Korea’s Wound That Will Not Heal
A girl, dressed in Korean traditional costume
Hanbok, looks at a barbed-wire fence after
a memorial service for North Korean family
members near the demilitarized zone separating
the two Koreas, in Paju, February 19, 2015
Login if you are already registered
Russian Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, RIAC Member, RIAC Vice-President
June 25 will mark 65 years to the day that the Korean War began. And its painful consequences can still be felt today. The line drawn in 1945 across the 38th parallel to delimit the zone where the Soviet and U.S. armed forces accepted Japan’s capitulation to end the Second World War continues to separate the two Koreas – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the north and the Republic of Korea to the south – seven decades later.
June 25 will mark 65 years to the day that the Korean War began. And its painful consequences can still be felt today. The line drawn in 1945 across the 38th parallel to delimit the zone where the Soviet and U.S. armed forces accepted Japan’s capitulation to end the Second World War continues to separate the two Koreas – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the north and the Republic of Korea to the south – seven decades later. On both sides of the demilitarized zone – the provisional border between the countries – the two Koreas have been building up their armies, with thousands of troops equipped with the most up-to-date weapons and military equipment ready to engage the enemy. And it is not just Korean soldiers. In accordance with the U.S.–South Korea Collective Defense Agreement, more than 25,000 U.S. troops are currently deployed on South Korean soil under the command of the United States Forces Korea (USFK), which is headed by an American general. In the event that an armed conflict breaks out on the Korean Peninsula, the Republic of Korea Armed Forces will fall under his command. The military standoff between North and South Korea is the main threat to security in Southeast Asia. And this threat has only intensified in recent times as a result of North Korea’s active interest in developing its nuclear weapons programme.
For many years both Pyongyang and Seoul have talked about the possibility of reunifying Korea. These statements, however, have never been anything more than pure propaganda intended for domestic consumption. The nature of relations between the two Koreas was always been dictated by the state of relations between East and West, between the USSR, the United States and China. It is no coincidence that the first joint declaration released by North and South Korea, which stated that the unification of Korea is something that should be achieved independently, without outside interference and by peaceful means based on “national consolidation”, was made on July 4, 1972. The declaration was preceded by a normalization of U.S.–Chinese relations on the back of President Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing in February 1972 and the Moscow Summit in May of that year, which marked the beginning of the détente period in relations between the two countries.
Given the current balance of powers on Russia’s Far Eastern borders, it would be in the country’s interests for Korea to become a united, independent, neutral and nuclear-free country.
The end of the Cold War left its mark on the Korean Peninsula. Moscow took the first step by establishing diplomatic relations with South Korea in 1990. In 1992, China followed Moscow’s lead by opening an embassy in Seoul. In 1991, both North and South Korea were admitted into the United Nations, although the United States did not officially recognize North Korea at the time.
The Koreans, meanwhile, occupied themselves with establishing a dialogue between North and South. In December 1991, the heads of government of the respective countries acknowledged for the first time the equal existence of the two Korean states with the signing of the Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, Exchange and Cooperation, which included a joint declaration on the non-nuclear status of the Korean Peninsula.
The Korean Peninsula: Threats and
The visit of South Korea’s first ever liberal president Kim Dae-Jung to Pyongyang and the inaugural Inter-Korea Summit in June 2000 that resulted in the North–South Joint Declaration marked the beginning of a qualitatively new stage in relations between the two countries. The Declaration set out a programme for developing bilateral relations so that they will be based on reconciliation rather than confrontation. President Roh Moo-Hyun continued Kim Dae-Jung’s work. The Second Inter-Korean Summit in 2007 served as another step towards rapprochement between North and South.
Both liberal presidents saw economic integration as the best way to unite Korea. It was assumed that the experience of setting up the Kaesong Industrial Region with the participation of South Korean companies, combining two different management systems, would over the course of 15 to 20 years be repeated across the whole of North Korea and thus provide a firm economic basis for unifying the two Koreas. Relations between the countries suffered a serious blow in 2008, however, when President Roh Moo-Hyun was replaced by the conservative Lee Myung-Bak and tensions over North Korea’s nuclear programme began to rise. As a result, almost all ties between North and South Korea were severed, including ministers’ meetings, economic negotiations and contacts between the respective ministries of defence.
Are All Korea’s Neighbours Interested in Reunification?
The United States, South Korea and Japan do not face the task of resolving the “Korean question” in the broad sense now. Rather, their goals are more specific – to resolve the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula which, as far as Washington, Seoul and Japan are concerned, means the full and complete nuclear disarmament of North Korea.
Given the current balance of powers on Russia’s Far Eastern borders, it would be in the country’s interests for Korea to become a united, independent, neutral and nuclear-free country. The problem, however, is that neither Seoul nor Pyongyang – and not even their neighbours or partners – are ready to reunify the country.
As far as Seoul is concerned, unification is seen as the South absorbing the North. However, the people of South Korea are concerned about the price of such an endeavour; even if Korea is reunified in a relatively peaceful manner, the cost of bringing the North up to speed would have long-term negative consequences for Korea on the global markets. Pyongyang, in turn, is not prepared to capitulate to the South. What is more, the country’s military and political elite, and the emerging yet still extremely weak North Korean private sector, have spoken out in favour of keeping an independent North Korean state, as they realize that if Korea is unified, it will be under the leadership of Seoul and they will be swept away by the South Korean wave.
The United States is more interested in maintaining the status quo on the Korean Peninsula than it is in a unified Korea. Maintaining an atmosphere of tension in the region is a convenient way for the Americans to keep hold of and, where necessary, strengthen its military and political presence in Korea, which serves as an important component of the global system of U.S. leadership. The Korean Peninsula is the only place in East Asia where the U.S. military has a physical presence.
Inter-Korean Dialogue and Reconciliation
China, for its part, views the balance of powers on the Korean Peninsula primarily through the prism of its political standoff with the United States. The United States’ intended return to Asia and the new U.S.–Japanese–South Korean military partnership is seen by Beijing as the encirclement of its country. In this context, ensuring the continued existence of North Korea is of strategic importance to China.
Japan fears the emergence of a unified Korea as a powerful competitor in the regional and global arena, much like the United Kingdom and France tried to delay the formation of a unified Germany in the late 1980s.
For these reasons, the United States, South Korea and Japan do not face the task of resolving the “Korean question” in the broad sense now. Rather, their goals are more specific – to resolve the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula which, as far as Washington, Seoul and Japan are concerned, means the full and complete nuclear disarmament of North Korea.
The Nuclear Issue on the Korean Peninsula
While there is no justification for North Korea’s nuclear programme, its emergence is largely explainable. At a time when the United States has assumed the right to unilaterally use military force against states that it deems undesirable, and the United Nations in its present configuration is powerless to stop it, small and not-so-small nations are trying to ensure their safety at all costs.
Asia does not need a new leader – it needs a new security architecture.
North Korean leaders understand that starting a war, and using nuclear weapons in particular, is tantamount to suicide. It is worth noting whenever Pyongyang issues a threat to its potential enemies about launching devastating attacks, it is always in response to what it perceives as aggression against the country from external sources. For Pyongyang, its nuclear programme is a safety shield. And it will not give it up meekly. There is only one solution – to reach an agreement with Pyongyang on the provision of security guarantees, primarily from South Korea, but also from Russia, China, Japan and all the other countries in the region. These must be firm and convincing guarantees, so as not to arouse any suspicion on any of the sides.
The nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula is a direct consequence of the confrontation between the two Korean governments, and it will never be solved, or solvable, as long as the political issues left over from the Korean War continue to be avoided.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and South
Korean president Kim Dae-jung shake hands at
Pyongyang Sunan International Airport,
June 15, 2000
The nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula has a direct impact on Russia. North Korea holds its nuclear missile tests just a few hundred kilometres from our borders. And a number of “threshold” and “pre-threshold” states may try to follow the example set by North Korea by developing their own nuclear programmes and purchasing nuclear weapons. Powerful groups in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are already calling for their respective countries to establish nuclear capabilities. And by no means can we allow problem states or organizations to get their hands on nuclear technology or parts that has been developed in Pyongyang.
Russia does not recognize North Korea as a nuclear power, and in 2003 it joined China, North Korea, South Korea, the United States and Japan for six-part talks on North Korea’s nuclear programme. The joint statement issued by the group on September 19, 2005 contained a constructive basis not only for ensuring the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, but also for improving the situation in the region as a whole. The implementation of the statement’s provisions would guarantee that the political and economic decisions to make Northeast Asia a region of peace, security and cooperation had been achieved. However, not all participants in the talks were prepared to put these decisions into practice. Why was this? It works to the United States’ advantage for Northeast Asia to be a source of tension. Thoroughly convinced of this fact, Pyongyang proceeded to carry out nuclear tests on three separate occasions.
Pulling North Korea out of Isolation
A peace treaty aimed at ending the military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula should be more than a non-aggression pact between the parties to the Korean War; it should be a much more ambitious document for partnership between the Korean states, one that is reached independently of external influences.
The hopes of certain powers that the existing system of government in North Korea will soon collapse are unlikely to pan out: the system has shown on more than one occasion that it is extremely resilient. North Korea is a member of the United Nations and other international organizations. It maintains diplomatic relations with a great number of members of the global community. Pulling North Korea out of isolation, contributing to its social and economic growth, and turning it into a fully fledged member of the international community can happen only if it is in the interests of all Northeast Asian countries. A comfortable North Korea is a much more reliable partner on all kinds of issues than a country that has been backed into a corner under the threat of sanctions.
The late 1980s and early 1990s saw a deterioration in Russian–North Korean relations. But President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Pyongyang in 2000 and the signing of the Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighbourliness and Cooperation between the Russian Federation and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea opened the gates to re-establishing full-scale interaction between the two countries. Resolving the issue of North Korea’s debt to Russia is intended to give strong impetus to bilateral trade and economic cooperation. It could still be extended to include South Korea.
Implementing large-scale partnership projects between Russia, North Korea and South Korea would no doubt help normalize relations between the two Koreas. Such project s include the Europe–Korea international rail corridor, the construction of the Russia–North Korea–South Korea gas pipeline and the establishment of a unified power system in Northeast Asia, which would also cover East Siberia and the Russian Far East.
What Should Be Done?
The six-party format (North and South Korea, China, Russia, the United States and Japan) appears to be the most advantageous in terms of discussing the nuclear issue and other problems on the Korean Peninsula, as well as Northeast Asian security as a whole.
Russia, like China is objectively interested in the United States having a presence in Asia. And both would like to work with the United States, but obviously not in a format that is dominated by the American side. Asia does not need a new leader – it needs a new security architecture. The United States’ intended “return” to Asia is the perfect time to start a substantive discussion on the matter.
The United Nations needs to put the “Korean question” back on its agenda. The most pressing task right now is to correct the thoroughly unnatural situation whereby the United Nations is officially aligned with South Korea in the Korean War, which means it is aligned against North Korea – one of its own members. This is because the forces that opposed Pyongyang in the war fought under the flag of the United Nations. The first step in this direction could be taken by adopting in the run-up to, or during, the upcoming anniversary session of the General Assembly, the Security Council’s declaration about the Korean War belonging to the legacy of the past, which would allow it to dissolve the UN Command in Korea. At the same time, the bilateral U.S.–South Korean military structures created in accordance with inter-governmental agreements would remain in South Korea.
This could be followed by a UN peace conference on the Korean Peninsula that could deal with issues related to reaching a peace agreement; establishing diplomatic relations between North and South Korea, the United States and Japan; ensuring the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula; scaling down armaments and armed forces; developing economic cooperation between the two Korean governments; and providing economic aid to Pyongyang. The conference could be attended by the UN Secretary-General, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, North Korea, South Korea and other countries as agreed by the governments of the two Koreas.
A peace treaty aimed at ending the military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula should be more than a non-aggression pact between the parties to the Korean War; it should be a much more ambitious document for partnership between the Korean states, one that is reached independently of external influences – in the same way that the joint declaration was made on July 4, 1972. Such an agreement would turn North Korea into a fully-fledged member of the international community and a recipient of aid from international financial organizations, among other things. China, Russia, the United States and Japan could act as guarantors of peace and cooperation between the two Koreas, as they are the most interested in ensuring peace in Northeast Asia. Similar proposals have already been made in South Korea.
The problems of international security cannot resolve themselves. Constant effort is required from all parties involved to put an end to the nuclear issue and normalize relations between North and South Korea. The situation on the Korean Peninsula should not be allowed to deteriorate into a kind of zugzwang, where there are no good moves and any action (or inaction) leads to a scenario where “you cannot act yet you have to.”