May 8, 2023 | The Korea Times

Sometimes less is more: The most important 26 words of ROK-US summit

May 8, 2023 | The Korea Times

Sometimes less is more: The most important 26 words of ROK-US summit

By all measures the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the United States (ROK-U.S.) summit and state visit by President Yoon Suk Yeol was a resounding success. It celebrated the 70-year blood friendship kindled in the heat of battle from 1950-53. It advanced mutual security and mutual prosperity and established a sound foundation for the further evolution of the alliance as a Global Comprehensive Strategic Alliance in the 21st century.

The highlight that has drawn the most attention from supporters and critics alike, as well as heated rhetoric from North Korea, China and Russia, is the Washington Declaration. It seeks to improve extended deterrence, restore confidence in the U.S. commitment to defend South Korea, which keeps the ROK non-nuclear in accordance with the 1992 Agreement on Denuclearization, and establishes a new organization, the Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG), to ensure respect for the sovereignty of both nations in the event that the U.S. employs its nuclear weapons against a North Korean attack with weapons of mass destruction.

The statements and speeches have been analyzed in detail and all Korea watchers and the press have conducted analyses of the issues that hold their interest. However, there is one statement that has been overlooked.

“The two presidents are committed to build a better future for all Korean people and support a unified Korean Peninsula that is free and at peace.”

These 26 words provide the strategic aim for the ROK-U.S. alliance until a free and unified Korea is finally established. They describe the acceptable durable political arrangement that will protect, serve and advance ROK and U.S. interests in Northeast Asia. They must form the foundation for all strategic planning, e.g., they describe the end for which the ways and means must be developed and employed. These relatively few words provide guidance to the alliance, offer hope to the Korean people, provide the solution to the nuclear and military threats, and set the stage for a “United Republic of Korea” (UROK) to achieve new heights in the world.

The second most important words were reiterated a number of times in the joint statement as well as by the actions of the ROK first lady Kim Keon Hee: “human rights.” Both presidents stated that they condemn the human rights abuses of the regime and seek to promote the human rights of the Korean people in the north. Kim met with escapees from the North and human rights activists and learned first-hand from them the terrible crimes against humanity being committed by the Kim Jong-un family regime.

The presidents also condemned the Kim family regime for diverting resources that could improve the lives of the people in order to build nuclear weapons and missiles. This should be a major theme in a sophisticated information and influence campaign that is designed to inform, educate and influence the Korean people in the North to seek a better life and prepare for unification.

It is not surprising that the 26 words are overlooked. They have been stated in various ways by the presidents of both countries since 2009. However, the word “unification” seems to create strategic planning paralysis in Korea, the U.S. and the international community. The unification process is complex and fraught with challenges. Most importantly, no one can predict the path to unification or when it might happen. Because of this few want to address it.

Furthermore, some policymakers may not want to address it for fear that it would challenge Kim Jong-un and prevent any negotiated denuclearization agreement. This is despite the fact we know from Kim’s own statements and a 2022 law that he will never give up his nuclear weapons.

In addition to 2023 being the 70th anniversary of the ROK-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty, it is also the 70th anniversary of the Armistice Agreement. Like the 26 words in the 2023 ROK-U.S. joint statement, buried in the Armistice in paragraph 60 is the subtle realization that the only way to end the conflict on the peninsula is through a political settlement that requires a solution to the Korea question. That “question” is the unnatural division of the peninsula. The military commanders who signed the Armistice gave us the solution to denuclearization threats and future conflict: unification.

A human rights upfront approach, a sophisticated influence campaign, and the pursuit of a free and unified Korea are best described as part of a superior political warfare strategy that can accomplish strategic objectives short of war. This is something the ROK-U.S. alliance can execute to achieve mutual interests which include a peaceful and prosperous peninsula and region.

The ROK government and all Korean people can pursue a free and unified Korea from the moral high ground. They can do so by planning for peaceful unification. Although it is Kim Jong-un who has the vote on whether it is peaceful, the option is open to him. However, what is important in overtly planning for peaceful unification is that despite the actual path that might lead to unification (war, regime collapse or new emerging leadership in the north) all the planning for peaceful unification will provide the foundation for the process. Peaceful unification planning efforts will not be wasted.

Although denuclearization of the North remains a worthy goal, it must be viewed as aspirational as long as the Kim family regime remains in power. The conventional wisdom has always been that denuclearization must come first and then unification will follow and that there should be no discussion of unification and human rights out of fear that it would prevent Kim Jong-un from making a denuclearization agreement. Yet no one should be deluded about Kim’s intentions. He has told the world he will never denuclearize. His political warfare and blackmail diplomacy strategies completely failed in 2022 because Presidents Yoon and Biden, like their predecessors, refused to make the political and economic concessions he demanded just to come to the negotiating table: namely to remove sanctions.

It is time for the U.S. and the ROK-U.S. alliance to execute a political warfare strategy that flips the conventional wisdom and seeks unification first and then denuclearization. The international community, but most importantly, the people of the ROK-U.S., alliance, that the only way to end the nuclear program and the human rights abuses is through unification of the Korean Peninsula. The ROK and U.S. must continue to maintain the highest state of military readiness to deter war and then adopt a human rights upfront approach, a comprehensive and sophisticated information and influence activities campaign, and focus all efforts on the pursuit of a free and unified Korea.

Presidents Biden and Yoon have provided the strategic guidance for what we all should know to be true: The only way we are going to see an end to the nuclear program and military threats as well as the human rights abuses and crimes against humanity being committed against the Korean people living in the north by the mafia-like crime family cult known as the Kim family regime is through the achievement of unification. This must be a free and unified Korea that is secure and stable, non-nuclear, economically vibrant and unified under a liberal constitutional form of government based on individual liberty, freedom, rule of law and human rights as determined by the Korean people. A free and unified Korea or in short, a United Republic of Korea.

David Maxwell is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel and has spent more than 30 years in Asia as a practitioner and specializes in Northeast Asian Security Affairs and irregular, unconventional and political warfare. He is the vice president of the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy and a senior fellow at the Global Peace Foundation (where he focuses on a free and unified Korea) and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @DavidMaxwell161. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Military and Political Power North Korea U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy