27 July marks the 67th anniversary of the signing of the Korean War Armistice Agreement. Even as we commemorate the anniversary of the ceasefire, the possibility of renewed tension marks inter-Korean relations, and the DPRK-US negotiation has been at a standstill due to Washington’s policy of maximum pressure. Tensions between South and North Korea last month ended in the destruction of the inter-Korean liaison office, which had been established as a result of the historic inter-Korean summit at Panmunjom in 2018. Without resolving the root cause of the tension – the unresolved 70-year-old Korean War and ongoing hostile relations – it can re-escalate at any time.
The root cause of the tension
Korea was liberated in 1945 after 36 years of Japan’s brutal colonisation. Shortly after liberation, the country was divided by the United States and the Soviet Union into south and north along the 38th parallel. Despite the desire of the Korean people to establish a single government, the negotiation between Washington and Moscow failed to establish a unified government and resulted in two separate states in 1948: the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the south, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north. This was the precursor to the Korean War (1950-1953).
The US and 15 other countries sent combat forces to the ROK (South Korea) to repel the north. In turn, China sent its volunteer army to support the DPRK (North Korea) and prevent the US-led forces from marching up toward its territory. Heavy bombing devastated the Korean Peninsula, and 3 million people (including 2 million civilians) died or disappeared. Millions of people were unable to return to their homes, and hundreds of thousands of families became separated. After 3 years of fighting and destruction, the war was paused with the signing of an Armistice Agreement between the US and the DPRK on 27 July 1953.
The tragic division of the peninsula, the aftermath of the brutal war, and the subsequent state of the armistice all contributed to decades of political and military confrontations and hostile relations. It has caused Koreans both on the peninsula and in the worldwide diaspora to endure an interminable period of pain. Families remain separated after 70 years, and survivors of civilian massacres during the war are still unable to speak freely about what they endured.
Who has benefited from the endless state of the armistice?
Under ensuing decades of hostile relations, a growing military industrial complex and all those linked to it in the US, South Korea and the rest of the world have used this ongoing conflict for their own benefit – in the name of national and global security. South Korea has become an overseas testing ground for the US military’s new weapon systems, such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system and the Joint United States Forces Korea Portal and Integrated Threat Recognition (JUPITR) program led by the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense. The continual military build-up of high-tech weaponry, including nuclear weapons, and hostilities between the DPRK, the ROK, and the US create dangerous circumstances where even a small, possibly accidental incident can lead to the outbreak of another full-blown war. We cannot and must not make the mistake of repeating the tragedy of another fratricidal war.
Ending the Korean war would break the vicious cycle of the arms race and allow all parties to shift resources for human security and sustainable development. The COVID-19 pandemic has made cooperation beyond borders all the more urgent and important. The two Koreas should be working together to respond to the pandemic for the good of the world and advance sustainable development for basic human needs in the region. And the international community should lift relevant sanctions on the DPRK to promote inter-Korean cooperation for COVID-19 response.
In 2018 there were three inter-Korean summits and the first-ever US-DPRK summit. The South Korean government actively reached out to the North Korean government, which responded by participating in the winter Olympics in South Korea. The decision by the ROK and the US to cancel the annual US-ROK combined military exercise that spring created the conditions for dialogue. To keep up the momentum toward new relations, the DPRK announced its decision to stop all nuclear and ICBM missile tests and shut down its nuclear test site as a confidence-building measure. The South and North’s militaries signed a comprehensive military agreement in accordance with the Panmunjom Declaration. The inter-Korean military agreement includes to completely cease all hostile acts against each other in every domain as well as devise substantive military measures to transform the Demilitarised Zone into a peace zone. Accordingly, both militaries collectively disarmed the Joint Security Area (Panmunjom) and started dismantling guard posts and removing landmines in the Demilitarised Zone, which had been intensively militarised for decades due to the unresolved war.
The two Koreas couldn’t make further progress, however, due to the deadlock in the DPRK-US negotiation. Many inter-Korean projects that the two leaders had agreed on couldn’t be carried out due to US and UN sanctions and the US’ insistence that the ROK coordinate the pace of its talks with the DPRK to coincide with its own. North Korea expressed frustration with South Korea for failing to adhere to commitments made in their 2018 summit agreements, including halting defector groups from sending airborne propaganda leaflets across the border. Tensions flared when North Korea destroyed the inter-Korean liaison office in response in June 2020. Fortunately, the tension has eased through the efforts of both governments to keep the spirit of their inter-Korean agreements alive.
To prevent the re-escalation of tension, we must end the 70-year-old Korean War
The international women-led campaign Korea Peace Now! Women Mobilizing to End the War has been organising actions across the world via virtual meetings, conferences and webinars despite the many challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The campaign, of which WILPF is a partner, issued a statement on 27 July, the 67th anniversary of the signing of the Korean War armistice agreement, to urge an end to the Korean War with a peace agreement. On 23 June, Women Cross DMZ, one of the campaign partners, released a statement on the sharply mounting tensions between the two Koreas. The Korean Women’s Movement for Peace, another campaign partner, held a press conference on 24 May, the International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament. In addition to women’s voices, we need global supporters who will speak out and amplify our call for confidence-building measures and cooperation for peace on the Korean peninsula and in the region. Please join the Korea Peace Now! campaign.
On 27 July, civil society and faith groups in South Korea announced their launch of the Korea Peace Appeal to End the War. The campaign intends to gather 100 million signatures within 3 years from supporters around the world, and present the appeal to the United Nations and all countries that were involved in the Korean War. I encourage you to join the Korea Peace Appeal to End the War.
By ending the seven-decade-old Korean War, we can create a new sustainable future for the next generation, one which our grandparents might have dreamed of seventy years ago.
Let us come together to create this new future for Korea and the world.