Bringing the Koreas together: Exploring alternate channels of diplomacy to harness peace

Recent events on the Korean Peninsula have only resulted from and added to the era of hostilities between North and South Korea. Amidst a series of reactions and counteractions from both the countries, the inter-Korean relations have suffered, leading to security concerns and uncertainty for not just the Northeast Asian region but the entire world.

However, One thing which is clear from the assessment of relations on the Korean Peninsula so far is that the efforts at denuclearisation have clearly failed – North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme is not only intact but continues to grow at a remarkable pace. Furthermore, the prospects of denuclearisation and a peaceful regime seem bleak as things stand. The current status quo can only go as far as containing North Korea and slowing down the pace of its nuclear weapons programme but cannot dismantle it. Regime survival has been North Korea’s main concern driving its nuclear weapons programme, which the status quo arrangement has failed to address so far. Hence, it is unlikely that the DPRK will initiate negotiations until a major crisis emerges on the Peninsula which directly affects its survival interests. On the other hand, given the ever-growing North Korean nuclear proliferation programme, the international community cannot wait for a crisis to emerge on the Korean Peninsula to look towards actively pursuing negotiations as a reality. Even if such a crisis emerges, the possibility of North Korea using nuclear weapons for ensuring regime survival cannot be ruled out. Such a situation can potentially lead to devastating effects. Therefore, the international community must work towards establishing better relations with North Korea in order to reach an agreement towards the dismantling of its nuclear proliferation programme before the situation spirals out of control. Better Inter-Korean relations are a prerequisite and can serve as a stepping stone for establishing cooperation between the international community and North Korea.

While joint communiques and declarations have yielded little to no result, alternate channels of diplomacy present a viable alternative to high table negotiations.

Although this can be a long-drawn process, sustaining engagement with North Korea even when the results are absent in the short term can form the bedrock for cooperation and dialogue. As seen in prior negotiations, a stress on achieving quick results in a short period of time has only worsened the situation. Engaging with North Korea needs to be pursued as a gradual process which, through uniformity of actions, will yield concrete results in the long term. In this process, a roadmap can be followed for building better and sustainable relations that can help the parties reach the negotiation table in a spirit of cooperation.

A possible starting point in establishing harmonious relations can be the signing of a peace treaty. The end of the Korean War in 1953 resulted from the Panmunjom armistice which ended the immediate hostilities between the two Koreas. However, as no peace treaty was agreed upon, the Korean War, at least in principle, continues to this day. Over the years, both the nations have expressed their concerns about the magnitude of devastation that can emerge from a war on the Peninsula. In such a scenario, continuing the rhetoric of the Korean War is strictly against the interests of both the Koreas as well as the international community. As a result, an end to hostilities, emerging from a conventional war that was fought almost 70 years ago, needs to be actively pursued. Although both nations have called for an end to the Korean War in the past, it is important to formalise this by the means of a peace treaty. A peace treaty will ensure that old hostilities do not interfere in relations going forward. A mutually agreed peace treaty will also help in establishing trust between the two nations which can prove to be the foundation for building better relations going forward.

While it can help in strengthening relations, a peace treaty alone cannot ensure an end to the Korean War. An end to the war will require dismantling of the arrangements that have sustained the war to this day. In the aftermath of the Korean War, the United States had stationed troops in the South Korean territory as a means of deterring the North from invading the South. Since the stationing, the presence of US troops on Korean soil has been a serious issue for the North Korean leadership.Relations have often reached a deadlock due to North Korean demand for the withdrawal of US troops. About 28,500 US troops are currently stationed on the Korean Peninsula. The origins of this military partnership between the US and South Korea stem from the Korean War. The purpose of the commitment of troops to the Korean Peninsula was to contain the spread of Soviet and Chinese communism and establish a deterrent against North Korean aggression. Since 1991, South Korea has provided financial support for sustaining the US forces stationed in South Korea. Given the obsolete purpose of commitment and the enormous costs of maintaining troops, the United States must consider the non-feasibility of sustaining its forces on South Korean territory and work towards gradually withdrawing them. Over the years, the presence of US troops has contributed to North Korea’s threat perception as it fears an eventual military invasion by the US-ROK military alliance can threaten its survival. The withdrawal of troops will contribute towards reducing this threat perception which has been a major motivation behind North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme.

Confidence Building Measures are also key to improving relations with North Korea. The notion of confidence building measures focuses on gradually lowering distrust and fear in order to assist states in developing trust and greater understanding. Confidence-building measures might include cultural, economic, humanitarian, and social contacts between countries that can be utilised to foster collaboration. In the case of the Korean Peninsula, certain specific confidence building measures can be implemented.

Reunion of Separated Families: The division of the Korean Peninsula and the plight of the Korean War led to an estimated 10 million families divided from their kin on both sides of the border. The majority of dispersed Korean families were split by the disasters of war calamity, both politically and economically. Despite efforts to reunite these families through cross-border visits and meetings, the problem of family reunion has been mired in distrust and repression as a result of the hostile atmosphere on the Korean Peninsula. The split of Korean families has been a sad result of the conflict between North and South Korea, and it must be rectified on humanitarian grounds. The reunion also gives a chance for both the countries to foster an atmosphere of trust and collaboration which can assist towards better relations on the Peninsula.

Humanitarian and Economic Aid: Providing more humanitarian and economic assistance can help the international community gain Pyongyang’s trust. The ongoing humanitarian and economic crises in North Korea presents a significant opportunity for the international community to modify the current order and support reforms in North Korea. Aid advanced in a cooperative spirit has the potential to expose North Korea to similar advancements from the outside world. Economic cooperation, such as the establishment of the Kaesong Industrial Park, can also help to normalise ties. The international community may also try to improve North Korea’s economy in order to reduce the risk of a catastrophic crisis and to bring North Korea into the fold of the global economy, which can help in modifying Pyongyang’s recalcitrant posture.

Sports and Cultural Exchanges: Before the division in 1945, the Korean Peninsula had been united for thirteen centuries, as a result the two Koreas share linguistic, cultural and ethnic affinities. These affinities can be made the foundation for formulating a Korean fraternity, through cultural exchanges, that can instil the values of cooperation and belongingness among Koreans on both sides of the border. Much like the cultural exchanges, sports can be utilised as a medium to bring about cooperation on the Korean Peninsula. The channel of cooperation through sports has been successfully explored under the administration of South Korean Presidents Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo-hyun before. The athletes and officials from North and South Korea marched together at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens and at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin. The two Koreas have also entered several international competitions under the flag of a unified Korean team. Such cooperation can bring the two countries together and lay the foundation for better Inter-Korean relations.

Environmental Drive: Deforestation has been a major issue in North Korea. The past few decades have seen tremendous desertification of land as typhoons and clearing of forested areas have significantly reduced the overall forest cover. Between 1990 and 2016, the forest area decreased from around 70% to 40% of the land area. This increased rate of deforestation has led to soil erosion and flooding which has resulted in food shortages and famines. In its efforts to counter the growing threat of deforestation, North Korea has consistently participated in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) from 2009 to 2018. Despite the imposition of UN sanctions, North Korea has continued to send delegates to the UNFCCC and has issued statements emphasising its efforts in afforestation. In 2021, the Eighth Party Congress of the Korean Workers Party gave particular importance to the issue of afforestation and environment. North Korea’s continued commitment to afforestation efforts provides South Korea and the international community with a possible avenue to cooperate in order to lower tensions on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea has been severely affected by deforestation and is likely to accept international aid in helping its afforestation drive. Hence, providing a helping hand in increasing North Korea’s forest cover can help in fostering better relations on the Korean Peninsula.

While confidence building measures will help in laying down the foundation for a successful dialogue between the parties, a new approach to negotiations must also be considered. Rather than demanding denuclearisation as a prerequisite for any dialogue, negotiations must be sought in a spirit of commitment and cooperation. It is important to understand the possibilities and requirements for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear programme. In this regard, a question must be central to negotiations and should be posed to North Korea – ‘what would it take for you to denuclearise’. Once the intentions of both sides are made clear, negotiations can move forward. Coupled with this spirit of cooperation and understanding, the commitment issues that have so far clouded negotiations must also be resolved. Unlike previous negotiations, commitments and promises that are deemed feasible and are rooted in reality must be agreed on.

Today, the conflict on the Korean Peninsula stands at a very critical position where lack of engagement with North Korea has the potential of leading to devastating consequences. The international community cannot distance itself or coerce North Korea into entering negotiations. For dialogue to take precedence, cooperation must be made the foundation. Although bringing North Korea to the negotiation table can be a long-protracted struggle, it is the only way peace can dawn upon the Korean Peninsula.

Gagan Hitkari
Gagan Hitkari
Gagan Hitkari is a PhD candidate at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi. He is also a Non-resident James A Kelly Korea Fellow at the Pacific Forum, Hawaii, US. His research interests include Disarmament, Nuclear diplomacy, India's foreign policy, Inter-Korean relations and North Korea's nuclear policy, Environmental Security and Peace building.