COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) — As conflicts and political alignments in Asia continue to evolve, U.S. relations with Korea remain prevalent public concern. In the first of a three-part series of panels discussing U.S.-Korean affairs since the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement, experts discussed diplomatic and military relations from 2006 to present.
Panelists included retired Gen. Robert B. Abrams, former commander of United Nations Command, U.S. Forces Korea and ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command; Jenny Town, senior fellow at the Stimson Center and director of 38 North and Frank Aum, senior expert on Northeast Asia for the U.S. Institute for Peace. The discussion was moderated by Dr. Daewoo Lee, an associate professor at the Columbus State University (CSU) School of Policy, Justice and Public Safety.
“We should understand that the tensions are much, much higher than they were just two years ago,” said Abrams. He continued, “The potential for miscalculation, misunderstanding is increasing. And the way forward, diplomacy has to lead.”
Abrams was assigned to Korea from 2018 to 2021. According to Abrams, while the armistice agreement keeps the security situation in Korea stable, pressures continue to rise every four- to five years.
He cited North Korea’s 2017 ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) test as the most recent intensification. The COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s Feb. 2022 invasion of Ukraine have added additional pressures, Abrams added.
“I think we’re going to be fortunate if, for the next few years at least, peaceful coexistence may be all that we can ask,” Abrams said about U.S. political policy pushing for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula which has been a source of conflict for over 30 years.
“The failure to get that agreement [at the Hanoi Summit] really was a mistake,” said Town, who was adopted from South Korea and grew up in a U.S. military family. She added, “On both sides, we’re at fault for not being able to get an agreement.”
According to Town, after the failure to get an agreement at the 2019 summit, getting back to negotiations about denuclearization is extremely unlikely especially when there is currently an arms race in East Asia. The priority in the short term should be rebuilding diplomacy to reduce tensions and risks, said Town.
She also noted it is important to realize the U.S.-Korea relationship does not happen in a vacuum. Going forward, Town said the U.S. needs to effectively manage messaging considering potential ways it could be perceived by China, especially as China forms ties with Russia and North Korea (also known as the People’s Republic of Korea).
Asked whether they thought Kim Jong Un’s leadership in Korea is sustainable, all three panelists said “yes.” They suggested creating dialogue between the U.S. and Korea does not start at denuclearization but rebuilding diplomatic relations with the Republic of Korea.
This is something which Aum argued may not be possible under the Biden Administration.
“I don’t think there’s anything Biden can do right now,” said Aum. “It would be such an about-face of his current policy, which at the moment is isolating North Korea, pressuring North Korean economic sanctions, strengthening deterrence.”
Aum said Biden’s message of “Hello…period,” to North Korea in May 2022 showed the president is “trying to act up [and] he’s also messaging his own domestic public.”
Aum suggested the statement indicated to North Korea Biden is not the president to move relations forward. Abrams questioned whether the statement communicated the respect North Korea desires.
Abrams and Town agreed creating ways for North Koreans to interact with American culture could help relieve tensions.
Town remembered a conversation she had in 2014 in which a colleague who found it regrettable McDonald’s would not open in North Korea. The colleague said opening a franchise location in North Korea would have offered an opportunity to “win hearts and minds” and redefine the way North Koreans view Americans.
Abrams hopes the situation will at least return to the progress it had made in 2018. He recalled a conversation with the U.S. Army lieutenant colonel in charge of United Nations security team meetings during that period.
“He said, ‘Sir, I think we’ve actually really turned the corner.’ He was optimistic and I said, ‘Give me an example,’” said Abrams.
The example given was this: The day before, during a daily disarmament meeting, two Korean soldiers asked a U.S. soldier if they could bum a cigarette, and the Korean- and U.S. soldiers smoked the cigarettes together. Later, a Korean commander remarked in front of a U.S. translator that Americans weren’t as bad as they seemed.
Abrams said, “There’s a reason for optimism, but there has to be a roadmap.”