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The Peninsula

Dream Big – A Peace Conference to End the Korean War and What It Could Become

Published November 30, 2018
Author: Mark Tokola

By Mark Tokola

The history of how to end a war is as long as the history of warfare.  The established pattern has been first an agreement to stop fighting — called an armistice (the word dates from the 1660s) — followed by a peace conference to arrive at some form of settlement.  Armistices are signed by generals, peace conferences are managed by diplomats and political leaders.  Some settlements have been as simple as the terms of surrender imposed by victors.  More enlightened belligerents have viewed peace conferences as an opportunity to examine the roots of conflict and to seek agreements that would prevent future war.  Examples abound.

The early 19th century Napoleonic Wars ended with an armistice, followed by a peace conference called the Congress of Vienna. The countries of Europe deemed that defeating Napoleon would not ensure future peace.  The Congress of Vienna was intended to create a stable balance among the great powers and to provide security assurances to the smaller countries.  The outcome of the Congress of Vienna has had its share of historic criticism, but it was followed in fact by a century of general peace on the European continent.  The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 that followed World War I did not do enough to prevent World War II from erupting only twenty years later.

In retrospect, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the CSCE), which met intermittently from 1973 to 1989, looks like a peace conference following a war that never happened.  There was no World War III Armistice, thank heavens, because the United States and the Soviet Union managed to avoid a nuclear exchange — just barely, as it appear in retrospect.  As a good peace conference should, the CSCE’s broad agenda was aimed not only at immediate tension reduction but at the roots of potential conflict in Europe: politico-military, economic and environmental, and the “human dimension” (human rights, minority rights, and education).  The CSCS eventually led to the OSCE and all of its continuing good work

The Korean War that ended in an armistice in 1953 was appropriately followed by a peace conference in Geneva that lasted from April to June 1954.  Around the table were North Korea, South Korea, the United States, China, the Soviet Union, and all of the United Nations Command sending states, minus South Africa, which did not attend.  The conference failed to reach agreement and was suspended, to “meet again at an appropriate time.”  The Korean War Armistice has remained in effect with a United Nations Command to enforce the armistice and a Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission to monitor Armistice violations by both sides – which it still does actively.  That’s where we are today.

If denuclearization talks succeed, the Korean War Armistice could be resolved by a fairly simple strokes of a few pens if that’s what South Korea, North Korea, the United States and China decided to do.  It is unlikely that there would be significant opposition to such a move by other members of the international community.  More properly, all of the belligerent states including all of the United Nations Command sending states (Australia, UK, France, Germany, Canada, South Africa, the Philippines and others) should be involved in resolving the Korean Armistice but there is no international arbiter to require that armistices be resolved correctly.  Following that, winding up all of the relevant United Nations resolutions regarding the peninsula would be a more complicated process, but certainly could be accomplished.

At the edge of speculation, however, might that be a missed opportunity?  Simply drawing a line under the Korean War Armistice would leave unresolved all of the issues that keep the peninsula divided and, more broadly, all of the sources of tension in Northeast Asia created by unresolved problems (such as territorial and historical claims) and rivalries among great powers and states in the region.  Convening a Peace Conference to address the roots of the Korea War could involve negotiating issues stretching back to unresolved claims from World War II and reaching forward to cooperation on sources of future friction, such as natural resource management.  That could take a long time, but lengthy negotiations can relieve pressures and can build habits of cooperation simply from long acquaintance among the negotiators.

The participants in a peace conference to end the Korea War would include most of the countries that need to be involved in resolving today’s broader issues in Northeast Asia.  And, just as the CSCE expended its membership and geographic scope over time, the peace conference could reach out to include others.  A peace conference to deal with the roots of the Korean War could quite naturally become a Conference on Security and Cooperation in Asia, a CSCA, and – let’s dream big – perhaps even an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Asia, an OSCA.  There is no lack of regional groupings in Asia, but none based on ending a war and preventing a future war.  An ambitious peace conference would be a fitting conclusion to a 65 year-old armistice.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Gilbert Sopakuwa’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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