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It's time for a new U.S.-Korea alliance for a free, unified peninsula

By David Maxwell & Chung Kyung-young
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It's time for a new U.S.-Korea alliance for a free, unified peninsula
A photo released April 17 by the official North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) shows the test-fire of a new type of tactical guided weapon from an undisclosed location. Photo by KCNA/ EPA-EFE

May 10 (UPI) -- A small group of civil society stakeholders from the Republic of Korea (South Korea), North Korea, the United States, Japan and China recently convened in the mountains of Virginia to address the security situation on the Korean Peninsula and examine what it will take to bring peace, prosperity and respect for human rights to all Koreans on both sides.

This followed a major conference held by the Global Peace Foundation, "U.S.-ROK Alliance for A Free and Unified Korea."

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For more than seven decades, the complexity and uncertainty in Northeast Asia have led to a "strategic planning paralysis" that allowed only thinking about the symptoms and not treatment of the root cause of insecurity and suffering. The overwhelming consensus among the participants was that the primary reason for the current situation is the division of the Korean Peninsula since 1945.

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The ROK-U.S. alliance's nearly sole focus has been on security. The alliance has successfully deterred a resumption of hostilities since 1953 and this has allowed the miraculous political, economic, and cultural achievements of the ROK. However, the threat from the Kim family regime has only grown. Today, the North is a rogue and failing nation that has weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them on the peninsula, throughout the region, and possibly even to the U.S. homeland. For more than three decades, the ROK and United States, as well as China, Russia and Japan, have failed to negotiate the denuclearization of the North.

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What we have learned is that the Kim family regime continues to execute a dual focused strategy of political warfare and blackmail diplomacy combined with developing advanced warfighting capabilities. These two lines of effort serve two objectives: deterrence against the alliance and domination of the peninsula under northern rule. Kim Jong Un demonstrated his hostile policy toward the ROK and United States with 15 missile tests since January, possible preparation for a nuclear test and statements threatening a pre-emptive strike.

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Based on the nature, objectives and strategy of the regime, Kim has no intention of denuclearizing the North nor to even act as a responsible member of the international community. It is time to recognize that the only way to achieve denuclearization and an end to the human rights abuses and crimes against humanity being committed against the Korean people living in the North is through the establishment of a free and unified Korea.

As the new Yoon Suk-yeol administration enters office, there is an opportunity for the alliance to move forward in a new strategic direction. Yoon and U.S. President Joe Biden will hold their first summit shortly after the inauguration. The agenda will certainly cover the important items of the North Korean threat, synchronization of alliance policies and strategy based on shared values, a human rights upfront approach, trilateral ROK-U.S.-Japan cooperation, the Quad, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, cyber cooperation, Ukraine and China. The strength of the ROK-U.S. alliance will be reaffirmed.

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Now is the time to consider a broader policy and strategy that aims to achieve a free and unified Korea. The alliance must maintain a strong deterrence posture and be prepared to defeat North Korean aggression. It will continue to provide Kim the opportunity to negotiate while it will cope, contain and manage the threats from the North.

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Yoon and Biden must take up the mantle for what previous ROK and U.S. presidents called for in joint statements in 2009, 2013, 2015 and 2017: that the alliance seeks peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula. Biden and former South Korean President Moon Jae-in did not address unification in their May joint statement. However, Biden did call for peaceful unification in his special contribution to Yonhap News in October 2020 and previously in his speech at Yonsei University in December 2013. Surely the two presidents will be aligned on this strategic aim that is the only way to protect, sustain and advance ROK-U.S. alliance interests for the future.

The summit should conclude with an ironclad commitment to a free and unified Korea. This should provide the focus for alliance policy and strategy going forward. All actions the alliance undertakes should be made with the consideration for how they will affect the goal of achieving unification.

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To facilitate this effort, the presidents should direct their national security staffs to establish a presidential-level strategic unification joint task force with a dedicated team to plan for and coordinate a ROK-led, U.S.-supported unification process. This permanently established full-time team will explore a vision and strategy for a free and unified Korea and develop comprehensive implementation plans for peaceful unification, denuclearization, respect for human rights, and for contingencies that may arise, and which will eventually lead to unification.

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Simultaneously, civil society stakeholders should be encouraged to continue their own working groups to focus on a free and unified Korea and all the issues surrounding this challenge, such as human rights, economic development and people-to-people contact. These groups, such as Action for Korea United, AKU USA and the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, are critical for informing, educating and advocating for unification among the Korean people on both sides of the demilitarized zone, as well as the international community. Synergistic effects can be achieved by the alliance's strategic unification task force and civil society working groups coordinating efforts to maximize the comparative advantages each brings to this Korean challenge.

The Korean Peninsula was unnaturally divided in 1945. This prevented Soviet domination of the entire peninsula, but also created the Kim family regime, which led to war in 1950 and the continuing existential threat against South Korea. The alliance enabled the Korean people in the South to build a free, democratic and prosperous nation while under the cloud of the North's weapons of mass destruction. Now is the time to commit to a free and unified Korea that might be known as a United Republic of Korea.

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David Maxwell is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces colonel who has spent more than 30 years in Asia and specializes in North Korea and East Asia Security Affairs and irregular, unconventional and political warfare. He is the editor of Small Wars Journal and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Chung Kyung-young is an adjunct professor at Hanyang University. He is a retired ROK Army colonel with a PhD from the University of Maryland. He has served as a Blue House Policy adviser and as director of the Institute for Academic Studies Action, Korean United Professors Association.

The Global Peace Foundation is affiliated with the ultimate holding company that owns UPI.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

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