By Dae-Han Song
July 27 marked the 70th anniversary of the 1953 ceasefire to the Korean War. In the three years leading up to the anniversary, South Korean peace movements organized the international Korea Peace Appeal campaign to replace the armistice agreement with a peace treaty to conclude the 70-plus-year Korean War. The anniversary has come and gone, but, instead of peace, the Joe Biden, Yoon Suk Yeol, and Fumio Kishida administrations are stoking tensions in the Korean Peninsula as a smokescreen to build a NATO-level U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral alliance against China.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has played his supporting role well. By sidestepping long-standing claims for historical accountability of Japanese colonialism, Yoon has cleared the way for an alliance between the United States’ two key allies in the region: its “cornerstone“—Japan—and its “linchpin“—South Korea. His diplomatic concessions are key in overcoming the United States’ roughshod postwar San Francisco system—in the aftermath of Japan’s defeat, the United States sacrificed justice for the victims of Japanese colonialism in order to wage the Cold War. To shield the trilateral alliance from future democratic pressures, Biden, Yoon, and Kishida announced the “Spirit of Camp David” on August 18 at Camp David, which institutionalized annual trilateral summits, meetings, and consultations that could survive changes in administration.
During an August 28 interview, Francis Daehoon Lee elaborates on the trilateral alliance and the state of South Korea’s peace movement. A longtime peace activist and veteran of Korea’s democratization movement, Lee was a founder of People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy; is a professor of peace studies at Sungkonghoe University; and is the director of Peacemomo, a research institute for peace and education.
Lee points out that—in contrast to the Park Geun-hye administration that first proposed it 10 years ago—extended deterrence (including U.S. nuclear weapons) has, under Yoon, taken a “preemptive nature.” Furthermore, North Korea is simply “a pretext for the U.S. to prepare, exercise, and train its forces for a preemptive strategy in northeast Asia” against China. In contrast, China has been consistently unwilling to “use military force to change the international order.” Lee is quick to elaborate that “for China, Taiwan is not an international issue; it’s a domestic one.” To Lee, China has consistently built its influence through economic relationships. His understanding is buttressed by Beijing’s commitment in its Global Security Initiative to upholding “indivisible security,” in which the security of one party is indivisibly connected to the security of the other party.
A Linchpin? Cornerstone?
In U.S. military documents about the region, the terms “linchpin” and “cornerstone” are constantly thrown about to describe South Korea and Japan, respectively. Yet, what exactly does it mean to be the linchpin or the cornerstone? How do both relate to each other?
Lee starts by explaining how Japan’s economy and its nuclear warfare and long-range weapons technology give it greater strategic value. This makes it the “cornerstone” upon which U.S. regional security is built. In contrast, South Korea’s “mostly short-range land-based military resources” make it useful “in the way that Ukraine’s forces are useful: they can fight to the end on the ground, they can consume their own people and resources.”
After all, despite all the U.S. attacks on China, there exist “brakes” to the ratcheting up of tensions and conflict: During the Trump era, the United States became a divided society; “bipartisan politics is unable to win people over,” Lee says. This makes economic stability vitally important. While Trump and Biden “decided on weakening China instead of coexisting with it,” economic instability puts the brakes on the United States destroying the “economic ties with China,” he says. Lee notes how despite U.S. “decoupling,” trade between both countries increased while China’s trade with other countries decreased.
He likens the U.S. stance on South Korea to its stance on Ukraine. Western countries want Ukraine to fight for its territory, to win the war. Yet, even as they supply the war globally, they, ultimately, want the fighting “localized.” “What if a similar plan is now in place for northeast Asia? Then, the best option is not American forces fighting Chinese forces. In addition, Japanese forces are not apt for actual fighting. They are trained as supply and global operation networks, and defense forces. So who has the actual fighting force?” South Korea, the U.S.’s regional linchpin.
Preventing War in Northeast Asia
Building a peace movement in South Korea against the escalation of the new cold war requires understanding Korea’s current peace movements. I ask Lee what he thinks about the Korea Peace Appeal campaign, and what tasks are ahead for the social movements.
Having participated in the campaign, Lee provides insights and critiques. The purpose of the Korea Peace Appeal was to “bring the world’s attention [to the fact] that we Koreans want peace.” The argument “was a middle common ground between the right and left within the peace movement.” As the campaign attempted to find “a middle ground and to approach the larger public, it inevitably became simple,” and “too Korea-focused.”
This stands in contrast to Lee’s regional framework for peace. Peacemomo proposes an “Early Warning on the Danger of Armed Conflict in Northeast Asia,” in an eponymous report. Such an early warning system is based on understanding northeast Asia as a war theater, in which one party’s actions trigger a chain of actions and reactions, inching us toward war. The “early warning,” according to Lee, calls on civil society organizations in the region to watch out for and alert their respective public about the signs and developments toward war: Japan’s plan “to double its defense budget” within five years and “possess counterattack capability”; South Korea and the U.S.’s joint air exercise carrying out “decapitation operation training” against North Korea; and North Korea’s ominous statement that “if the command center is in danger, an automatic and immediate nuclear strike will be carried out,” says Lee.
Ultimately, a peace treaty in Korea is not possible without peace in the region. To achieve that, social movements will have to call for disarmament and a shifting of resources from war toward people’s well-being.