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The Transpartisan Case for Peace on the Korean Peninsula

There are reasons to doubt the war will ever end, but yesterday's event suggested there is at least hope.

This article was co-published with Responsible Statecraft.

“If we take the first step of declaring the end of the Korean War, it could incentivize leaders of the Korean Peninsula to take action,” noted Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) at a virtual roundtable  Monday co-hosted by Women Cross DMZ, the American Conservative and the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft on how a permanent peace agreement can resolve the security crisis on the Korean Peninsula. “[President Barack] Obama never had a partner. Now there’s a partner in President Moon,” Congressman Khanna added. 

The California Congressman went on to announce that he and Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) plan to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in post-pandemic to support his diplomatic efforts. 

Seventy years after the start of the Korean War, there are good reasons to doubt that this endless war will ever end. The parties involved in signing a peace agreement — United States, North Korea, and China — harbor deep mistrust and cynicism about each other’s intent. But as yesterday’s discussion showed, there is a growing transpartisan consensus that the United States needs to help end the Korean War.

As an anti-militarism think tank with a focus on democratizing the foreign policy conversation, the Quincy Institute had been calling for an updated U.S. foreign policy toward the Korean Peninsula since its launch last December. We advocate for a 21st century foreign policy that moves away from endless war toward a foreign policy based on diplomacy and engagement. That means treating U.S. allies as co-equal partners in pursuit of innovative solutions to North Korea’s growing nuclear threat and regional stability. 

Our decision to partner with The American Conservative and Women Cross DMZ on the 67th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice was rooted in our belief that a strong intellectual and grassroots-based counterweight is needed to disrupt the foreign policy establishment’s mentality on the Korean War. Toward that goal, one attendee observed that the webinar’s content was rare by Washington’s standards, as speakers represented diverse viewpoints that reflect the Korean War’s complex impact on the two Koreas today. Experts with links to defense contractors have financial incentives to promote policies that create more dependency on U.S. defense and arms sales, and tend to dominate foreign policy conversations in Washington. 

Among the key takeaways from Monday’s conversation was the reassertion of congressional leadership on Korea policy, which is both welcome and needed. This is a significant development from the branch of government that has traditionally favored blunt instruments of war over negotiations. The “maximum pressure” campaign of the Trump administration has been a boon to the defense industry, as the myriad U.S. and U.N. sanctions against North Korea make diplomacy extremely difficult to navigate both politically and legally. Arbitrarily capping U.S. troop levels in South Korea is also unwise, as it leaves the U.S.’s over-extended military as a fixture on the peninsula, rather than a temporary solution.

Indeed, the fact that members of Congress are prioritizing hearing directly from South Koreans about Korean Peninsula issues should be encouraged and replicated by other members of Congress. As a former staff member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, I saw firsthand how much in-person meetings can forge trust and mutual understanding. Done right, congressional visits provide an independent window into the impact of U.S. foreign policy on the ground as well as help our diplomats stationed in-country learn about the legislative branch’s perspectives and priorities. These visits should be conducted not just by members of national security committees in the House and Senate but by other members who have strong interest in war powers, authorization of the use of force, oversight of military spending, and veterans’ issues. 

Reps. Khanna and Biggs’ upcoming visit to Seoul is also significant because it implies that South Korea is a co-equal partner with the United States and that lasting progress on the peninsula will need to be led by the Korean people. The planned visit comes at a time of extraordinary pressure on the U.S.-South Korea alliance, thanks in part to President Trump’s aggressive negotiation tactics on the Special Measures Agreement and disparaging remarks about South Korea. Their visit could include a meeting with lawmakers in the National Assembly, who have similar roles in overseeing the executive branch, setting budgetary agenda, and responding to constituent concerns. 

The fact that a progressive voice who has called for an end to the Korean War and prohibition of an unconstitutional war against North Korea in Congress is willing to partner with the chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus also demonstrates that the Korean War has become a transpartisan issue, where political affiliations do not matter as much as good ideas. Indeed, congressional involvement on matters of war and peace is exactly how our constitution envisioned its role to be. As Rep. Biggs noted at the Foreign Policy-Quincy Institute Forum in February, we need to restore “proper separation of powers between the branches of government,” whether it is through auditing the Defense Department or reining in our endless wars.

Ultimately, Reps. Khanna and Biggs’s trip to Seoul could encourage more bipartisan involvement in U.S. foreign policy. Grassroots organizations such as Women Cross DMZ and conservative news organizations such as The American Conservative share QI’s vision for peace on the Korean Peninsula, and together we will work with  like-minded leaders to challenge the deeply jaundiced view that war has to be a permanent feature of the Korean Peninsula.

Jessica Lee is a Senior Research Fellow in the East Asia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.