When the final group of American troops were flown out of the Kabul airport at the end of August 2021, President Joe Biden and headlines around the world declared that America’s longest war was over.
However, America’s real longest war – the Korean War– is still ongoing. The Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950 and after a little over three years of fighting, delegates from the two belligerent sides signed an armistice in Panmunjom on July 27, 1953, starting the ceasefire on the Korean Peninsula. Yet there has never been a peace treaty to officially end this deadliest military conflict after World War II. Approximately three million people died during those three years, the majority of whom were civilians. The United States suffered 33,686 battle deaths, along with 2,830 non-battle deaths, and 17,730 other deaths, with the total death toll at 54,246 during the three years, according to the Department of Defense.
The Korean War seems to have become a “forgotten war” despite the fact that the Korean Peninsula remains divided and hostility between North Korea and the United States continues today. The United States maintains 28,500 troops in South Korea now. And North Korea’s nuclear program can be traced back to the unfinished Korean War. With the war not officially over, it is difficult to persuade an insecure North Korea to give up its nuclear program.
With the global focus on Afghanistan, the attention-seeking North Korea has quickly reminded the world that the Korean Peninsula remains volatile. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor that appeared to have been inactive since December 2018 was restarted in July 2021. Since then “there have been indications, including the discharge of cooling water, consistent with the operation of the reactor,” the IAEA reported.
North Korea staged a military parade on September 9, 2021 to mark the 73th anniversary of the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). It has tested some new missiles recently, including the long-range strategic missiles and a supersonic anti-aircraft missile. Meanwhile, South Korea launched a new 3,000-ton class submarine at the end of September 2021, further strengthening its underwater defense. Anyone who believes the Korean War is over should really think twice.
From 1948 to now, there have been three generations of leadership in North Korea—all from the same family. Kim Jong-un, the current leader, is the grandson of Kim Il-sung, the founding father of the DPRK. Not much has changed in North Korea, especially its determination to seek security in an unfavorable international environment. North Korea started nuclear research programs in the 1960s, with the support of the Soviet Union. Kim Jong-un’s father Kim Jong-il promoted the “Songun” (military first) policy to prioritize the military over other affairs. North Korea’s missile and nuclear technologies significantly improved in the 1990s and 2000s. It conducted six nuclear tests, in 2006, 2009, 2013, twice in 2016, and in 2017 – four of them took place after Kim Jong-un took control in 2011.
Various US administrations have attempted to denuclearize North Korea and resolve this one of the thorniest issues in international security. Other countries including China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea have also tried, sometimes collectively, to address the issue. From the 1994 Agreed Framework to the Six Party Talks (2003-2009), promises were broken, and opportunities were lost.
Donald Trump became the first incumbent US president to have met with North Korea’s supreme leader, not once, but three times. Most significantly, Trump met Kim Jong-un at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) in June 2019. Trump briefly crossed the DMZ middle line into North Korea and Kim into South Korea, making history. The short-lived romance ended with Trump’s reelection defeat in 2020.
The Biden administration has reached out to North Korea but has not received any positive response yet. Meanwhile, President Biden has repaired the US-South Korea alliance damaged by his predecessor. South Korean President Moon Jae-in became the second foreign leader to be invited to visit the White House in 2021 (after Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga). The Biden administration has boosted US-South Korea relations and the two militaries resumed joint exercises, which were viewed as “hostile acts” by North Korea.
President Biden’s special envoy for North Korea Sung Kim has visited South Korea twice so far, in June and August 2021 respectively, trying to break the impasse in denuclearization talks with the North. Kim spoke on the phone with his Chinese counterpart Liu Xiaoming on July 6 after his first trip, and he met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov on August 24 during his second trip. Clearly, international cooperation is needed to address the North Korea challenge. Given its enormous economic and diplomatic influence over North Korea, China’s cooperation is essential.
Intense rivalry notwithstanding, the United States and China have sought areas for cooperation. President Biden and President Xi Jinping had their second phone conversation on September 9 and vowed to prevent competition from veering into conflict. North Korea stands out as an area the two great powers can and should cooperate, together with climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s high time that the United States worked with allies and partners to end America’s real longest war.