict with North Korea rather than deterring them.
The United States needs a new foreign policy approach. We must stop seeing the world through a zero-sum lens for military dominance and political control and instead prioritize working together to improve all of our security. In the case of East Asia, cooperative and shared security can begin with replacing the Korean War armistice with a peace agreement — an idea that is supported by both Seoul and Pyongyang, as well as Beijing. The key missing party is Washington. If the Biden administration is willing to take the necessary steps, the US approach to Korea could become a model for a new US commitment to pursuing true human security.
Hyun Lee is the US National Organizer for Women Cross DMZ and Korea Peace Now–a global women-led campaign to end the Korean War. Previously, she was a writer for ZoominKorea, an associate of the Korea Policy Institute, and a co-producer of the radio show, Asia Pacific Forum.