This year marks the 64th year since the Korean War. The war persists today, however, not on battlefields, but largely as a media spectacle. It’s a Great Perpetual Propaganda War: An endless series of threats and counter-threats, accusations and counter-accusations. Before the 1990s, it was capitalism vs. communism. The fulcrum of discord today is nukes and missiles. Even if there were no nukes, there is still likely to be conflict.
In game theory terminology the situation is akin to a Nash Equilibrium. While no one is happy about it, no one is willing or able to do anything about it. The reason is that each of the players has their own motivations in perpetuating the conflict. North Korea’s martial law state and the Kim dynasty need an eternal enemy and survival. South Korea wants to unify the peninsula by absorbing North Korea (DPRK). The U.S. uses the rogue state bogeyman to support its neo-con Asia Pivot. The Chinese and Russians need a buffer state and maybe even a troublemaker for the U.S. And while Koreans want a unified Korea, others may not want a united Korea, which could be a formidable second-tier power with or without nukes.
This complexity and diversity of motivations and divergent interests make peace difficult. Since 1972, several attempts at peace have failed. They include the various North-South joint statements, the Sunshine Policy, the DPRK-U.S. Agreed Framework among others, including the six-party talks. The reason failure is the norm is that such agreements either do not consider the interests and motivations of all stakeholders or they focus only on isolated issues without considering the interweaving totality.
The only solution that might work may be one that simultaneously addresses all issues and motivations of the major players and stakeholders in the ongoing conflict. For the purpose of advancing the discussion and peace in Korea, here is an outline of such a solution:
A DPRK-ROK Peace Treaty: Officially declare the Korean War over. Recognize each other’s sovereignty, independence and the right to exist. Each is free to pursue its own foreign policies. The U.S. and China also signing are preferable but not required. If the two Koreas really want peace, who can say no?
Forget unification: Coexist peacefully as independent states, but hold decennial referendums. When at least two-thirds of each side agree, then plan for 10 years. After 10 years, take another 10 years to harmonize institutions. This would give North Korea plenty of time to catch up and reduce the cost of unification to near zero.
DPRK on the Path of Economic and Political Reforms: Kim Jong-un declares he will step down within 10 years. The DPRK also reiterates a legal orderly succession plan and a method of electing its president. It sets up an independent court and reiterates basic human rights.
ROK Democratizes North-South Relations: Terminate or highly modify the National Security Law and other Cold War-era McCarthyist restrictions on civil liberties. It reforms the National Intelligence Service (NIS), barring it from domestic political interference. And it revives the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
DMZ the Entire Korean Peninsula: DPRK immediately freezes nuclear and long-range missile testing. Simultaneously, U.S.-ROK freezes joint military exercises. Eventually, the DPRK denuclearizes. The U.S. and U.N. remove all sanctions and embargoes. The DPRK and ROK cancel any bilateral or multilateral security treaties and renounce offensive weapons and foreign military ventures. The UNSC recognizes the neutrality of the peninsula and guarantees the territorial integrity of the DPRK and ROK.
Undoubtedly there will be many challenges and obstacles. But the urgency to give peace a chance and push for a peace treaty is real. The risks and potential costs of any miscalculation or accident have risen exponentially. The status quo could unravel quickly. If successful, however, the benefits of such a Korean and regional peace framework will be unlimited to Koreans and to the world. It would also make unification come sooner and cost almost nothing, with even greater benefits. Indeed, prosperity could be the defining feature of the new neutral, peaceful and commercial zone of Korea.
This article was first published on May 31, 2017, in Korea Times.
Photo credit: PIRO4D.