July 27 marks the 65th anniversary of the Armistice Agreement when the US, North Korea and China signed a ceasefire to halt three years of brutal fighting which claimed 4 million lives. When the military commanders laid down their weapons, they promised to return within 90 days to negotiate a peace agreement to end the Korean War.
Sixty-five years later, after two historic summits between the two Koreas at Panmunjom and between North Korea and the United States in Singapore, we are the closest ever to seeing a peace process that will yield that long-awaited peace agreement.
In Singapore, US President Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Un committed to improving relations between the two countries, establishing a peace regime and denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. The first step toward advancing this longer process, which was the last item both leaders agreed to, is North Korea’s return of the remains of the US servicemen from the war. According to KBS World Radio, North Korea is slated to repatriate two truckloads of wooden boxes of American soldiers on the anniversary.
Already, North Korea has halted nuclear and missile testing, and the United States and South Korea have suspended their joint war drills. According to Vincent Brooks, US Commander of US Forces in Korea, almost a year has passed without North Korea conducting a nuclear test. Furthermore, Pyongyang has returned all detained Americans and has begun to dismantle a satellite launch site, according to the think tank 38 North.
At a July 25 Senate Foreign Relations hearing, in response to Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy’s tough questioning on whether North Korea agreed to the US definition of denuclearization, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo affirmed that the North Koreans agreed to denuclearize according to a US definition of denuclearization that was “not dissimilar to how the UN has characterized it, [or] how South Koreans have characterized it.”
Yet progress toward actually achieving denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is incumbent upon the establishment of a peace regime. North Korean leaders will not give up their nuclear program unless they have hard assurances in the form of a peace agreement that the United States won’t attack their country.
Unfortunately, progress on the signing of a peace agreement is being stalled by old patterns of behavior that have only served the interests of those who benefit from continued war. Brooks recently told an audience in Aspen that progress hinges on trust, and that the absence of trust is the enemy “we now have to defeat.”
While Seoul will continue to be an important interlocutor between Washington and Pyongyang to ensure that the communication channels continue to remain open between the two hardened, mistrustful sides, both the Trump and Kim administrations will need to take more proactive and concrete steps toward building that trust between Americans and North Koreans.
The return of remains will be a significant step toward building that trust. It will help heal the pain of so many American families who still await closure on their missing relatives from the Korean War. One American, Rick Downes, executive director of the Coalition of Families of Korean and Cold War POW/MIAs traveled to Pyongyang a few years ago to discuss the return of his father’s remains. “I flew over where my father’s plane went down. It was the closest I’ve been to him since I was three years old,” Downes said. “Like thousands of other American families who pray to bring their loved ones home, I hope to go back and bring my father home.”
In addition to resuming the recovery of US servicemen remains, the Trump administration should help reunite Korean American families still divided by the ongoing Korean War. According to The New York Times, there are approximately 56,000 South Koreans who are waiting on a list to be reunited with their relatives in North Korea, the majority of whom are in their 80s and 90s. In May, 462 South Korean elders died without seeing their loved ones. Although family reunions are planned between North Korea and South Korea on August 15, 2018, Korean American families have yet to be included in such a lottery.
Nan Kim, an associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and author of Memory, Reconciliation, and Reunions in South Korea: Crossing the Divide, said: “It is critical for all sides to reach a diplomatic resolution for ending the Korean War, and time is precious while it’s still possible to reunite surviving members of war-separated families. If you consider the lives of those who survived the war but have been unable to reunite with their families for 67 years, that highlights the human side of Korean division as an ongoing crisis whose only meaningful and viable resolution is a peaceful one.”
Lastly, the Trump administration should cancel the travel ban on Americans from traveling to North Korea and on North Koreans coming into the United States. According to several Korean Americans with relatives in North Korea, they were denied special exemptions from the State Department. This spring, American Nobel Peace Laureate Jody Williams and I were among several US women who were denied special exemptions to travel to North Korea to meet with women from the Korea Socialist Women’s Union to discuss how women could end the Korean War. Traveling and meeting North Korean people helps Americans understand the country their government has been at war with for 65 years, but it also helps humanize the enemy vilified by over six decades of hostility.
In my experience in meeting North Korean, South Korean and American officials to discuss how they can support women’s inclusion in the Korea peace process, I am constantly reminded of how much mistrust has been hardened over 70 years.
At the very minimum, it will take meeting, talking, building trust and having a working relationship to convince North Korea — which was destroyed by US warplanes during the Korean War — to give up its sole deterrent to prevent an American nuclear first strike.