Rising military tensions on the Korean Peninsula at this time prove again the urgency and the necessity of achieving permanent peace in Korea. The best way forward in realizing this important objective is the replacement of the outdated, temporary cease-fire agreement of 1953 with a long-deferred peace treaty.
It remains unclear whether the sinking of the South Korean warship, the Cheonan, was a deliberate military attack or a terrible accident. Yet, the brinkmanship generated around this unfortunate incident illustrates the perils of the unfinished war in Korea.
Although a joint South Korea (ROK)-U.S. investigation team has blamed North Korea (DPRK) for the sinking, North Korea has steadfastly denied its involvement and, instead, accused ROK and the U.S. for fabricating the evidence. So far, China and Russia have been skeptical about the charges against North Korea. Many international experts and South Korean NGOs have also raised doubts about the conclusions of the ROK-US investigation. Further doubts have been raised because of Seoul’s refusal to permit a North Korean investigation team to visit the South to examine the evidence. What is needed is a truly independent, impartial international investigation of the incident.
Buried in the media coverage of this event is the fact that the Cheonan sinking occurred against a backdrop of ongoing war games. At the time of the sinking, South Korean and U.S. warships, including a U.S. submarine and a mine-laying ship, USNS Salvor, were conducting a joint military exercise, “Foal Eagle,” in the disputed West Sea area off the coast of North Korea.
Given the continuing state of war from the Korean War of 1950-53 and the increasing doubts about the result of the ROK-US investigation, the U.S. government’s characterization of the naval incident as an “act of aggression” is misleading, at best. As a matter fact the U.S. is already in a state of war with North Korea. Thus, if it was a deliberate military attack by North Korea, a better expression of the incident would be an act of war.
In any case, the Cheonan sinking, in the absence of a clear finding for the responsibility for the sinking, should not be used as a pretext by hardliners to intensify their anti-North Korea campaign or re-ignite the Korean War. Caution is warranted in this case because of the past history in which the U.S. justified its aggression against other nations under questionable circumstances: the dubious sinking of the Maine in the beginning of the Spanish-American War and the hasty passage of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in the early part of the Vietnam War, which was discredited later.
To reduce military tensions on the Korean Peninsula at this time, the U.S. government should stop any further joint naval exercises in the West Sea of Korea. At the same time, both governments of Korea should also exercise maximum restraint against any offensive propaganda or hostile actions against each other.
As we observe the sixtieth anniversary of the start of the Korean War this June, it is high time to end this lingering and costly war. The basic road map for this goal was already announced in the Joint Statement of the Six-Party Talks on Sept. 19, 2005. Paragraph four of the Statement said, “The directly related parties will negotiate a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula at an appropriate separate forum.”
The “directly related parties” in the Statement obviously refer to both Koreas, China and the United States, who were the main parties in the Korean War of 1950-53. Unfortunately, this separate forum for a “permanent peace regime” never took off due to the apparent opposition of the U.S. to such talks prior to the denuclearization by the DPRK.
Considering North Korea’s current weakness in the conventional forces vis-a-vis ROK and the U.S. forces in and around the Korean Peninsula, it is quite understandable why North Korea is reluctant to give up its nuclear weapons first at this time, in the absence of any international guarantee for its national security.
The Obama administration’s present policy on North Korea is in limbo at this time, due to the strong influence of the neoconservatives in the administration. It is more or less a continuation of the Bush administration’s hard-line policy—insisting on DPRK’s dismantlement of its nuclear weapons and facilities first before the U.S. can begin the peace talks. This is not only unrealistic but also very dangerous since such policy can only lead to further military tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea already expressed its willingness to return to the Six-Party Talks, if the U.S. is willing to begin the separate talks for a peace treaty to replace the precarious Armistice Agreement of 1953. This is quite a reasonable demand. The Obama administration needs to change its position on this soon. What are urgently needed now are not more sanctions or confrontations, but real diplomacy of bold engagement and dialogue in good faith with DPRK.
Ironically, the Cheonan incident provides a good opportunity for the directly concerned parties in the Korean War—both Koreas, the U.S. and China—to begin negotiations for a “permanent peace regime” on the Korean Peninsula. They may start with a joint investigation into the Cheonan incident, and then move on to serious negotiations for a peace treaty.
Perhaps, this is the best way to console the 46 souls of the Cheonan as well as the millions of the fallen victims of the Korean War, including some 40,000 of our soldiers, as we observe the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the tragic Korean War.
*John H. Kim is an attorney and a veteran of the U.S. Army who served in South Korea for one year. He is also a founding member of the National Campaign to End the Korean War.