When U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in meet at the White House this Friday, they are expected to discuss a number of issues, including how to restart talks with North Korea and US strategy on containing China. Both issues are intertwined, and how the U.S. and South Korea decide to move forward could have major long-term implications for the region.
The Biden team has yet to disclose what concrete steps it will take to break the current stalemate with North Korea, but its policy on Korea will be part of a broader national security strategy in Asia, where its primary aim is to contain the rise of China. In his book The Pivot, Kurt Campbell, the White House' "Asia czar," says Washington's goals in Asia have always been "selling shirts, saving souls and spreading liberal ideas"—primarily the job of diplomats and missionaries but always backed by military might.
To "restart the clock of peace" and prevent the risk of nuclear escalation on the Korean Peninsula, Biden should honor the Singapore Agreement to "establish new relations" with North Korea.
Asia is a resource-rich region with vast opportunities for market expansion, and Washington sees Beijing's rise as a direct threat to its national security interests. The Biden team's top foreign policy goal is to get ahead of China to shape the region according to its own interests by writing the rules that govern the region's economic and political activities.
To this end, Biden's priorities on Korea will be to enlist South Korea to join the Quad or other efforts to isolate China, and press it to resolve its historic grievance with Japan in order to join in trilateral cooperation with the U.S. and Japan on missile defense. Biden will also aim to manage the North Korea conundrum through tighter enforcement of sanctions, shaming it on its human rights record, and putting the ball in North Korea's court to place the responsibility for the current stalemate on Pyongyang.
This zero-sum approach to the region is dangerous, however, as it will cement Cold War divisions and trigger a regional arms race that risks military confrontation among nuclear powers. Increased US naval presence and arms sales in Asia have already provoked China to increase its defense budget. China's militarization will, in turn, alarm Japan to further strengthen its military capability, which will then provoke South Korea, Japan's historic rival, to do the same. This is just one example of how increased U.S. military presence in Asia could create a domino effect that could end up destabilizing the entire region.
For his part, President Moon said he hopes to use the upcoming summit with President Biden to solidify the U.S.-ROK alliance and "restart the clock of peace and advance the peace process on the Korean Peninsula." But the alliance and peace-building cannot go hand in hand.
Contrary to popular belief, an alliance is different from a partnership or cooperation. It is a military arrangement predicated on war. The U.S.-ROK alliance, for example, was borne out of the Korean War with the stated purpose of deterring the "Communist threat." As a result of the alliance, tens of thousands of U.S. and South Korean troops have participated in annual military exercises that simulate the collapse of the North Korean regime. South Korea is dotted with military bases where toxic contamination of the land and groundwater pose serious health risks to neighboring residents. Today, the alliance's operation plan includes preemptive strikes and decapitation operations against the North Korean leadership. Solidifying the U.S.-ROK alliance means solidifying plans for war with North Korea, and this directly contradicts efforts to "advance the peace process."
To "restart the clock of peace" and prevent the risk of nuclear escalation on the Korean Peninsula, President Biden should honor the Singapore Agreement to "establish new relations" with North Korea, and President Moon should honor the Panmunjom Declaration to replace the Korean War armistice agreement with a lasting peace agreement. As a House bill newly introduced by Congressman Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) states, "the Secretary of State should pursue serious, urgent diplomatic engagement with North Korea and South Korea in pursuit of a binding peace agreement constituting a formal and final end to the state of war between North Korea, South Korea, and the United States."
A peace agreement that officially ends the 71-year-old Korean War could be a game-changer for the entire region. It could lead to a unified, non-aligned Korean Peninsula that acts as a neutralizing force in the great power competition between the U.S. and China. It would allow all parties to draw down their weapons and provide a foundation for discussions on denuclearization and a reduction of troops by all parties. It would also allow all parties to shift their priorities to urgent shared concerns, such as healthcare, climate, and the economy.
Unless they reorient their policies now, the United States and South Korea may squander a crucial opportunity to end Cold War divisions and prevent a nuclear escalation in Asia. And with only one year remaining in Moon's term, 2021 is their last opportunity to do so.