This essay is part of a series, Pursuing Peaceful Coexistence with North Korea, that explores how the United States and South Korea can peacefully coexist with a nuclear North Korea. 

The greatest challenge to peaceful coexistence between North Korea and the United States is the technical state of war between the two countries. The United States and the Soviet Union may have been at ideological loggerheads, used proxies in regional conflicts and come close to direct superpower blows — but they were not in a state of war. Resolution of the Korean War should be set as a stated U.S. policy objective. This is a necessary Step Zero on the road to peaceful coexistence with North Korea today and could reduce the risk of deliberate or accidental conflict, nuclear or otherwise.

Lee San Hun dances with a flag that symbolizes a unified Korean Peninsula to mark the Korean War armistice anniversary in Ganghwa-do, South Korea, on September 21, 2022. (Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)
Lee San Hun dances with a flag that symbolizes a unified Korean Peninsula to mark the Korean War armistice anniversary in Ganghwa-do, South Korea, on September 21, 2022. (Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)

‘More Dangerous’ Than at Any Time Since June 1950

When facing potential conflict, communication channels matter. The Biden administration worked hard in 2023 to reestablish direct military-to-military contact with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. “We need those lines of communication so that there aren't mistakes or miscalculations or miscommunication,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in an interview with CBS’ “Face the Nation.” The absence of any direct communication between Washington and Pyongyang presents an even greater danger. Each side distrusts the other and expects the worst. The slightest misstep without the opportunity to deescalate could be catastrophic, not just for the Koreas, but for the entire world. Things could hardly be worse.

But on December 31, 2023, they did get worse. In his speech to the annual Korean Workers’ Party plenary, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared that reunification with South Korea is no longer the goal nor possible, abandoning his family dynasty’s longstanding inter-Korean policy. North Korea now views South Korea as a separate state, its population mutated beyond repair and subjugation as the only option. This is not a mere provocation. North Korea immediately dismantled its reunification infrastructure, including organizations and websites, as well as symbols such as the Arch of Reunification. Subsequent pronouncements from North Korea reinforced the changed approach, bolstered it with mutual rhetoric with Russia and pledged to use everything in the regime’s arsenal to implement the policy.

Highly respected North Korea experts Robert Carlin and Siegfried Hecker have concluded that “The situation on the Korean Peninsula is more dangerous than it has been at any time since early June 1950.”

“That may sound overly dramatic,” they added, “but we believe that, like his grandfather in 1950, Kim Jong Un has made a strategic decision to go to war.” They see the abandonment of reunification and Kim’s partnership with Russia’s Vladimir Putin as evidence that Kim has given up on another long-term goal: normalization of relations with the United States.

The U.S. Should Make Resolution of the War a Strategic Objective

To prevent reignition of the dormant but ever-more-dangerous conflict, the United States should add resolution of the Korean War to its strategic objectives, and given the growing risk, do so quickly in a substantive and credible manner. One approach is issuance of a U.S. presidential statement that explicitly introduces resolving the Korean War as a policy priority and is accompanied by tangible government commitment and resources. This type of move may not be feasible in the near term but should be considered as part of future North Korea policy reviews. A declaration of intent would signal that the United States is seeking to give substance to the 2018 Singapore Statement’s call to “establish new U.S.-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity” and the 1953 Armistice Agreement’s recommendation that a political conference be held to settle through negotiation the “Korean question.” A move that messages a turn away from hostility could mitigate Kim’s belligerence against the United States and South Korea and open an avenue for dialogue unavailable since the U.S.-North Korea Hanoi summit in 2019.

Congress can also play an important role. While the legislative branch does not establish foreign policy, it can express support for resolving the Korean War through its oversight function and legislative action. In 2015, House Resolution 384 sought to honor veterans, victims and divided families by calling upon “the international community to support the vision of a unified Korea and assist efforts to promote international peace and security, denuclearization, economic prosperity, human rights, and the rule of law both on the Korean Peninsula and elsewhere.” The resolution, sponsored by three Korean War veterans in the House of Representatives, did not pass. More recently, versions of the Peace on the Korean Peninsula Act have been introduced in the past two sessions of Congress. The current version is in committee. The 2004 North Korean Human Rights Act, and subsequent reauthorizations, established an ambassadorial-level position related to improving human rights in North Korea and devoted funds to this effort.

Legislation making the pursuit of resolution of the Korean War a matter of law could attract support from divergent elements. The lack of dialogue with North Korea is widely seen as increasing the risk of conflict. A 2024 Harris Poll showed that a plurality of 2,078 respondents believed that the United States should end the Korean War by signing a peace agreement (48% agreed; 30% disagreed, 22% didn’t know), which was up from 2021 (41%) but slightly down from 2023 (52%).

Denuclearization proponents should recognize that without dialogue, any hope for progress on North Korean nuclear disarmament is impossible. Those concerned about China’s regional and global ambitions might believe that any rapprochement between Washington and Pyongyang would complicate China’s strategic calculus and dull the luster of the Kim-Putin relationship. Improved U.S.-North Korea relations could also create an environment that would facilitate discussions on North Korean human rights and engagements to improve the civilian population’s resilience. Finally, Kim’s disavowal of the notion of a unified Korea leaves room for an end-of-war agreement short of resolving inter-Korea differences.

Consultation, cooperation and negotiation with South Korea will be an essential facet of Korean War resolution, but no U.S. law can dictate agreement or demand action from our ally. So long as the law is consistent with the Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States and the Republic of Korea of 1953, it will enable the bilateral pursuit of a solution.

The North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 is a useful point of reference for congressional action on resolution of the Korean War. Passed by voice vote with bipartisan support, this act pushed the State Department to have an office that focused on the issue, authorized up to $60 million over three years for assistance to refugees from the North Korea and allocated additional funds to promote human rights, democracy and freedom of information. The law also included the requirement for the president to appoint a special envoy to promote human rights in North Korea. A State Department focal point to lead the resolution of the Korean War is needed for continuity and credibility.

A Road Map for Peaceful Coexistence

The pursuit of a permanent peace to replace the “temporary” armistice has not been a U.S. policy priority since the failure of the 1954 Geneva Conference. During that conference, the participants dealt with the “Korean question” — how to reunite and bring peace to the Korean Peninsula — but eventually set it aside because of multiple disagreements and focused on the First Indochina War. Until the Soviet Union’s devolution, the Northeast Asian standoff was a subset of the larger Cold War effort to counter the communist bloc and keep the competition from overheating. Subsequent policy has centered on deterring conflict and forestalling North Korea’s nuclear ambition with secondary emphasis on the human condition within North Korea. Pyongyang now has a credible nuclear threat, and the efforts to put the cork back in the atomic bottle has been the preeminent objective for several U.S. administrations. However, efforts to end the war with formal action have been momentary excursions without significant progress.

Seventy years of stalemate and neglect have left much to do for an office focused on Korean War resolution. Areas that should be addressed include, among others:

  • Examine the failure of the 1954 Geneva Conference to fulfill its obligation to resolve the Korean War permanently, and how the two Koreas’ current diverging positions on unification would affect the dynamics of peace negotiations.
  • Establish a network of responsible parties for war resolution from the United Nations Command (UNC). While the UNC has a mission to facilitate “dialogue and actions that lead to a lasting peace,” that task is not among its four priorities. Resolution will require the agreement (or at the very least acquiescence) of the 16 members comprising the UNC with the United States and host South Korea.
  • Initiate a formal “truth and reconciliation” process consistent with international norms and leveraging the many successes and failures in history. Allegations of civilian massacres and maltreatment of prisoners from both sides of the conflict must be aired and as much as possible adjudicated. Additionally, the United States should conduct an internal assessment of the legality of its extensive bombing of North Korea during the war, as that is a foundational element of residual North Korean animosity.
  • Develop U.S. positions on the establishment of an inter-Korean border at the current Military Demarcation Line and updated maritime boundaries consistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Request an advisory (non-binding) judgment maritime demarcation from the Permanent Court of Arbitration or another body with a record of quality jurisprudence on maritime disputes.
  • Conduct an assessment of the implications of Korean War resolution on the status of the UNC, the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) and the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission; develop concepts for a new peace management system to replace the MAC during transition to peaceful coexistence.
  • Examine options for the establishment of liaison offices with North Korea drawing on lessons from past attempts in the Agreed Framework, Six-Party Talks and during the 2018-19 U.S.-North Korea summits.
  • In consultation with Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, integrate joint recovery and repatriation of Korean War remains into the war resolution effort.
  • Work with the Department of Defense to create options for military-to-military relations and appropriate confidence-building measures between the U.S.-South Korean alliance and the North Korean military.

The sudden summitry of 2018-19 underscores that the United States must prepare for any prospect to end our longest war regardless of when and how that chance at settlement emerges. The armistice called for settlement talks within three months. Seventy years hence, the tasks listed above still require completion if we are to seize the moment and achieve final resolution.

If Not Now, When?

Decisive executive action toward resolving the Korean War is difficult to imagine today. However, by making it a policy priority, future U.S. administrations may be able to reduce the risk of potential nuclear war, counter Chinese and Russian influence in the region, open the door to denuclearization, reunite divided families, improve human rights and enable much-needed humanitarian assistance. If Congress is unable to act this term, resolution of the Korean War to enable peaceful coexistence should be at the top of the docket in the next session to mandate executive branch leadership in the pursuit of a principled and sustainable peace.

Dan Leaf is a retired three-star general and former deputy commander of U.S. Pacific Command and Deputy J-3 of U.S. Forces Korea. His essay, “An urgently practical approach to the Korean Peninsula,” won the Oslo Forum’s first-ever Peacewriter Prize in 2017.

The views expressed in this essay are the author’s and do not represent USIP.

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