On April 27, the leaders of North and South Korea met for the first time in eleven years. It was an excellent meeting. We couldn’t have asked for a better outcome. The historic Panmunjom Declaration proclaims the beginning of a new era of national reconciliation and co-prosperity.
The two leaders agreed to “declare an end to the Korean War” within this year and “turn the armistice into a peace treaty.” On the nuclear question, of greatest concern to the United States, they “confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.” As a prelude to the upcoming Kim-Trump summit, the inter-Korean summit has created optimal conditions for successful talks between the United States and North Korea.
Immediately after the Panmunjeom summit, the Blue House announced that Kim Jong Un had pledged to shut down North Korea’s nuclear test site in May and invite experts and journalists from the United States and South Korea to observe the dismantling of the facilities. Kim seems determined to demonstrate, ahead of his summit with Trump, that his words are not empty and that his agreement for peace on the Korean peninsula is sincere.
Washington pundits, however, were quick to dismiss the Panmunjom Declaration as not having gone far enough on denuclearization and warn that Kim Jong Un should not be trusted. Their reaction, in stark contrast to that of Koreans around the world who celebrated the historic summit agreement, disappoints and worries me a great deal.
Given the historic significance of the current moment in U.S.-Korea relations, the silence of Washington lawmakers, on the other hand, is puzzling. Tens of thousands of U.S. troops shed blood in the Korean War. For the past sixty-five years, the United States deployed to Korea countless young men and women, who braved repeated war threats in a tense military standoff against North Korea. Last year, North Korea claimed to have developed a weapon of mass destruction that can threaten the continental United States. And now, the leaders of North and South Korea and the United States are discussing a solution to finally end such a treacherously dangerous situation. Should this not be applauded?
As a lawmaker in South Korea, I appeal to my counterparts in Washington to play a more active role at this critical and historic moment in U.S.-Korea relations. To that end, I share with you a few thoughts on understanding the current moment.
One, to say that we can’t trust North Korea as it hasn’t proposed a roadmap for verifiable denuclearization at this juncture is nonsense. After all, isn’t the purpose of the upcoming summit to discuss this very thing? I haven’t seen anyone—no government official, political leader or expert in North Korea or the United States—propose a clear plan for verification. This is a task for North Korea and the United States to put their heads together to tackle after the summit.
Washington pundits–mostly those who have tried in the past but failed to find a solution to the U.S.-North Korea conflict–demand unilateral denuclearization of North Korea and cry that “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” is vague. They are either ignorant of or willfully distorting the history and the core of the conflict and negotiations between the United States and North Korea surrounding the nuclear issue.
Both the Geneva Agreement in 1994 and the Joint Statement of the Fourth Round of the Six Party Talks in 2005 talk about “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” not North Korean denuclearization. They contain pledges by North Korea, the United States and South Korea to each take steps toward denuclearization of the peninsula.
The 1994 Geneva Agreement states, “Both sides will work together for peace and security on a nuclear-free Korean peninsula” and commits the United States to “provide formal assurances to the DPRK, against the threat or use of nuclear weapons by the U.S.” while North Korea takes steps toward denuclearization.
The Joint Statement of the Fourth Round of the Six Party Talks in 2005, which clearly states that the goal of the talks was the “verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” commits the United States to pledge “that it has no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and has no intention to attack or invade the DPRK with nuclear or conventional weapons” and South Korea to affirm “its commitment not to receive or deploy nuclear weapons…and that there exist no nuclear weapons within its territory.”
So far, North Korea has taken initiative while the United States has done nothing. It takes two hands to make a sound. Refusing to budge until “complete” denuclearization would be the surest way to undermine the current process of detente.
Two, the United States needs to be a key party to a Korean peninsula peace agreement. It seems most Americans believe ending the Korean War and creating a peace system on the Korean peninsula are merely Korean affairs, feasible simply through reconciliation between North and South Korea. This is far from the truth.
Let us remember that the signatory to the armistice at the end of the Korean War was not South Korea but the United States. Not only was it a party to the Korean War, but the United States was directly involved in the division of Korea. The United States maintained military rule from 1945 to 1948, and this led to the establishment of two separate governments in the north and south, which in turn led to the Korean War in 1950 when the United States took operational control of South Korean forces. As such, replacing the 1953 armistice with a peace treaty requires the United States and North Korea as the central parties.
Even today, the United States maintains wartime operational control of South Korean forces. In the absence of a peace treaty, war could break out at any moment in Korea and the United States will automatically be pulled in. The U.S. media and political leaders seem singularly concerned with denuclearizing North Korea, but signing a peace treaty and establishing a complete and irreversible peace system on the Korean peninsula are the only way to free the United States from the constant threats of war on the Korean peninsula.
Three, reunification is a shared dream of Korean people around the world. Americans often ask, “Do South Koreans really want reunification?” Soon, you will no longer need to ask this question. From the moment Kim Jong Un stepped over the military demarcation line at Panmunjom on April 27, there has been a sea change in the way South Koreans view the North. Excited conversations can be heard all throughout South Korea about the resumption of inter-Korean exchanges and visits and the opportunity to meet again with our North Korean counterparts.
Peace in Korea Requires a Bipartisan Effort
The upcoming U.S.-North Korea summit could produce a general framework for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula as well as normalization of relations and the creation of a peace system. If all goes well, we could see, concurrent with a timeline for denuclearization, a declaration to end the Korean War before the end of this year and a peace treaty by 2020.
This requires a bipartisan effort. You don’t have to like Trump to support peace in Korea. We are on the brink of achieving something historic for global peace. Let us work together to ensure the upcoming U.S.-North Korea summit leads to a long-term resolution of the Korean conflict.
Kim Jong-hoon is a member of the South Korea National Assembly and co-chair of the Minjung Party.
This article was originally published in The Hill.