Two Koreas, One Peninsula
By Clifford A. Kiracofe  ·  2023-09-04  ·   Source: NO.36 SEPTEMBER 7, 2023
Protesters walk in a peace rally in Seoul, the Republic of Korea (ROK), on July 22. Participants shouted for peace on the Korean Peninsula and in the world (XINHUA)

Washington's aggressive posture of global belligerence is alarming many in the Asia-Pacific region. In July, for the first time since the 1980s, the United States deployed a nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine to the Republic of Korea (ROK). The U.S. and its allies in the region held talks on how to coordinate in the event of a nuclear war with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).

Rather than seeking to reduce tensions in the Korean Peninsula, President Joe Biden's administration is doubling down on the militarization of the Asia-Pacific region. While the American "pivot to Asia" policy, an attempt to reassert U.S. geopolitical influence in East Asia amid a shifting regional power balance caused by China's rise, began with Barack Obama's administration, the Biden administration's policy has significantly raised tensions in the region.

Washington continues to promote containment of China and to provide China's Taiwan region with military assistance and official support.

Increasingly, Washington sets the stage for war through security cooperation with Australia, the Philippines and the ROK.

But the Korean Peninsula may very well become a flashpoint triggering war. And instead of deescalating tensions, Washington today is raising tensions.

Koreas and the Olympic spirit 

The former moderate government in the ROK led by Moon Jae-in attempted a "Sunshine" policy concerning the DPRK, featuring a distinct possibility for constructive diplomacy that could eventually have generated a peaceful settlement.

Developments surrounding the Korean Peninsula situation unfolded rapidly and unexpectedly after the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, the ROK. There was an apparent thaw and the possibility for peace diplomacy. Hawks in Washington, however, blocked former President Donald Trump's apparent personal willingness to work toward a peaceful settlement.

But in May 2022, a new government led by Yoon Suk-yeol took power in Seoul and sought closer alignment with the U.S. and Biden's hawkish policy toward the DPRK. This government will be in power until 2027.

While the present diplomatic direction is heading away from a peaceful settlement and a stabilization of the peninsula, a constructive vision nevertheless must be upheld. A comprehensive settlement would include not only the nuclear issue but also a peace treaty and measures for economic development. A constructive and sustainable formula for "Two Koreas, One Peninsula" is required.

The world is entering a period of dramatic change and has already entered an evolving multipolar international situation. Power is shifting and the constellation of forces internationally is realigning. The next decade or two will be a challenge to navigate through undoubtedly perilous waters.

The key to the resolution of outstanding Korean issues is a mutual commitment by the leaders of the two Koreas to respect each other's core interests and to work together on a sincere basis to promote regional peace and development.

Unification needs not be attempted any time soon, but it can evolve organically as a bilateral process of reconciliation, confidence building and cooperation develops.

Meanwhile, there must be a step-by-step process toward a comprehensive settlement of all outstanding issues. A focus on the technicalities of denuclearization is appropriate for that specific task but the wider context and bigger picture must also be considered. A peace treaty must be signed, new arrangements worked out and economic and infrastructure development projects created.

The regional context must be transformed from a zone of instability, a potential "shatterbelt," to one of peace and development.

A neutralized Korean Peninsula guaranteed by regional major power stakeholders and the United Nations is a worthy goal. It is also in the interest of China, Russia and Japan to support such a process.

People gather on the streets of Seoul to protest against the planned ROK-United States military drills on August 13, 2022 (XINHUA)

The American roadblock 

In Washington, Cold War hawks, neoconservatives and the military-industrial complex oppose a pragmatic solution. Tensions in the region offer opportunities for billions of dollars in arms sales. Troops can be kept in the ROK rather than returned to the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems can keep monitoring deep into Chinese and Russian territory. Unnecessary and provocative U.S. naval and air activity can be maintained.

The U.S. has had a presence in the Asia-Pacific region for nearly two centuries. Has Washington lost the capacity for the creative diplomacy that was demonstrated four decades ago in the U.S. opening to China or in the détente with Russia? In the interest of peace, can the U.S. find a way to work with China and Russia on Northeast Asian issues?

The Trump administration was full of sound and fury that meant little. Relations with China and Russia were set back significantly, relations with allies were unsettled and relations with the DPRK were rendered fruitless. So far, the Biden administration has not improved the situation; unfortunately, it has made things worse.

Absent from all discussions on the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue in Washington is the vision of a Northeast Asia and regional integration that includes the DPRK. Previous U.S. administrations have avoided the regional and great power context, and U.S. corporate media continues to promote hysteria over Pyongyang—ignoring the regional context.

The Trump administration killed any progress by insisting on maximalist demands. Gradual "step-by-step" diplomacy was rejected, thus excluding substantive engagement. So far, the Biden administration has shown no interest in constructive diplomacy and has maintained a hostile stance toward the DPRK. Conservative forces in Japan and the ROK are also expected to resist engagement with the country.

What must be done? 

A responsible American president would be flexible and farsighted enough to adopt a realistic approach to diplomacy with the DPRK. For example, Washington must look at the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula in a broader context. One such context is that of Northeast Asia as a region. This brings in players such as China, Russia and Japan and enhances the prospect of multilateral diplomacy. 

China and Russia must play an important role in promoting a diplomatic peace process for the Korean Peninsula. Japan must take a constructive stance. Washington must pursue a realistic and pragmatic policy. Together, the major powers can work in concert to ensure peace and development in Northeast Asia.

War is not a reasonable option. Washington must bring itself to engage in a form of constructive great power diplomacy with China and Russia to make progress in resolving Korean Peninsula and regional issues.

The author is a former senior professional staff member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. This is an edited excerpt from an article first published on the China Focus website

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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