The crucible of the Korean War forged the close allied relationship between the United States and South Korea. North Korea’s invasion of the South on June 25, 1950, and the United States’ entry into the war on June 27, 1950, were three years of living hell, with South Korean casualties of approximately 139,000 dead and 500,000 wounded and United States casualties of 37,000 dead and 103,000 wounded. The Armistice on July 27, 1953, ended this bloody war, but that’s all it did — it stopped the fighting but technically, until there is a peace treaty, the war with North Korea continues.
The U.S.- South Korea relationship is a critically important allied relationship, with over 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and a United States extended nuclear deterrence commitment to our ally in South Korea. But the bilateral relationship is more than a close allied military relationship, given that South Korea, a model liberal democracy that shares our values, is the United States’ second-largest trading partner, with an extant robust Free Trade Agreement and close bilateral relations dating back to the early 20th century.
The goal since the Armistice in 1953 has been the reunification of the Korean Peninsula. All presidents, but especially presidents Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun and Moon Jae-in have worked tirelessly to close the chasm with the North and move toward reunification. However, North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons — and its abominable human rights record — has to date made these efforts unsuccessful.
Presently, North Korea has a reported arsenal of 40 to 60 Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranian-based nuclear weapons, with a very sophisticated arsenal of ballistic missiles, including short, medium and intercontinental ballistic missiles. The North’s recent launch of a gigantic Hwasong-17 ICBM was assessed as capable of reaching the whole of the United States. Indeed, the North’s work on submarine-launched and hypersonic missiles is of concern, as are the recent tests of cruise missiles and sophisticated short-range ballistic missiles reportedly capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.
South Korea and the United States continue to work toward convincing North Korea to denuclearize completely and verifiably in exchange for security assurances, the lifting of sanctions and economic development assistance and a path to normal relations, with the expectation that North Korea will make progress on human rights.
There has been some fleeting success with the North: the North-South Agreement of 1992; the Agreed Framework of 1994; the Six-Party Talks Joint Statement of September 2005; the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity, and Reunification of the Korean Peninsula in 2018; the Singapore Joint Statement of 2018 committing North Korea to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula; and the Hanoi Summit of 2019 that was unsuccessful. All these agreements eventually failed because North Korea was and is determined to retain its nuclear weapons.
North Korea’s senior negotiator in 2003, in one of our first meetings of the Six-Party Talks, told me that the United States should accept North Korea as a nuclear weapon state, as we did Pakistan because their nuclear weapons are for deterrence purposes only. I said then and United States — and South Korea — policy continues to be that we will never accept North Korea as a nuclear-weapon state. To do so would result in a nuclear arms race in the region, with other countries seeking nuclear weapons, and the possibility that North Korea could provide a nuclear weapon and/or fissile material for a dirty bomb to a rogue state or terrorist organization.
Despite these setbacks with North Korea, efforts must continue for the denuclearization of the North and eventual reunification of the Korean Peninsula. It is obvious to some of us that Kim Jong-un wants to end North Korea’s isolation and wants to be a member of the international community, with access to financial institutions and not be dependent only on China for its economic and geopolitical future. But Kim wants this on his terms — being accepted as a nuclear weapons state.
To secure peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region, the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula is imperative. Also important, however, is to ensure that it is a free and open Indo-Pacific region. The East and South China seas and China’s militarization of the islands and reefs in the South China sea is indeed a potential flash point. And the Shanghai Communique of 1972 and the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 are clear in stating that the future of Taiwan should be resolved by peaceful means. These and other issues will require greater attention.
This is the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s visit to China and meeting with Chair Mao Zedong, which arranged for the normalization of relations in 1979. Currently, there’s over $600 billion of annual trade between the United States and China, with over 300 U.S. companies doing business in China and over 350,000 Chinese students studying in U.S. colleges and universities. Economic decoupling would harm both countries and a new cold war could devastate the region and the world.
The government of President Yoon Suk Yeol and the administration of President Biden are committed to strengthening this close bilateral allied relationship between South Korea and the U.S. This is good not only for our two countries but also for the region and the world.
The challenge for the Yoon administration will be getting traction with North Korea for improved inter-Korean relations. And progress on inter-Korean relations will depend heavily on North Korea’s willingness to meaningfully negotiate with the U.S. and South Korea on complete and verifiable denuclearization. Indeed, without progress on denuclearization and inter-Korean relations, the region will become less stable, with the potential of stumbling into accidental conflict with a North Korea with nuclear weapons.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the tragic war that continues, with the carnage we see each day on the news, should be a wake-up call that alliances to confront aggressors are important and military preparedness for defensive purposes is imperative. The security assurances Russia — and the United States and Great Britain — provided to Ukraine in 1994, with the Budapest Memorandum, in return for Ukraine turning over approximately 1,900 nuclear warheads to Russia, did not prevent Russia from invading Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. Russia’s surprise, however, was that NATO and other countries, including South Korea, came together to support Ukraine, sanctioning Russia and providing Ukraine with the weapons and training necessary for their own defense, which has frustrated Russia’s military onslaught.
So, we must ensure that the U.S. — South Korea alliance remains strong, with a focus on a strong geopolitical, economic and military relationship.
Concurrently, we should continue to work hard at resuming meaningful negotiations with North Korea, knowing that it will be difficult getting North Korea to denuclearize completely and verifiably, especially after Russia’s invasion of a Ukraine that gave up its nuclear weapons for security assurances. That means we will have to work harder to establish trust with North Korea in our effort to convince Mr. Kim that North Korea will be more secure and more economically prosperous without nuclear weapons and with normal relations with the U.S. and South Korea and the international community. This will take time, patience and creativity. It’s something we must do.
• Joseph R. DeTrani is the former director of the National Counterproliferation Center and the special envoy for negotiations with North Korea. The views are the author’s and not any government agency or department.