While North Korea’s recent missile tests should not come as a surprise to anyone who follows the country’s ongoing conflict with the United States and South Korea, they show that North Korea is continuing to develop more powerful weapons.
In fact, this latest development was entirely predictable because the Biden administration has taken at least two concrete actions that actively fuel tensions on the Korean Peninsula: continuing joint military exercises with South Korea and lifting the cap on South Korea’s missile development.
To recap the recent history that got us here, former U.S. President Donald Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un three times in 2018-2019. At the Singapore summit in 2018, they agreed to establish new relations, build a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula and work toward the complete denuclearization of the peninsula, but the talks broke down the following year. Trump continued with a policy of maximum pressure on North Korea — layering on sanctions and conducting joint military exercises with South Korea.
In this year’s annual New Year address, Kim Jong Un said his country will no longer engage in talks with the U.S. unless Washington drops its “hostile policy.” And he directed his country to develop more and better missiles.
Thus far, the Biden administration has done nothing to change course from Trump’s policy of maximum pressure on North Korea. While Biden’s attention to other priorities, such as the pandemic and Afghanistan, is understandable, continuing to ignore North Korea is turning the Korean Peninsula into a powder keg.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Here’s what the Biden administration can do to end the dangerous arms race on the Korean Peninsula.
Stop the Military Exercises
The United States keeps around 28,500 soldiers in South Korea. This is a legacy of the Korean War, which was halted nearly 70 years ago with an armistice — not a peace treaty — leaving the peninsula in a perpetual state of war.
South Korea and the United States stage joint military exercises several times per year. The U.S. and South Korea call the exercises “defensive and routine,” but history has shown that these exercises don’t actually deter North Korea. In fact, they do the opposite — they provoke North Korea to carry out its own military exercises or weapons tests.
It’s also important to note that they are based on operation plans that include preemptive strikes, deposition of the North Korean leadership, precision strikes that take out their key installations and counterinsurgency operations — basically a plan for regime collapse and occupation.
Due to their provocative nature, these exercises have been the main obstacle to efforts for peace-building and reconciliation between the two Koreas. For example, in July, North and South Korea re-established their inter-Korean hotline — a sign of hope amid stalemated talks among all sides. But that hope was quickly dashed as it was followed immediately by nine days of joint military exercises held by the U.S. and South Korea in August.
Stop Fueling an Arms Race in Korea
Since the end of the Korean War, the U.S. and South Korea have had an arrangement of extended nuclear deterrence. In other words, South Korea agreed to refrain from developing nuclear weapons in exchange for protection under the U.S.’s nuclear umbrella. Hence, South Korea has not developed its own nuclear capability — although there are reactionary voices in South Korea that have long advocated that the country do so.
At their summit in May of this year, President Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed to terminate an agreement between their countries that had previously capped the range of South Korea’s ballistic missiles to 800 kilometers (roughly 500 miles). South Korea is now able to build ballistic missiles with larger payloads and longer ranges.
Not surprisingly, North Korea reacted angrily to the removal of the missile restrictions and accused the U.S. of applying a double standard — because while the U.S. is trying to stop North Korea from developing ballistic missiles, it is encouraging South Korea to do so.
Earlier this month, South Korea tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), a delivery system for nuclear weapons. South Korea is the only country without nuclear weapons that has developed an SLBM.
Could this mean that South Korea is headed toward developing nuclear weapons? If so, both sides will be nuclear — an obviously dangerous situation for the peninsula, as well as for the entire region.
Don’t Exacerbate the Situation
Pyongyang has been consistent in its message to Washington. In all its past agreements with the U.S., in Kim Jong Un’s New Year addresses every year, and through its official public statements, Pyongyang has called for an end to the U.S.’s “hostile policy.” Yet Washington often shrugs and says, “We don’t understand.”
Perhaps it’s time to review our actions toward North Korea to assess what might possibly be perceived as hostile. Perhaps it’s the Pentagon’s war plans that envision regime collapse and occupation. Or perhaps it’s the sanctions that have cut off the country’s ability to trade with the rest of the world.
It is disingenuous for Washington to say it is willing to talk with the North Koreans but doesn’t understand what they want. It’s clear what they want. The question is: Does the U.S. have the political will to end this forever conflict? At 71 years, the Korean War is, in fact, the longest ongoing U.S. overseas conflict.
Unfortunately, U.S. weapons contractors stand to gain much by keeping this conflict going. South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, for example, are among the top 10 purchasers of arms from the U.S. But their profit is at the detriment of millions of people in the region and now our own national security in the U.S.
Negotiate a Peace Agreement to End the Korean War
As long as the Korean War remains unresolved, the Korean Peninsula will be mired in a perpetual arms race.
According to North Korean state media, its latest cruise missile flew over 900 miles, changed trajectories along the way and made circles before hitting their targets. The test was not reported by the U.S. or South Korea before North Korea’s state media announcement — making one question whether they were able to detect the missile test when it occurred. If not, it shows increasing sophistication in North Korea’s missile technology.
This tit-for-tat weapons buildup is costly for all parties — mainly the people of North Korea and the taxpayers of South Korea and the U.S. It is also dangerous. The Korean Peninsula is heavily armed on both sides and still in a temporary ceasefire. U.S. military generals have warned about the danger of miscalculations and accidental skirmishes leading to a catastrophic war there.
This is why Korean Americans and peace groups across the U.S. have come together to press for a peace agreement to officially end the Korean War.
The North and South Korean leaders agreed to pursue a peace agreement in their Panmunjom Declaration in 2018. They agreed to pursue talks with the U.S. and possibly China to end the Korean War. (The U.S. was a key party to the Korean War, as well as a signatory to the armistice, and still holds wartime operational control over the joint forces in South Korea, so it needs to be involved in any discussion about ending the war.) China has already expressed support for the idea of a peace agreement. The key missing party is the U.S.
A bipartisan bill in Congress — the Peace on the Korean Peninsula Act (H.R.3446) — calls on the Biden administration to “pursue serious, urgent diplomatic engagement with North Korea and South Korea in pursuit of a binding peace agreement constituting a formal and final end to the state of war between North Korea, South Korea, and the United States.”
President Biden’s theme is to “Build back better.” The best thing he can do to reduce the threat of nuclear war with North Korea and build back better on the Korean Peninsula is to end the Korean War with a peace agreement.