[Interview] Mechanisms for inter-Korean peace are “structurally weak”

Posted on : 2020-06-29 17:17 KST Modified on : 2020-06-29 17:17 KST
History professor Hong Seok-ryul examines how to achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula
Hong Seok-ryul, 55, profess of history professor at Sungshin Women’s University, during his interview with the Hankyoreh on June 24. (Baek So-ah, staff photographer)
Hong Seok-ryul, 55, profess of history professor at Sungshin Women’s University, during his interview with the Hankyoreh on June 24. (Baek So-ah, staff photographer)

While 70 years have passed since the outbreak of the Korean War, peace remains overshadowed by the division of the peninsula and the legacy of the Cold War. Inter-Korean relations cycle through chills and thaws, and Korea’s neighbors are engaged in an ongoing fracas as they struggle to either maintain or change the status quo.

During an interview at the Hankyoreh office on June 24, Hong Seok-ryul, 55, a history professor at Sungshin Women’s University, acknowledged that the “institutional and structural mechanisms for maintaining peace on the Korean Peninsula are extremely weak” but added that South and North Korea have “much more room to try something on their own than they did shortly after their liberation [from Japan’s colonial occupation].” Hong, the current vice chair of the Korean Association of the Cold War, has studied the history of division on the Korean Peninsula in the context of the Cold War.

Hankyoreh (Hani): As can be seen from recent developments, the “new normal” on the Korean Peninsula appears to be a cycle of uneasy peace and high tension.

Terms of Armistice Agreement are obsolete and not even followed anymore

Hong Seok-ryul (Hong): It seems like yesterday that people were enjoying a bowl of Pyongyang naengmyeon [cold noodles] during the inter-Korean summit in 2018, and now people are talking about the risk of a military clash between South and North Korea. Fundamentally, circumstances on the Korean Peninsula are so volatile is because the institutional and structural mechanisms for maintaining peace on the peninsula are extremely weak. The only institutional mechanism for maintaining peace on the Korean Peninsula is the Korean Armistice Agreement, which is not a treaty between two states but only an agreement between military commanders that’s limited to military matters.

Aside from the Military Demarcation Line, most of the terms of the armistice agreement aren’t even kept anymore. The Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission lost its main functions in the 1950s, and the Military Armistice Commission, which was the most important body in the armistice agreement, hasn’t been in operation since the 1990s. In the end, peace on the Korean Peninsula is being maintained not by some institutional mechanism but through each side’s military deterrence. Such a situation is bound to be fluid. The issue is further complicated by the fact that it’s not just South and North Korea that are involved in peninsular affairs, but also the US and Korea’s neighbors of China and Japan, which are all world powers.

Hani: The administrations of Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun, and Moon Jae-in all worked actively to improve the environment for peace. North Korea engaged with them to some extent, but they don’t seem to have succeeded at fundamentally changing the order of things. Does that show the limits of South and North Korea’s influence, their inability to overcome institutional and structural limitations?

Hong: This year marks the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War, and there’s little precedent in world history for an armistice lasting for 70 years without an official end-of-war declaration. The most definite method for establishing peace is for the belligerents to conclude a peace treaty. But the fact is that there are few global examples of wars ending neatly in a peace treaty since World War II. Another way to achieve peace would be for all the belligerents to declare the end of the war or to effectively repair their relations. But on the Korean Peninsula, even that kind of de facto peace presents a problem — namely, neither the US nor Japan have established diplomatic relations with North Korea.

That fundamental lack of change explains why the situation remains fluid. Does that mean that all the efforts to end division and dismantle the Cold War regime on the Korean Peninsula have been in vain? I would say definitely not. The situation on the Korean Peninsula alternates between a relatively quiet conflict and the threat of war, but various efforts to keep the worst from happening have turned things around and prevented war from breaking out time and time again. In the grand sweep of things, there are definitely areas where inter-Korean relations and North Korea-US relations have improved compared to the past.

2 US-N. Korea summits set meaningful precedent

Hani: North Korea and the US held two summits, but John Bolton’s memoir would seem to suggest that there hasn’t been meaningful progress in North Korea-US relations.

Hong: That may be so, but I still think it set a good precedent. The fact that the North Korean leader and the American president have met — something that used to be unthinkable — has brought considerable change to the situation. Trump being president was one factor that made the North Korea-US summit possible, but at least 60% of that process appears to have resulted from the efforts of South Koreans pursuing peace on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea’s effort to engage in dialogue with the US, and opposition to war from the American public. So even if Trump isn’t reelected, I think a substantial amount of the baseline of support for North Korea-US dialogue will remain in place.

Hani: The conflict between the US and China appears to be intensifying following the outbreak of COVID-19.

Hong: The US and China’s movement toward a relationship of competition or even hostility is something that should make South Korea very anxious. The 1970s, for example, were a time of improved relations and cooperation between the US and China, but they didn’t bring peace to the Korean Peninsula. We would be wise to avoid a situation in which the US and China externalize their conflict to the Korean Peninsula, or in other words exploiting South and North Korea as proxies in a conflict or dispute. Preventing that will require us to avoid being closely subordinated or linked to either the US or China. We mustn’t allow a repeat of the THAAD deployment.

Hani: If the US-China conflict intensifies, it would limit the options of those who are trying to bring peace and overcome the division of the Korean Peninsula, just as during the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union.

World is more multipolar than post-war era, making it difficult for either US or China to monopolize influence

Hong: The relationship between the US and China does have its similarities with that of the US and the Soviet Union following World War II and during the Cold War, but I also think there are considerable differences in the actual content of that relationship. The EU is a player now, and other countries are more powerful than they were in the wake of World War II. The world today is much more multipolar than it was in the postwar period. Furthermore, the US and China aren’t powerful enough and aren’t in a position to exert monopolistic power as global leaders the way the US and the Soviet Union could in the postwar period.

Similar observations can be made about the situation on the Korean Peninsula: South Korea can no longer be seen as a weak country or a developing country, and North Korea also has much more international clout than it did shortly after liberation. South and North Korea may not have enough absolute strength to change the situation, but they have much more room to try something on their own than they did shortly after their liberation [from Japan’s colonial occupation].

S. Korea-US alliance is asymmetric and unequal

Hani: In the end, our most urgent mission is creating more room for autonomous foreign policy. That would likely require a reassessment or readjustment of the South Korea-US alliance.

Hong: The fact is that Germany didn’t fundamentally change its alliance with the US during the process of achieving reunification and extricating itself from the Cold War. To some extent, military alliances aren’t solely decided by the policies of a specific leader or country, but are created by objective conditions in the interaction between numerous countries. For that reason, it would be practical to abruptly transform the South Korea-US alliance in an attempt to establish peace on the Korean Peninsula. But there are different levels and degrees of alliances.

The South Korea-US alliance is asymmetric and unequal, and gradual measures should be taken to correct that. South Korea is in the process of regaining wartime operational control of its military from the US, and the UN Command might also prove problematic. In the early 1970s, there were even American bureaucrats who regarded the UN Command as an anachronistic relic of the Korean War and talked about dismantling it. The most essential abilities of a modern state are defining its border and achieving definite control of its territory. But under the armistice agreement, the DMZ and the Military Demarcation Line, the boundary between South and North Korea, are fundamentally maintained by the commander of the UN forces. Even if the armistice agreement authorizes this commander to manage military affairs in the DMZ, administrative and environmental matters ought to be managed separately, by the governments of South and North Korea. Both economically and politically speaking, South Korea is much more advanced than it once was, and there obviously need to be some adjustments to how its border with the North is managed. I think such tasks have been put off for too long.

Hani: There don’t seem to be any practical solutions to the North Korean nuclear issue, either, and hopes of establishing a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula are fading.

Hong: People have discussed various solutions to the North Korean nuclear issue over the past thirty years, but none of them have worked, which appears to have discouraged a lot of people. As a result, some seem to feel that South Korea should just forget about the North Korean nuclear program and inter-Korean relations and forge its own path as if the North didn’t exist. While it might be possible to ignore and forget about the peninsula’s division, that doesn’t erase the fact of division or the problems it brings. Undergoing the COVID-19 crisis seems to have shown that, at such crucial moments, countries are hobbled by their weaknesses, which are brought to light by the crisis. One example is how the issue of racial discrimination, the fundamental flaw of American society, has erupted during the COVID-19 crisis. As long as the Korean Peninsula is under an armistice and the South and North Korean armies remain at a standoff, the crisis of war could occur at any time, and affairs on the Korean Peninsula are bound to remain fluid in several respects.

By Yi Yong-in, director of the Hankyoreh Peace Research Institute

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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