Now is the time to consider a broader policy and strategy that aims to achieve a free and unified Korea. The alliance must maintain a strong deterrence posture and be prepared to defeat North Korean aggression. It will continue to provide Kim the opportunity to negotiate while it will cope, contain and manage the threats from the North.
Yoon and Biden must take up the mantle for what previous ROK and U.S. presidents called for in joint statements in 2009, 2013, 2015 and 2017: that the alliance seeks peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula. Biden and former South Korean President Moon Jae-in did not address unification in their May joint statement. However, Biden did call for peaceful unification in his special contribution to Yonhap News in October 2020 and previously in his speech at Yonsei University in December 2013. Surely the two presidents will be aligned on this strategic aim that is the only way to protect, sustain and advance ROK-U.S. alliance interests for the future.
The summit should conclude with an ironclad commitment to a free and unified Korea. This should provide the focus for alliance policy and strategy going forward. All actions the alliance undertakes should be made with the consideration for how they will affect the goal of achieving unification.
To facilitate this effort, the presidents should direct their national security staffs to establish a presidential-level strategic unification joint task force with a dedicated team to plan for and coordinate a ROK-led, U.S.-supported unification process. This permanently established full-time team will explore a vision and strategy for a free and unified Korea and develop comprehensive implementation plans for peaceful unification, denuclearization, respect for human rights, and for contingencies that may arise, and which will eventually lead to unification.
Simultaneously, civil society stakeholders should be encouraged to continue their own working groups to focus on a free and unified Korea and all the issues surrounding this challenge, such as human rights, economic development and people-to-people contact. These groups, such as Action for Korea United, AKU USA and the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, are critical for informing, educating and advocating for unification among the Korean people on both sides of the demilitarized zone, as well as the international community. Synergistic effects can be achieved by the alliance’s strategic unification task force and civil society working groups coordinating efforts to maximize the comparative advantages each brings to this Korean challenge.
The Korean Peninsula was unnaturally divided in 1945. This prevented Soviet domination of the entire peninsula, but also created the Kim family regime, which led to war in 1950 and the continuing existential threat against South Korea. The alliance enabled the Korean people in the South to build a free, democratic and prosperous nation while under the cloud of the North’s weapons of mass destruction. Now is the time to commit to a free and unified Korea that might be known as a United Republic of Korea.
David Maxwell is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces colonel who has spent more than 30 years in Asia and specializes in North Korea and East Asia Security Affairs and irregular, unconventional and political warfare. He is the editor of Small Wars Journal and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @DavidMaxwell161. Chung Kyung-young is an adjunct professor at Hanyang University. He is a retired ROK Army colonel with a PhD from the University of Maryland. He has served as a Blue House Policy adviser and as director of the Institute for Academic Studies Action, Korean United Professors Association. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.