Editor's Note: The following is part of a new symposium here in Korea Watch that will analyze potential U.S. policy options towards North Korea should Donald Trump win reelection. Check back soon for more contributions in the coming days.
Despite America’s pivotal role in the conflict—and its lasting impact on American democracy—the Korean War is a forgotten chapter in American history. Five million soldiers and civilians died from the war, which began in 1950 and never officially ended. The fifty-five boxes of remains of missing Korean War service members that North Koreans returned to the United States in 2018 is a stark reminder of the absence of closure from that original forever war.
Whoever is elected as president this November should follow through on President Trump’s commitment to transform U.S.-North Korea relations. The first step is declaring the Korean War over and taking concrete steps to establish peace between the main actors of the conflict: the United States, North Korea, South Korea, and China. But to surpass the stronghold in Washington, which binds America to policies of confrontation on the Korean peninsula, there has to be a domestic constituency big enough that says no to these endless wars and yes to strong diplomatic engagement. Luckily, that base is growing, and it is bipartisan.
President Trump’s historic, although sporadic, negotiations with North Korea are in line with U.S. public opinion. A new poll by the Eurasia Group Foundation shows Americans favor diplomacy, especially when it leads to an avoidance of war. Majorities of both Trump (56.1%) and Biden (62.8) supporters believe “the U.S. should negotiate directly with adversaries to try to avoid military confrontation, even if they are human rights abusers, dictators, or home to terrorist organizations.” The foreign policy orthodoxy of never negotiating with dictators is second in line to the American people’s priority: avoiding war.
Americans are also increasingly skeptical of the decades-old “peace through strength” approach to foreign affairs, which has defined much of Washington’s policy toward the Korean Peninsula since the Korean War’s inconclusive end. It gave birth to the present-day military industrial complex and what historian and Quincy Institute’s non-resident fellow Nikhil Pal Singh described as an “addiction to militarism.”
While many in the foreign policy community believe global stability is best maintained by the U.S. financing a strong military or promoting democracy overseas, a plurality of Americans from both political parties believe peace is best achieved and sustained by “keeping a focus on the domestic needs and the health of American democracy, while avoiding unnecessary intervention beyond the borders of the United States.”
And, while President Trump debates withdrawing U.S. troops from America’s largest overseas military based in South Korea, a plurality supports reducing the overall number of troops stationed in countries across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. A gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula, in close consultation with both Koreas, would better serve American national security interests than endlessly seeking dominance in a region that should be led by the Korean people.
If reelected, President Trump has a mandate to revive the peace negotiations he started, mindful of an increasingly pro-diplomacy and anti-war public. Not only will a peace agreement benefit America’s interests in the region and reduce the threat of war that looms large over millions, it will also democratize foreign policy by taking seriously the preferences of American voters.
Jessica J. Lee is a senior research fellow on East Asia at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.