The First Year of Peace on the Korean Peninsula

7/27 rally for peace in Seoul. Kang Jeong-Koo is seated in the bottom row, third from the right.

7/27 rally for peace in Seoul. Kang Jeong-Koo is seated in the bottom row, third from the right.

This article is part of a weekly FPIF series on the Obama administration’s “Pacific Pivot,” which examines the implications of the U.S. military buildup in the Asia-Pacific—both for regional politics and for the so-called “host” communities. You can read Joseph Gerson’s introduction to the series here.

Marking the 59th anniversary of the Armistice Agreement, a ceasefire signed by all major parties to the Korean War (except South Korea), the 7/27 candlelight rally in Seoul at the end of July brought the ongoing reality of the Korean War to light.

The organizers behind this year’s 7/27 rally highlighted the militarized implications—in a word, the peacelessness—of the armistice regime, now 59 years old. Envisaged as an interim measure, the July 27, 1953 Armistice Agreement stipulated that within three months of its signing, “a political conference of a higher level of both sides” be convened “to settle through negotiation the questions of the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Korea, [and] the peaceful settlement of the Korean question.” But with no final settlement ever reached, the Armistice Agreement has yet to deliver on its promissory note, and the Korean peninsula remains technically at war. As the longest war in U.S. history—predating America’s ongoing quagmire in Afghanistan by over half a century—the Korean War points to permanent conflict as the discomfiting, long-run truth of U.S. interventionism.

The latest flashpoint in the ongoing war is Jeju, an island off the Korean peninsula’s southern coast where villagers are resisting the construction of an intrusive naval base in the village of Gangjeong. Centering their message on the undemocratic nature of the project, the rally participants proclaimed solidarity with the Gangjeong villagers. Reproducing a view of Gureombi, the smooth volcanic rock formation that stretches along the Gangjeong coastline, the banner behind the rally stage evoked an ocean panorama once seen daily by village residents but now obscured behind high construction fences. The lettering on the banner read: “Stay strong, Gangjeong! Let’s secure peace!”

Seated near the rally stage was a familiar face at such peace gatherings: Kang Jeong-Koo, a longtime activist-scholar and a steadfast champion of peace. This year may signal the 59th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice Agreement, yet according to South Korean peace activists like Kang, it signals the last year of war on the Korean peninsula. I spoke with Kang recently at the Solidarity for Peace and Reunification of Korea (SPARK) headquarters in Seoul. For “peace-loving and peace-making organizations,” he said, “the 60th anniversary of the Armistice Agreement” next year will mark “the inaugural year of peace”—much as the 60th birthday, according to Korean custom, is “a milestone that signals the commencement of a new life.”

Addressing the U.S. military “pivot” to the region, the nearly 30,000 U.S. forces still stationed below the 38th parallel, and the struggle of Gangjeong villagers against the construction of the naval base, Kang outlined the prospects for Korean peace when war remains the volatile substrate of U.S.-North Korea and intra-Korea relations.

***

Could you say a few words about SPARK—its history, goals, and motivating vision?

SPARK was established in 1994. Many Koreans believed that it was high time for us to end the division of Korea, to realize a reunited state, and to get foreign troops out of the Korean peninsula. Never in our history have foreign troops been stationed in the Korean peninsula for as long as U.S. troops have been here—over 65 years. China, during the Tang dynasty, stayed only nine and a half years. During the colonial period, the Japanese military was here for almost forty years. In 1958, the Chinese army withdrew from North Korea. By contrast, that same year, the United States deployed up to 1,300 nuclear bombs here in South Korea, only removing its nuclear arsenal from South Korea in 1991. If we think the South Korean people panicked when North Korea had five or six nuclear bombs, how did the North Korean people feel from 1958 through 1991?

There are voices within the U.S. national security establishment who assert that at various historical moments the United States has wanted to withdraw its troops but that South Korea urged them to remain. What is your response to this claim?

Who are these experts? When they speak of the Korean people, they mean the ruling groups of South Korea. When South Koreans are surveyed, more than 65 percent want U.S. troops to withdraw from our country. But these ruling groups—political, economic, cultural—are positioned in a relation of virtual serfdom to the United States.

In U.S. policy circles, Obama’s stance toward North Korea is often referred to as “strategic patience.” Many people understand this to mean that he has done very little. Can you elaborate on U.S. military strategy toward North Korea?

It is not true that Obama has done very little toward North Korea. During the last stage of the Bush administration, President Bush announced a U.S. commitment to realizing a peace agreement between the U.S. and North Korea. The task for the Obama administration was to continue that policy by making progress toward a real peace agreement between the two countries, but Obama failed to move forward on negotiating a peace agreement.

In 2004, the Bush administration proposed Conceptual Plan [CONPLAN] 5029 to the Roh Moo-hyun regime. This provocative plan was aimed at “responding” to crises in North Korea, including internal regime change, an internal coup, export of WMD, South Koreans held hostage in North Korean territory, a massive exodus of refugees from North Korea, and even large natural disasters like floods and earthquakes. In the event of such crises, the United States envisioned sending U.S. and South Korean special forces to North Korea to quash the Korean People’s Army and to capture Pyongyang. In short, this was a plan for regime change. Under the Obama administration, the United States has put this plan into practice in war exercises like Ulchi Freedom Guardian. In light of this, who can say that the Obama administration has done little toward North Korea?

In March of 2010, the Cheonan incident occurred. The Lee Myung-bak regime followed with sanctions against North Korea and the United States intensified its coalition war exercises with South Korea. That year, the United States held more than 10 times the usual number of coalition war exercises with South Korea. Moreover, the United States used the incident to justify conducting joint war exercises with Japan, the Philippines, Australia, and India. In this transitional period in which the election of the Democratic Party in Japan challenged U.S. domination, the United States was able to reverse the trend in the wake of the Cheonan incident.

In the past year, we have heard announcements by Obama and key members of his administration, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta among them, of a U.S. “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific. What dangers does the concentration of U.S. military resources and forces in the Asia-Pacific pose to the people of the region?

To reverse its loss of power, the United States has targeted global weak points: the divided Korean peninsula and the Middle East. From the perspective of U.S. foreign policy, conflict in the divided Korean peninsula offers an opportunity for staging a power transition within the arena of global politics. From the perspective of U.S. strategic interests in the region, Korea can serve as a facilitator or a delayer, a weakener or a strengthener.

In the greater Asia-Pacific region, we’re seeing the United States attempt to preserve its hegemony by using the resources of allied countries. This reminds me of the Libyan war. In the initial stage of the Libyan crisis, the United States intervened but then withdrew. It did not wish to waste its money. Instead, it wanted France, England, and Italy to underwrite the costs of the intervention. The exact same policy applies to South Korea, Japan, India, and Australia.

Say more. How is the policy the same?

Because of its own economic problems, the United States wants Korea, Japan, Australia, and India to encircle China with their money, not U.S. money.

How does the Gangjeong naval base down in Jeju fit within such a scheme?

The naval base at Gangjeong is not against North Korea. If the strategic purpose of the base were truly to check North Korea, the naval base should be located near North Korea. But Jeju is located in the southern part of South Korea. There is no other reason for this base other than to surround and encircle China.

And it doesn’t matter that the naval base is, in name, South Korean. The United States, according to its Status of Forces Agreement and its Mutual Defense Treaty with South Korea, can use at whim and at will any South Korean base.

The Korean people know that the naval base at Gangjeong is not for the South Korean Navy but for the U.S. Navy. Look at the Pyongtaek base. Pyongtaek is the nearest U.S. military installation to Beijing and Shanghai. It is only one or two hours away by civilian airplane. Firing a missile would take no time at all. So the U.S. military installations that are the closest to China are the Pyongtaek and Gangjeong bases, which the United States wishes to be built at Korean expense. The same is true of Japan, Australia, Singapore, and India.

Would you describe this as a neo-Cold War policy toward China?

Yes.

Can you address the perils of peace advocacy in the current moment?

Statistics on the National Security Law indicate that red-baiting and anti-North Korea rhetoric sharply intensified under the Lee Myung-bak regime. In 2010, under Lee, more than 140 Koreans were investigated and prosecuted, whereas in 2006 and 2007 under the Roh Moo-hyun regime, only 35 and 39 Koreans respectively were prosecuted in alleged violation of the National Security Law. As a representative of SPARK, I was interrogated and investigated simply because SPARK sent a letter calling upon the United Nations Security Council to discuss the Cheonan incident with fairness and objectivity. Moreover, our office was raided this year and the Korean CIA, or the National Intelligence Service as it is now called, interrogated some leading members of our organization for allegedly praising and sympathizing with North Korea.

There is no doubt that the authorities targeted SPARK, one of the organizations at the forefront of the resistance, to discourage and suppress strong protest against the construction of the naval base at Gangjeong in Jeju. All those who have been investigated and indicted are peace and reunification organizations, like SPARK, and the activists and advocates from these organizations. So far, approximately 300 residents of Gangjeong involved in the resistance to the construction of the naval base have been detained at least once; four of them have been given suspended sentences and four are still in jail. Fines of approximately $400,000 have been levied upon them. The situation has been far worse in the case of non-village peace activists and advocates.

In the United States, the Korean War—often called the “Forgotten War”—is almost invisible as a political issue. People don’t know that the war isn’t over, and they’re consequently apathetic. Why should the Korean War be brought to an end?

It is high time for the United States to end the Korean War by reaching a peace agreement. Only such an agreement can bring peace and denuclearization to the Korean peninsula.

The stationing of U.S. troops on our soil and South Korea’s military alliance with the United States have proved to be the most formidable obstacles to the struggle for peace. It’s for this reason that anti-Americanism—understood critically as a people’s struggle for the withdrawal of U.S. troops—increases as each day passes. Our country is a sovereign country. We do not want to remain in a subservient or sub-imperial relationship to U.S. military empire. It is both foreseeable and inevitable that in the near future, our people’s power will make it impossible for U.S. troops to remain on our soil.

Switching gears, I’d like to ask you to place the issue of North Korean human rights into historical and geopolitical perspective. As you know, the media depicts—and the world largely perceives—North Korea in pathological terms. They see it as a dangerous security threat, a weapons producer and an abuser of human rights.

The U.S. North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 was not a law for human rights, but a call for regime change. This legislation, and U.S.-based North Korean human rights advocacy more generally, tellingly neglects the fundamental right to life and peace. In the case of North Korea, we should ask: who is the main violator of the North Korean people’s right to life and peace? By threatening war, the United States endangers the North Korean people’s right to live a life free from war.

Next year marks over six decades of unending war on the Korean peninsula. Many progressive South Korean organizations, however, refer to 2013 as “the first year of peace” on the Korean peninsula. What does this mean and how can it be realized?

In Korea, the 60th birthday has traditionally been characterized as a milestone that signals the commencement of a new life—one that is qualitatively different from that of the previous 60 years. Life expectancy in the old days was often far shorter than 60 years. Likewise, peace-loving and peace-making organizations are determined to mark next year—the 60th anniversary of the Armistice Agreement—as the inaugural year of peace, and to realize a peace agreement that has been overdue these past six decades. We will arouse public opinion, call upon the main parties to the Armistice, conduct and perform campaigns, mass marches, demonstrations, candlelight rallies, and so forth. For almost six decades, peace has been deferred because of U.S. imperialism. Isn’t it now high time for us to conclude peace through our own efforts?

Christine Hong is an assistant professor of critical Pacific Rim studies at UC Santa Cruz. She is a fellow at the Korea Policy Institute and a member of the coordinating committee of the National Campaign to End the Korean War. She thanks Suh Bohyuk for generously facilitating this interview and Mark Selden for offering his keen feedback.