For those who survived the Korean War, the sight of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier George Washington leading a fleet of U.S. and South Korean ships along the eastern coast of the Korean Peninsula on the 57th anniversary of the temporary armistice is alarming indeed. In a move intended to punish North Korea for its alleged sinking of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, the United States and South Korea are flexing their military might by mobilizing American and South Korean ships, over 200 aircraft, including the F-22 Raptor fighters, and 8,000 troops.
If anything, the military provocation by all sides demonstrates the frailty of the Korean armistice agreement, which was signed by North Korea, China and the United States on July 27, 1953. It shows how much the absence of a peace treaty could trigger another war, not just between the two Koreas, but between the United States and China.
To be clear, contrary to the rhetoric of promises of engagement emanating from the White House, President Barack Obama is continuing his predecessor’s hard-line policies of sanctions and military posturing. These have been counterproductive and have done nothing to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation. Worse, they are actually increasing the chances of military conflict in northeast Asia.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced last week during a visit to the demilitarized zone that the United States plans to impose greater sanctions on North Korea. Although Secretary Clinton asserts that “[t]hese measures are not directed at the people of North Korea,” it is in fact the North Korean people who will suffer from U.S. sanctions.
The freezing of North Korean assets, in particular, restricts the country’s ability to purchase the materials it needs to meet the basic food, healthcare, sanitation and educational needs of its people. Moreover, sanctions have not succeeded in pressuring North Korea to disarm. To the contrary, North Korea considers economic sanctions to be an act of war, and has responded by accelerating its nuclear weapons program.
History has taught us that military posturing, such as the current military exercises, do not change North Korea’s policies. Instead, Pyongyang views the maneuvers as a test of its will, and has warned that it will counter them with “a physical response” of its own. Worse, Beijing now views the U.S.-South Korea military exercises as too close to its own shores and as a threat to China’s security and that of the region.
The international community’s response to tensions arising from the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel was clearly outlined in the July 9th United Nations Security Council statement, which calls urgently “for full adherence to the Korean Armistice Agreement” and “the settlement of outstanding issues” through “direct dialogue and negotiation” so as to avert “escalation.”
The Obama administration should heed the U.N. Security Council by moving from the war room to the negotiating table. North Korea has agreed to return to the six-party talks. The Obama administration should do the same.
As the former U.S. ambassador to South Korea James Laney put it, what should be “at the top of the agenda … in order to remove all unnecessary obstacles to progress … is the establishment of a peace treaty to replace the truce that has been in place since 1953.”
Koreans on the peninsula and throughout the diaspora say 60 years of enmity and war is enough.
As a Korean-American, I cannot ignore the heart-wrenching stories of family division, especially of those elderly people who may soon pass away without reuniting with their families. I don’t know a single Korean, either in the United States or in Korea, who isn’t deeply moved when they see siblings embrace for the first time in a half century. Our national leaders can continue to choose war and division or a path of peace and reconciliation. We must urge them to choose wisely.
*Christine Ahn is a Senior Fellow with the Korea Policy Institute and a member of the National Campaign to End the Korean War.