The end of the Korean War and peace on the peninsula are no more likely to occur as the result of a peace agreement than has North Korean denuclearization occurred as the result of multiple denuclearization agreements. Ultimately, North Korean objectives matter, and real peace does not appear to be part of those objectives.
The North Korean regime has been very clear that its two primary objectives are regime survival and Korean unification controlled by the North. The North Korean regime has reason to be worried about its survival, given its many failures in the last several years, to include the difficulties it is apparently facing in just feeding the people of Pyongyang now. The regime seems to perceive that it can overcome its third world, impoverished conditions if it can impose unification on the South, perhaps the only justification for the regime’s building dozens of nuclear weapons.
But first, the North must help decouple the ROK/U.S. alliance. Without U.S. extended deterrence, the South could be vulnerable to North Korean nuclear coercion and attacks. While we seldom consider the Korean War ending with the North’s original objective of victory, Kim Jong-un appears to be hoping to achieve that outcome. His insistence on the importance of unification has been a recurring theme in his New Year’s addresses.
Despite Kim’s dream of controlling the peninsula, a unification imposed by North Korean nuclear coercion or attack would be unlikely to really end the Korean War. Seeking dominance rather than unification, a North Korea in charge of all of Korea would probably use its hallmark brutality in purging ROK business, political, and military leaders, replacing them with North Koreans loyal to the Kim Family but so lacking in the knowledge and experience required to run South Korean business that they could instead destroy those businesses. The North’s use of nuclear weapons would also probably lead to the imposition of substantial international trade sanctions, which when combined with North Korean mismanagement could gradually strangle even the ROK economy which is heavily export-oriented—a real trade war. The wealth of the South would not last long in such extreme circumstances, leaving the South Korean people impoverished as the North might expropriate their residual wealth. This is not a picture of peace.
To end the Korean War, the North could abandon its designs for dominating the South. Doing so would allow the North to abandon its quest for a major nuclear weapon force, instead of investing in the welfare of the North Korean people. After all, North Korea has not needed nuclear weapons to defend itself against U.S. attacks since 1953. The North’s saying so is simply an excuse for building an offensive nuclear weapon force when no defensive force is needed.
Both sides could then turn to eliminating the hostility that each feels. But North Korea appears far more hostile toward the United States than vice-versa. After all, no U.S. indoctrination tells its people that the North Koreans are the eternal enemies of the United States, but North Koreans are trained that Americans are their eternal enemies from a very young age. Can there be true peace on the Korean peninsula if such behavior continues?
Many of the sanctions against North Korea are condition-based. If the North constrains and eventually reduces its nuclear weapon program, those sanctions will be relaxed. And without nuclear weapon threats and those sanctions, both sides could build toward ending the Korean War. But North Korea has to decide that it seeks peaceful coexistence and not peninsula dominance. Is it ready to do so?
Bruce Bennett is a senior defense analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.
Soo Kim is a policy analyst at RAND.