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It’s Time for Biden to End the Korean War

The U.S. president should ignore fearmongering and build on a real opportunity.

By , a senior research fellow on East Asia at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
North Korean army soldiers
North Korean army soldiers wearing masks look at the South Korean side in Panmunjom, South Korea, on Sept. 16, 2020. Park Tae-Hyun/Korea-Pool/Getty Images

Tuesday’s reported ballistic missile launch by North Korea near the city of Sinpo will likely dominate U.S. news in the coming days. Virtually all analysis will focus on North Korea’s growing military threat, rather than its cause. Yet the real action has been the flurry of diplomatic activities in recent weeks, which, if successful, will be far more consequential than Pyongyang’s missile tests.

South Korea’s National Security Advisor Suh Hoon was in Washington last week to discuss President Moon Jae-in’s proposal to formally end the 1950-1953 Korean War. This week, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Sung Kim was in Seoul to explore this and other issues with his South Korean counterpart, Noh Kyu-duk, prior to a trilateral meeting with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts. Seoul’s repeated call to address the political dimension of the instability on the peninsula presents an opportunity for the Biden administration to dispel fear-driven narratives about ending America’s longest “forever war” and instead chart a forward-looking vision for the Korean Peninsula.

An end-of-war declaration is a political statement declaring an end to hostilities between enemies of war. It is a unilateral expression and has no legal status, though some consider it a preamble to a legally binding peace treaty to replace the Armistice Agreement that originally ended the fighting in 1953.

Tuesday’s reported ballistic missile launch by North Korea near the city of Sinpo will likely dominate U.S. news in the coming days. Virtually all analysis will focus on North Korea’s growing military threat, rather than its cause. Yet the real action has been the flurry of diplomatic activities in recent weeks, which, if successful, will be far more consequential than Pyongyang’s missile tests.

South Korea’s National Security Advisor Suh Hoon was in Washington last week to discuss President Moon Jae-in’s proposal to formally end the 1950-1953 Korean War. This week, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Sung Kim was in Seoul to explore this and other issues with his South Korean counterpart, Noh Kyu-duk, prior to a trilateral meeting with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts. Seoul’s repeated call to address the political dimension of the instability on the peninsula presents an opportunity for the Biden administration to dispel fear-driven narratives about ending America’s longest “forever war” and instead chart a forward-looking vision for the Korean Peninsula.

An end-of-war declaration is a political statement declaring an end to hostilities between enemies of war. It is a unilateral expression and has no legal status, though some consider it a preamble to a legally binding peace treaty to replace the Armistice Agreement that originally ended the fighting in 1953.

As Stephen Biegun, who served as deputy secretary of state and special representative for North Korea in the Trump administration, recently noted, an end-of-war declaration could be part of a “package” of offers to incentivize North Korea’s cooperation on denuclearization. A peace regime would institutionalize the peace process by establishing norms and rules of engagement, with the goal of proactively addressing the underlying issues that might motivate the North to attack the South.

Because this would be a lengthy process, Washington and Seoul should discuss what ending the war would mean in the short, medium, and long term, and how to manage risks associated with it. Ideally, such consultation would take place before moving from an end-of-war declaration to a peace treaty replacing the Armistice Agreement.

Unfortunately, Washington does not yet appear willing to consider Seoul’s proposal with the sense of urgency and seriousness it deserves. Instead, the Biden administration has been largely silent on matters related to formally ending the Korean War, which has created a vacuum that is being filled by more extremist voices seeking to prevent serious debates from taking place.

For example, some in the United States contend that North Korea’s underlying motive in improving ties with South Korea is to eventually invade it. Such a narrative ignores the possibility of peaceful coexistence between the two Koreas. Sydney Seiler, a national intelligence officer for North Korea at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, recently made the case against the North in an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

To experts like Seiler, the United States and the United States alone can guarantee peace and stability on the peninsula. No other power, including South Korea, can protect the Korean Peninsula from war. This mentality necessitates a permanent U.S. military presence in South Korea and downplays the South’s ability to defend itself. As the dominant security power, the United States would have the ultimate say in managing the North Korea issue, and South Korea would be forever beholden to America to manage North Korea’s nuclear threat.

This fear-based narrative is also reflected in nongovernmental campaigns. Last month, a new group called the One Korea Network and the Korean Conservative Political Action Conference (KCPAC, also known as CPAC Korea) launched a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal claiming that a formal end to the Korean War, as proposed in a proposed U.S. congressional bill, “potentially undercuts the US-South Korea alliance and … increases the likelihood of war.”

The One Korea Network was also behind a digital billboard in Times Square claiming the bill “Benefit[s] North Korea and China.” In one statement, KCPAC describes the withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan and Vietnam as “reckless” and equates a pro-diplomacy bill, the Peace on the Korean Peninsula Act, with “step towards driving the Korean Peninsula into war once again.” According to KCPAC’s website, it intends to work closely with the American Conservative Union on Korean Peninsula issues. KCPAC was one of the top sponsors of the 2020 Conservative Political Action Conference in the United States. In addition to opposing the Peace on the Korean Peninsula Act, KCPAC has attempted to undermine confidence in elections in South Korea.

Rather than letting fear close off possibilities of building a more stable Korean Peninsula, the Biden administration should articulate a positive-sum, forward-looking U.S. agenda on the peninsula, starting with a formal end-of-war declaration.

The U.S.-South Korea alliance is strong and well positioned for this diplomatic task. According to a report released last month by the Asan Institute, a South Korean think tank, over 78 percent of survey respondents support either maintaining or strengthening the U.S.-South Korean relationship. The American public is similarly positively disposed to South Korea, creating a real opening for the Biden administration to formally close the Cold War-era chapter of Korean history. The ambiguous status quo endangers U.S. interests in the region by making conflicts, including accidental ones, more likely.

Second, there is growing support within the American public for diplomacy as the main foreign-policy tool. According to a recent Eurasia Group Foundation survey, 58 percent of Americans want to increase diplomatic engagement with the world, with only 21 percent favoring decreasing engagement. Seventy percent agree with the statement: “The US should negotiate directly with adversaries to try to avoid military confrontation, even if those adversaries are human rights abusers, dictators, or home to terrorist organizations.”

Additionally, the Eurasia Group Foundation survey found that young people between the ages of 18 and 29 were especially wary of war. Sixty-two percent believe the United States should respond to China’s rise by decreasing (not increasing) its military footprint in Asia, a 7 percent increase from last year. Nearly half of the young people surveyed thought that “peace is best achieved by keeping a focus on domestic needs” while avoiding unnecessary interventions beyond the borders of the United States. After watching the U.S. government spend $8 trillion in its post-9/11 wars, young people understandably want to reduce the chance of a war whose cost they will have to bear.

A peace process should be supported by Republicans who generally supported former President Donald Trump’s unconventional diplomacy with North Korea, even if in large part because he was their party’s standard-bearer. The same Republicans who applauded Trump’s outreach to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un should back his successor Joe Biden’s efforts to improve relations, even if their instinct will be to lambaste the Democratic president at every turn.

As Republican Sen. Tom Cotton noted after the 2018 Singapore summit between Trump and Kim, seeing the two together was “not a pretty sight, but it’s the necessary part of a job to protect Americans.” Members of Congress should give Biden a chance to implement what Trump agreed to in the 2018 joint statement with Kim, and Biden should remind Republicans that the “establishment of new U.S.–DPRK relations and the building of a lasting and robust peace regime on the Korean Peninsula” was envisioned by a Republican president.

If the Biden administration declares the Korean War over and states its intent to formalize a peace treaty, American, South Korean, and North Korean officials should quickly move toward working-level talks to form a road map for peace and denuclearization. These negotiations would involve issues such as security guarantees and removal of United Nations sanctions in exchange for North Korea’s declaration of capability and facilities to manufacture and deliver nuclear weapons, as well as dismantlement of nuclear facilities.

In 1952, then-Republican presidential nominee Dwight D. Eisenhower laid out his plan for ending the Korean War: “To forego the diversions of politics and to concentrate on the job of ending the Korean war—until that job is honorably done. That job requires a personal trip to Korea. I shall make that trip. Only in that way could I learn how best to serve the American people in the cause of peace.” Seven decades later, Biden has the chance to fulfill Eisenhower’s pledge.

North Korea provides an opportunity for Biden to practice what he described at this year’s U.N. General Assembly as “relentless diplomacy,” one that may inspire other stakeholders to eschew destabilizing behavior in favor of a more constructive relationship. He should not be afraid to seize this moment.

Update, Oct. 19, 2021: This article has been updated after Tuesday’s reported ballistic missile launch by North Korea.

Jessica J. Lee is a senior research fellow on East Asia at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

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