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Most people could be forgiven for thinking the 73-year-old Korean War — a conflict in which millions of people were killed — is completely over. But it’s not—at least not in the way you would think a war would be completely over — and the current conditions surrounding the U.S. armistice with North Korea are having the opposite effect of what they’re intended to do. They’re not creating the conditions for sustained peace, they’re creating the conditions for what could be truly devastating violence.
For the most part, Americans have no idea how dangerous the situation is on the Korean Peninsula. In just the last 12 months alone, North Korea has tested multiple long-range missiles and displayed enough intercontinental ballistic missiles to potentially overwhelm the U.S.’s long-range missile defense system. The U.S. and South Korea have also conducted massive joint military exercises, which provoked another cycle of North Korean missile launches in March. In November 2022, South Korea scrambled fighter jets in response to North Korean warplanes, and the U.S. sent an aircraft carrier in September 2022 to South Korea for the first time in years “to join other military vessels in a show of force intended to send a message to North Korea.” More recently, the U.S. sent two nuclear submarines to South Korean waters for the first time in 42 years, causing North Korea to threaten possible nuclear retaliation.
These military maneuvers among the U.S., North Korea and South Korea heighten the risk of an actual war breaking out. As former deputy commander of the U.S.-Indo Pacific Command Lt. General Dan Leaf pointed out this spring, “In this hair-trigger environment, one bad decision or misunderstanding could kill millions.”
Furthermore, due to the mutual defense treaties between the U.S. and South Korea, and between North Korea and China, a resurgence of conflict on the Korean Peninsula could impact millions of people — and potentially trigger a nuclear war.
Thursday, July 27, marks the 70th anniversary of military leaders from the United States, China and North Korea signing the armistice that halted the Korean War (1950 – 1953). The day, July 27, is a significant one for the relationship between the United States and South Korea. While politicians will likely use the anniversary as an opportunity to strengthen and double down on the alliance, it could instead be an occasion to reflect on the underlying circumstances the relationship is based on — a war that never saw a peace treaty and its ultimate conclusion — and recalibrate to advance peace, rather than foster an environment for war.
The armistice that will be celebrated on July 27 was only a ceasefire. It did not settle the Korean conflict and ongoing division of the peninsula, which remains ongoing to this day. It’s why the United States still maintains 28,500 troops in South Korea, why the largest U.S. overseas military base can be found in South Korea, and why the United States has operational control of South Korea’s military during any potential wartime.
As we mark this 70th anniversary, we can likely expect to see an increased show of force and heightened rhetoric on all sides of this complicated equation — and we already have. About a month ago, the United States flew nuclear-capable bombers above the Korean Peninsula and sent a nuclear-capable submarine to South Korean shores. At about the same time, North Korea held massive anti-United States rallies in Pyongyang. And at the end of May, the United States and South Korea held large live-fire military drills simulating a “full-scale attack” from North Korea, just 16 miles from the highly militarized border separating North and South Korea.
The backdrop to this increasingly volatile situation is the great power competition between the United States and China, with the Korean Peninsula caught in the crosshairs. The rivalry has led the United States to bolster its trilateral military alliance with South Korea and Japan and realign its military in South Korea to project power against China. This has included installing terminal high altitude area defense (THAAD) missile systems in Seongju and docking Aegis destroyers on the naval base in Jeju Island. These efforts come at tremendous costs to the Korean people, such as villages being razed, fragile ecosystems being destroyed and toxic chemicals leaching into groundwater.
Although the trilateral alliance between the United States, South Korea and Japan purports to advance democracy, Washington’s forced reconciliation between South Korea and Japan is also undermining movements for justice and women’s rights, especially with regards to historic grievances held by Korean workers who were forced into slave labor by the Japanese during World War II. Instead of Japanese corporations compensating the victims for these past crimes, as ruled by the South Korean supreme court, President Yoon Suk Yeol’s government volunteered payment from South Korean companies — an unpopular and unsatisfying decision. Japan has never sincerely and comprehensively apologized for its World War II crimes, and has instead sometimes denied forcing women to work as sex slaves, rewritten its textbooks to erase its shameful history, and waged a global campaign to take down “comfort women” statues.
The unresolved Korean War carries with it other costs. According to a 2021 Government Accounting Office (GAO) report, the Department of Defense spent $13.4 billion in South Korea from 2016 to 2019 on salaries, construction and maintenance, money that, like the rest of the U.S.’s defense budget, could be spent elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is increasingly drawing Seoul into a new Cold War against Russia, China and North Korea by, for example, integrating South Korea into a trilateral alliance with the United States and Japan. The deployment of THAAD systems in South Korea — ostensibly aimed at China — has also heightened tensions between Seoul and Beijing. Washington is also enlisting Seoul in arming Ukraine, which is raising the ire of Russia. Ahead of Yoon’s summit with Biden in April, U.S. intelligence leaks revealed that Washington has likely been strong-arming Seoul to export weapons to Ukraine. The leaked documents showed that South Korea, troubled by U.S. pressure to provide Ukraine with artillery shells, proposed instead to send them to Poland and to loan shells to the United States. South Korean foreign ministry officials were “mired in concerns that the U.S. would not be the end user” of the weapons. Now Yoon is considering sending weapons directly to Ukraine, which would appear to mark the country’s first full-scale military intervention in foreign soil since the 1960s when South Korea, bankrolled by the U.S., sent some 320,000 troops to battle in Vietnam. Instead of drawing Seoul into a new Cold War against Russia, China and North Korea, Washington should transform the U.S.-R.O.K. relationship into an alliance that benefits both Americans and Koreans.
Central to transforming the relationship would be replacing the 1953 armistice with a formal peace agreement. A peace agreement would officially end the 73-year-old Korean War, and it may give North Korea the security assurances it says it needs to denuclearize, and begin the process of normalizing relations with Pyongyang. That could vastly improve the humanitarian conditions for millions of North Koreans. There is already a bill in Congress to advance this goal, the Peace on the Korean Peninsula Act (H.R. 1369, sponsored by Rep. Brad Sherman D-CA), which calls for replacing the ceasefire with a permanent peace settlement.
“The continued state of war on the Korean Peninsula does not serve the interests of the United States nor our constituents with relations in North and South Korea,” Sherman said in a news release about the Peace on the Korean Peninsula Act. “Serious, urgent diplomatic engagement is needed to achieve peace between North and South Korea.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of people from around the country are gathering in Washington, D.C. this week to call on President Joe Biden and Congress to support such a peace agreement that would bring a formal end to the Korean War. Multiple generations of Korean Americans, including many from families still separated by the unresolved war, are traveling from as far as Hawai’i to join a broad and diverse movement to collectively say “70 years is enough!”
Women Cross DMZ is bringing 30 young leaders under 30 to sustain this movement and reinvigorate our goal to end the war. Among them is Hannah Lee, a student at the Univ. of Pennsylvania, who says she’s traveling to Washington because of “America’s key involvement in the conflict and its role in ending the Korean War.” Hannah says she’s also participating “to connect with those with more experience organizing and to feel the energy of being together for a unifying goal.”
In addition to anti-war activists, veterans and members of faith-based communities, humanitarian aid workers are scheduled to speak on the dire consequences of U.S. policies, like sanctions on North Korea, that deeply and adversely impact people’s lives. There are now increasing numbers of voices calling for peace with North Korea, including former “nuclear warrior” Dan Leaf and Siegfried Hecker, the former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory who has had among the most access to North Korea’s nuclear facilities. We invite all Americans to join us and demand an ultimate end to the Korean war by becoming part of our movement and contacting your member of Congress to support peace.
So far, the U.S.-South Korea alliance has been predicated on preventing war. But today, the way the alliance exists is only raising the risk of renewed fighting. It’s time to rethink and reshape the U.S.-South Korea relationship to bolster peace.
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