This article is part of our weeklong series commemorating the 70th Anniversary of the Korean War armistice, July 27, 1953.
In July 1953 the war after World War II, often labeled “the forgotten war,” came to an end. Hundreds of thousands had died. Millions had been displaced. The Korean peninsula had been wrecked. The guns finally fell silent.
Although the fighting ended, hostilities did not. The parties agreed to an armistice, but never inked a peace treaty. Today real peace seems as far away as ever. North Korea has ostentatiously rejected talks with the U.S. and Republic of Korea. At the same time, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un is speeding up work on both his nuclear and missile programs, with the goal of targeting the American homeland.
Although nothing suggests that he is suicidal, preparing to go out in a blaze of glory atop a radioactive funeral pyre in Pyongyang, adding the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the short list of countries able to set American cities aflame would tie U.S. survival to the state of inter-Korean relations. China’s relations with Taiwan look stable in comparison.
America’s Korean commentariat leans hawkish. Few policymakers trust the DPRK to do anything other than commit mischief and contemplate mayhem. Thus, there is a broad assumption that Kim is unlikely to agree to anything — and, more important, fulfill any agreement — that falls short of conquest of the South.
That could be true, of course, but despite Kim’s physical resemblance to his grandfather, they differ greatly in the people they ruled and the way they ruled. Kim’s time in Switzerland evidently did not turn him into a liberal but appeared to whet his interest in economic reform. While exhibiting no interest in abandoning his nation’s nuclear program — after Iraq and Libya, what sane foreign dictator on Washington’s naughty list would? — he has shown a knack for diplomacy and appears to recognize reality.
No doubt, he would like to swallow the ROK. However, nothing suggests that he believes that is possible. Which is one reason he is not interested in striking a deal that leaves him vulnerable to U.S. attack. But that does not mean he is opposed to making any agreement, so long as North Korea remains a nuclear power.His proffer in Hanoi — to close the Yongbyon nuclear facilities in return for substantial sanctions relief — might have been unacceptable, but so are most initial prices in the bazaar. Negotiations could have yielded something, however limited, that was worthwhile. And the U.S. will not know what Kim is prepared to do unless it presses him.
Which Washington should do now. True, the Biden administration has done almost everything but beg to draw the North into negotiations. However, Kim realizes that Washington is offering nothing new. The U.S. insists on a promise to denuclearize, which will not be forthcoming. Only South Africa, in unique circumstances, dismantled a small number of existing nuclear weapons. The likelihood of the DPRK following suit is infinitesimal.
Rather than prevent negotiations from beginning, the U.S. should pursue more limited arms control accords. Washington need not abandon the hope — or perhaps fantasy — of Pyongyang doing a nuclear full monty. Rather, the U.S. should not demand the North’s assent, which would not be forthcoming. Successful arms control would be consistent with denuclearization, and if circumstances changed Washington could revive that objective.
Unfortunately, the question remains: how to get Kim to start talking, even about arms control? He would have to believe that the U.S. had changed its position, which might require more than a State Department press release. Moreover, since the failed Hanoi summit his government has strengthened its negotiating position.
Pyongyang launched some 100 missiles last year. It presumably is moving closer to developing not only ICBMs, but also MIRVs, multiple warheads for those intercontinental missiles. The regime’s goals have expanded in tandem: “the development of the new-type ICBM Hwasongpho-18 will extensively reform the strategic deterrence components of the DPRK, radically promote the effectiveness of its nuclear counterattack posture and bring about a change in the practicality of its offensive military strategy.”
Kim is unlikely to sacrifice these plans for the Biden administration’s mess of policy pottage.
U.S. officials should communicate that they are interested in discussing ideas to reduce tensions. This should include consideration of measures to increase personal and official contacts between the two nations and reduce sanctions on commercial dealings.
Washington could offer to suspend some economic restrictions if serious talks got underway. Any up-front benefits should be reversible, to encourage Pyongyang to keep its promises. The initial objective should be to limit the size and reach of the North’s missiles and nukes. With warnings that the Kim regime is on track to accumulate as many as 240 nuclear weapons in the next few years, a verifiable freeze would be worth serious compensation.
Nevertheless, in Washington opposition to engagement is strong. Some hawks see diplomacy as surrender, a foolish position. It is more important to talk with one’s adversaries than one’s allies. A misunderstanding between Washington and Seoul is not likely to lead to war. If the U.S. and DPRK continue on their present path, the potential for serious conflict will only grow.
Critics of negotiation insist that the North would cheat on any agreement it might make. If so, then why bother promoting denuclearization? Pyongyang is most likely to cheat on a pact that would leave its security entirely in America’s hands. Enforcement is required for any arrangement. If that is impossible, the U.S. should give up on denuclearization.
Others warn of undermining international nonproliferation efforts, fueling South Korean support for building nuclear weapons, and harming U.S. relations with Seoul and Tokyo. However, the problem is North Korea’s status as a nuclear power, with an arsenal that could soon place it firmly among the second-rank nuclear powers. Recognition of this reality would change nothing. Nonproliferation has failed and neither the ROK nor Japan has a better response.
The Biden administration’s approach has been to embrace the South ever more firmly, which means promising that Washington really would sacrifice U.S. cities to save Seoul. Indeed, the recent summit seemed to discuss little else, with Washington concocting all sorts of committees and meetings to convince the Yoon government that it now has an important role in determining when the US might use nukes, which it doesn’t.
This is manifestly bad policy for America and South Korea. The former is risking nuclear attack on the homeland. The second is betting that a U.S. president would sacrifice millions of American lives to retaliate against the North for an attack on the South. Far better for both to pursue a policy designed to reduce the likelihood of such a contingency, starting with limiting Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal.
Seven decades have passed since the guns in Korea fell silent. President Donald Trump briefly broke through the hostile status quo on the Korean peninsula. Unfortunately, that effort failed, and now the North is threatening to greatly expand its nuclear reach. Unless the Biden administration tries something different, the future is only going to become more dangerous.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He previously was affiliated with the Heritage Foundation and Competitive Enterprise Institute. He writes a weekly column for the American Conservative online and Antiwar.com.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un observes a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile in March, 2022. (Public domain)
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.