This week, the United States and South Korea kicked off their springtime joint military drills—the largest in five years. North Korea has long protested these war drills, calling them a rehearsal for invasion. Not surprisingly, then, North Korea conducted submarine-fired cruise missiles tests on Sunday.
We can expect these tit-for-tat provocations to continue as long as everyone continues to go by the same playbook. While the United States cannot control North Korea's behavior, the Biden administration can take steps to end the tensions that have permeated the Korean Peninsula for more than 70 years—chiefly, by pivoting its strategy toward getting back to the table with North Korea and negotiating a peace agreement. The Biden administration should follow the lead of Congress, which is once again calling for a peace-first approach to formally end the Korean War.
On March 1, Congressman Brad Sherman and 20 original cosponsors re-introduced the Peace on the Korean Peninsula Act, the first time that legislation on peace in Korea has been re-introduced in Congress. The bill calls for diplomacy with North Korea to formally end the Korean War, a review of travel restrictions to North Korea, and the establishment of liaison offices in the US and North Korea. First introduced in 2021, it was the first bill calling for an end to the Korean War, following the success of the first House Resolution, H.Res.152, in the 116th Congress, which also called for ending the war.
Officially ending the Korean War is important because the unresolved war is the root cause of tensions in Korea. While the armistice agreement signed in 1953 ended active fighting of the Korean War, it was always meant to be replaced with a peace agreement. To this day, it has not been, and there are no guardrails preventing a resumption of active fighting. Thus, replacing the armistice with a formal peace agreement would go a long way toward building peace and stability in Korea.
While the President could formally end the Korean War through executive powers alone, Congressional support is important to building the political will for a long-lasting peace agreement
As Congressman Sherman stated at his press conference announcing the re-introduction of the bill, "The continued state of war on the Korean Peninsula does not serve the interests of the United States nor our constituents with relatives in North and South Korea." The re-introduction of the Peace on the Korean Peninsula Act provides an opportunity to reinvigorate diplomacy and end this war once and for all.
This opportunity comes at a time of heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula. In 2022, North Korea conducted an unprecedented number of missile tests, including testing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could in theory strike the US mainland. Both the US and North Korea maintain dangerous nuclear postures and first-strike capabilities, and in September 2022 North Korea passed a law lowering the threshold for a nuclear first strike. The US has also doubled down on its nuclear first-use policy, despite support for a no-first-use policy from President Joe Biden as a candidate. In a further raising of tensions, earlier this year President Yoon Suk Yeol declared South Korea may build its own nuclear arsenal. Meanwhile, the US, South Korea, and Japan continue to strengthen their conventional capabilities to deter North Korea, ramping up bilateral and trilateral exercises.
Compounding the danger of these developments are the larger geopolitical forces at play in the region. The US-China great-power competition continues to grow more dangerous, with provocations that could escalate into a military conflict. Additionally, Japan recently announced its largest military build-up since World War 2, including doubling defense spending by 2028 and developing new counter-strike capabilities aimed at China.
Formally ending the Korean War with a peace agreement provides an opportunity for cooperation between all parties and could act as a stepping stone to reversing the militarization in the Asia-Pacific region and healing historic wounds from the last century's wars. Approaches of previous US administrations across partisan lines have failed to improve the security crisis in Korea. The Biden administration has an opportunity to change course and restart negotiations with North Korea. Instead of saying that they are ready to meet North Korean anywhere and anytime, they should try a new peace-first approach that has the potential to address the root cause of tensions.
Congress has an especially important role to play in calling on the administration to take a different approach to North Korea policy. While the President could formally end the Korean War through executive powers alone, Congressional support is important to building the political will for a long-lasting peace agreement and demonstrating that multiple branches of the US government support a new relationship with North Korea and an end to the war. And Congressional support is growing.
In the last Congress, 46 members of Congress representing both sides of the aisle cosponsored the Peace on the Korean Peninsula Act
, including several members of the Foreign Affairs Committee. To have this much support for ending the Korean War in the midst of a stalemate in US-North Korea talks and the escalating arms race should not be downplayed.
This is a particularly important year to build support for a new US approach; July 27, 2023 marks the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Korean War armistice, and it's long past time to replace the 1953 ceasefire with a peace agreement to formally end the war. For the sake of the Korean people, and people around the world, we need to end the state of war that has persisted for more than 70 years. It is time to close this chapter of war and open the door to a transformed, peaceful US-North Korea relationship.
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