Foreign Policy

For a peaceful spring on the Korean peninsula: Congress and Senate have a critical role

When President Trump visited South Korea in November 2017 and addressed the National Assembly, I stood and held up a sign that read, “No war; We Want Peace.” Although he was an honored guest of the state, I felt, as a National Assembly representative, I had to take action as the threat to peace on the Korean peninsula had reached a dangerous level. Many were alarmed by the contest of insults and shows of force between the United States and North Korea last year. For South Koreans, they not only shocked but instilled terror. A land perpetually on the brink of war has, unfortunately, become the moniker of the Korean peninsula.

In an astonishing about-face, President Trump recently announced that he will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by May. The unexpected announcement of what could be the first summit between the United States and North Korea took the world by surprise and gave South Koreans cause to rejoice. If the upcoming summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un—the third inter-Korean summit and the first in 11 years—is followed by a successful summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un, we may very well witness the most extraordinary watershed of the 21st century. What’s more, we may finally see an opening for realizing the long-cherished desire of the Korean people for peaceful reunification.

{mosads}I applaud the Trump administration’s decision to turn to dialogue over war in dealing with North Korea. I hope it will not quickly come to a dead-end as have past talks between the United States and North Korea. Failure to reach an agreement at the summit could mean a decisive turn towards war that risks the lives of millions. This is what brings me to Washington this week to meet with members of the U.S. Congress and Senate.

How prepared is the United States to talk with North Korea?

The Greek origin of the word “dialogue” literally means an exchange of words that gives rise to a qualitatively new idea or understanding. I believe this is precisely what we need between the United States and North Korea—not a business deal or a contractual negotiation but true dialogue that leads to a qualitatively new relationship. For constructive dialogue between the two countries, I propose the following:

One, let’s note that North Korea yielded first. Whether it was the result of the U.S. campaign of maximum pressure, as White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders asserts, or of North Korea’s ascendance as a de facto nuclear weapons state, as North Korea asserts, the side that took the first official step for dialogue was North Korea. The shift toward talks is made possible by North Korea’s pledge to freeze its nuclear and missile tests as long as talks continue. North Korea has, in fact, already frozen its nuclear and missile tests for four consecutive months. Naturally, North Korea may expect a pledge in kind from the United States. What is the United States willing to give in return to keep the North Koreans at the table? Easing the U.S. policy of maximum sanctions and pressure may be one option. In the last year alone, the UN passed four sanctions resolutions against North Korea, and the United States continues to impose unilateral sanctions, including a naval blockade. It has also introduced strategic assets, including nuclear aircraft carriers, on and around the Korean peninsula. Giving North Korea breathing room by relaxing the pressure may persuade the North Koreans that staying in the talks is worthwhile.

More fundamentally, North Korea has expressed a desire for normalized relations with the United States and a willingness to denuclearize if its security concerns are adequately addressed. The surest path toward denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, therefore, is to end the longstanding state of war between the United States and North Korea and replace the 1953 Armistice, a temporary ceasefire, with a permanent Peace Agreement. As former U.S. ambassador to South Korea James Laney has said, a Peace Agreement between the United States and North Korea would “provide a baseline for relationships, eliminating the question of the other’s legitimacy and its right to exist.” Only when the two sides address the root of their enmity can they establish the type of trust necessary to move toward full denuclearization and irreversible peace.

Two, denuclearization of Korea means removing the nuclear threat to the entire Korean peninsula. The denuclearization talks that North Korea seeks is not solely about its own nuclear weapons but a comprehensive discussion that also includes U.S. nuclear weapons on U.S. bases, U.S. strategic assets that are frequently deployed in Korea and the U.S. policy of nuclear first strike in Korea. North Korea’s ultimate goal is to establish a relationship that no longer requires nuclear weapons aimed at each other. It has long insisted that its pursuit of nuclear weapons is to deter the threat posed by the United States. Removing that threat, therefore, is the surest way to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons. As the joint statement produced by the Six Party Talks in 2005 clearly delineates, denuclearization of the Korean peninsula requires action by all parties—North Korea, as well as the United States and South Korea—to remove all nuclear weapons on and around the Korean peninsula and guarantee that no side will attack the other with nuclear or conventional weapons.

Three, we need to deal with North Korea as it is. In Asia, we often say, “One needs to know his/her enemy and oneself in order to win every battle.” If we were to ask leaders in Washington to mention three things they know about North Korea, how many would be able to give responses beyond what we hear on CNN or Fox News? In early 2000’s, when there were dynamic cross-border exchanges and travel between North and South Korea, I had the opportunity to visit Pyongyang. I had always regarded myself as one with an open mind toward North Korea, but the trip made me realize how little I had known about the country. Only when we know do we realize how much we don’t know. It is my hope that esteemed leaders in Washington will not just dismiss North Korea as an isolated dictatorship but regard the current moment as an opportunity to learn about North Korea and the Korean peninsula.

Four, as cliche as it may sound, dialogue requires patience. North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics was the result of great patience and tireless effort by South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The Olympic Truce adopted by the UN General Assembly was the result of his administration’s dogged determination. His patience and resolve yielded the promise of a third and historic inter-Korean summit and an unprecedented U.S.-North Korea summit.

The Korean peninsula is my homeland. It is the place where my parents, siblings and I were born and raised and will be buried. But the question of peace on the Korean peninsula is undeniably and inextricably linked to the relationship between the United States and North Korea. Members of the U.S. Congress and Senate, therefore, have a critical role to play. Let us work together to ensure the upcoming U.S.-North Korea summit leads to a long-term resolution of the Korean conflict. May the events of April and May be cause for all to celebrate a peaceful spring on the Korean peninsula and beyond.

Kim Jong-hoon is standing co-representative of the Minjung Party and member of the 20th National Assembly of the Republic of Korea.

Tags Donald Trump North Korea

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