Audacious Imagination for Peace: Key to a New Era of the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia by Tae-Ho Lee

Audacious Imagination for Peace: Key to a New Era of the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia

Tae-ho Lee

With the April 27 Inter-Korean Summit at the Panmunjeom and the June 12 North Korea-U.S. Summit in Singapore, a great shift has begun in the ceasefire and military confrontation state of the Korean Peninsula. This shift is toward a “complete denuclearization” and a “permanent peace regime” on the Korean Peninsula, and a “new relationship” among the countries concerned.

It was initiated by the South Korea President Moon Jae In, the Chairman of the State Affairs Commission of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, and U.S. President Donald Trump who declared “not to be tied down to the past” and to improve their icy relationship. But the shift in political climate on the Korean Peninsula has resulted from the Candlelight Revolution that took place in South Korea in late 2016. The Candlelight Revolution has shown that citizens themselves have the capacity to address social challenges in a peaceful and democratic way. On the other hand, the Candlelight Revolution has helped strengthen the diplomatic capacity of the new administration, which has been launched in accordance with the people’s will, serving as a driving force to instigate cooperation from North Korea and the international community including the U.S. for peaceful resolution of issues on the Korean Peninsula.

1. Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia in a Great Shift
Inter-Korean Dialogue and Cooperation
Through the Panmunjeom Declaration announced as a result of the first South-North Korea Summit, the leaders of the two Koreas made clear that there would be no more war on the Korean Peninsula and a new era of peace began. What is most meaningful is the promise to hold summit meetings between the two leaders on a regular basis. The inter-Korean dialogue that has become more common serves as a minimum safety means to prevent the escalation of the crisis caused by accidental situations, as well as a communication channel to frequently consult with each other about innumerable tasks. This newly opened channel of communication has served as a bulwark against the irreversible deterioration of North Korea-U.S. relations even though the second summit between the two countries held in Hanoi late in February ended without much progress.

Attempts for a comprehensive solution
One of the most important characteristic of recent negotiations is attempt for a comprehensive solution. The Panmunjeom Declaration is aimed at a comprehensive solution to problems on the Korean Peninsula. The declaration sets “a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula through complete denuclearization” as one of the goals that must be achieved in the process of “establishing a permanent and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.” The declaration speaks of the necessity of “step-by-step disarmament in line with a military confidence-building process,” as well as “a complete denuclearization.” The agreement is being implemented more concretely through the September 19 Pyeongyang Joint Statement and the Performance Agreement in the Military Sector in Accordance with the Panmunjeom Declaration, which are the results of the third summit between President Moon Jae-in and the Chairman Kim Jong-un.

The Singapore Joint Statement between the DPRK and the U.S. also stipulates that a comprehensive approach to the “establishment of a new DPRK-US relationship” and the “building of a permanent peace regime” enables a “complete denuclearization.” The U.S. clarified that the negotiations with North Korea are essentially related to the “improvement of relations” and security assurance of the North Korean regime. The two leaders admitted that building mutual trust would facilitate the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Preemptive Peace Actions and Threat Reduction Measures
It is also distinguished from the past negotiations that the South and the North, and the U.S. are preemptively implementing measures necessary for building trust. South Korea and the U.S. decided to put off Joint military exercises, which had been perceived as hurdles to initiating dialogue during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games. It is noteworthy that President Trump himself called South Korea-US joint drills “expensive, provocative war games setting a bad light during a good faith negotiation.” On the other side, North Korea decided at the third plenary meeting of the 7th Worker’s Party Central Committee to halt conducting nuclear tests and test-firing intercontinental ballistic missiles” and dismantle “the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site” shortly before the summit meeting. In the wake of the September 19 Inter-Korean summit, Pyeongyang said that “it will perpetually dismantle the nuclear facility in Yeongbyeon if the U.S. takes corresponding measures.”

These measures can contribute to making the uncertain future of negotiations more optimistic. For example, although the U.S. and the North Korea leaders failed to reach an additional agreement during the second summit, the U.S.’ decision to put an end to the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises, jointly held between South Korea and the U.S. troops, is expected to maintain the momentum for continuing the dialogue. In the same light, the South Korea and the U.S. troops’ resuming of similar exercises under different names would be construed by North Korea as quite a negative signal. North Koreans could easily understand such acts as deliberately undermining the trust that is being built now.

2. Obstacles, and Direction of Resolution
The direction for resolving the issues, agreed by the three countries is not much different from the direction that civil society has consistently advocated. However, there are a lot of negotiations and obstacles to be left to actually solve problems. North Korea and the United States still remain in a tight tug-of-war regarding the content and levels of “corresponding measures” they are mutually to take for each other. The second North Korea-U.S. summit held in Hanoi thus ended in vain, except for raising mutual mistrust between the two countries. In order for the ongoing negotiations to lead to the establishment of a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, complete denuclearization, and sustainable development of relations among two Koreas and other neighboring countries, some of the following perception and approaches to practice should be faithfully maintained.

Elimination of unilateralism and preemptive reduction of armaments
First of all, South Korea and the U.S. should be alert to unilateral and subjective attitudes. While there are active debates over whether North Korea’s will to denuclearization is genuine, there is a lack of discussions on what South Korea and the U.S. should give up in order to help North Korea give up its nuclear program. It is necessary to have an attitude of “putting yourself in the person’s shoes” The most important starting point is to recognize that the overwhelming military power of South Korea and the U.S. has threatened the opponent. South Korea has spent military expenditure higher than North Korea’s total gross domestic product (GDP) every year for the past 30 years. This figure excludes the military expenditures of the U.S. Armed Forces in Korea. It is not convincing to further expand South Korean conventional arms, and at the same time, to demand North Korea give up nuclear weapons and missiles. Therefore, South Korea and the U.S. with military superiority should come up with a more proactive and initiating military reduction and threat reduction plan and put it into practice.

Consensus on nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia
Second, discussions should be made in earnest on the final possible form of denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, which all North and South Koreas and the U.S. can identify. Any serious discussion on the Nuclear-free Korean Peninsula would bring significant changes to the prospect of negotiations on the “corresponding measures” to be taken by the two Koreas and the U.S., and a security assurance regime to North Korea. ‘Complete denuclearization’ means the state that the nuclear threat to the Korean Peninsula is removed. This cannot be accomplished just by the “complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement” of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and can be achieved by the disappearance of all military strategies depending on nuclear deterrent on and around the Korean Peninsula. The nuclear umbrella strategy on which South Korea, the U.S. and Japan depend, should be included agendas along with the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Both Koreas may consider proactively joining the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, expressly renouncing any and all military strategies depending on nuclear weapons and endorsing the transition into a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone. Such a proactive action would prompt Japan and other nuclear-possessing countries in the region to join the same treaty phase by phase, thereby accelerating Northeast Asia’s transition into a Nuclear Free Zone

Rethinking the effectiveness of sanctions and pressure against DPRK
Third, it is also critical to recognize that the nuclear issue of the DPRK cannot be resolved by sanctions and pressure only. It is about time for the U.S. and the UN to take active steps to lift some of their harsh sanctions imposed on the DPRK, not only as an incentive for the DPRK to take further steps for giving up its nuclear weapon program, but also to stop a growing danger that the draconian U.S. and UN economic sanctions may have undermined the general health and welfare of the DPRK people in general. The UN agencies have already reported that about 40% of the DPRK population is “undernourished” (see Paragraph 24, SCR 2397). In fact, some of the tough UN sanctions, such as prohibiting any export of the DPRK’s seafood, agricultural products, textiles or minerals may well violate the UN Charter, as well as the international human rights and humanitarian law.

In addition, these draconian economic sanctions are creating huge obstacles to the implementation of the inter-Korean agreements as well as inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation in general. A good example of this problem is seen in the inability of the ROK government to connect its transportation system with the DPRK. In this regard, it is to be noted that the latest resolutions of the UN Security Council emphasized the concerned parties’ commitment to “a peaceful, diplomatic, and political solution to the situation” and that economic sanctions were “not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences for the civilian population of the DPRK or to affect negatively or restrict those activities, including economic activities and cooperation, food aid and humanitarian assistance…” (e.g. SCR 2375 and 2397)

Common Security Cooperation in Northeast Asia Based on Japan’s Pacifist Constitution and the Peace Regime on the Korean Peninsula

Fourth, the dialogue for solving problems of the Korean Peninsula should be closely linked to efforts to alleviate military tensions in Northeast Asia which is formed on the sea through issues of “dominium” and “freedom of navigation.” The territorial disputes, however, are a complex heritage from unfortunate history of imperialism, colonialism and world wars. In particular, these are deeply connected with the fundamental defects of the Treaty of San Francisco, which China and Both Korea were not invited to join in and embodied the post-Cold War order in East Asia. Appealing to military means cannot address the territorial disputes and can even bring about serious disasters.

Therefore, efforts to turn the armistice state of the Korean Peninsula into a peace regime should be made along with efforts to change the increasingly militarized Asian waters into a sea of ​​peace and coexistence. In particular, it is essential to turn the strengthening militarism and the old military alliance structure in this region into an interdependent common security cooperation framework.

In this regard, it is very worrisome that Japan’s Peace Constitution, which is the basic premise of peace cooperation in East Asia, is in danger of being damaged by the name of “collective self-defense.” The maintenance of Japan’s Peace Constitution and the construction of a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula are key to the peaceful cooperation and prevention of armed conflicts in East Asia.

Imagination for Peace and Optimism about Peace-oriented Approaches
Finally, it is necessary to exercise new imagination in order to escape stereotypes and taboos of the confrontational Cold War era. Until now, antagonism and disbelief, military confrontation and oppression, which have been presented under the name of realism, have caused aggravation instead of solving problems. On the other hand, the more optimistic and peace-oriented approaches are proven effective. These approaches include comprehensive negotiation, sincere efforts to build trust and new relationship, and preemptive peaceful actions. In the past, these approaches were misunderstood and criticized as overly naive and unrealistic, but now they have been proven as a very realistic and inevitable prescription to solve problems.

Changes are not happening only on the Korean Peninsula. Changes have also been detected in the South China Sea, which has been involved in conflicts for a long time. The countries concerned began negotiations last year with a single draft of a legally binding code of conduct in order to resolve these conflicts peacefully. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which has passed and is taking into effect, is also a significant change.

The change in perception that peaceful coexistence directly leads to security is the key to bringing significant transition to the Korean Peninsula and this region. Now is the time for the governments and citizens of the countries concerned to imagine many possibilities and opportunities brought by peace and to demonstrate the optimistic will to definitely make those dreams a reality. It is necessary to clarify that not only governments and “security experts” but also civil society and ordinary peoples are the key players in solving problems should act more boldly to resolve conflicts peacefully. Now, peace experts, not security experts, should work across borders. Now peace should be given opportunity. (*)

Footnote: Prior to the summit meeting between North and South Korean leaders, a total of 16 civil and religious groups, including the People’’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy suggested “the Four Principles for the Spring of Peace On the Korean Peninsula” on April 16. 4 principles are as follows: First, the South Korean government should find a comprehensive solution to turning the armistice system into a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula and connect the normalization of the relationship between North Korea and the U.S. and Japan to the dismantling of North Korea’’s nuclear weapons. Second, the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula should be discussed within the paradigm of creating a nuclear-free zone on the Korean Peninsula or in Northeastern Asia. Third, the dialogue and cooperation between the authorities of North and South Korea should be institutionalized and extended and a variety of nongovernmental exchanges and cooperation should be guaranteed by establishing a continuously operational consultation body at a nongovernmental level. Fourth, a fundamental principle that any military activities in which the North, South, or the U.S. target one another must be halted for as long as the talks continue.

Tae-ho Lee A Civil Activist from South Korea, Chair of Policy Committee, PSPD (People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy)

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