'One of the great absurdities in global geopolitics': Ex-Air Force general calls for formally ending the Korean War
On July 27th, 1953, delegations from the United Nations, China, and North Korea met in Panmunjom and finalized the Korean Armistice Agreement, establishing a cessation of slaughter in the Korean War and demarcating the Demilitarized Zone along the 38th Parallel.
As the United States National Archives points out:
The Korean Armistice Agreement is somewhat exceptional in that it is purely a military document—no nation is a signatory to the agreement. Specifically the Armistice Agreement:
- suspended open hostilities;
- withdrew all military forces and equipment from a 4,000-meter-wide zone, establishing the Demilitarized Zone as a buffer between the forces;
- prevented both sides from entering the air, ground, or sea areas under control of the other;
- arranged release and repatriation of prisoners of war and displaced persons; and
- established the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) and other agencies to discuss any violations and to ensure adherence to the truce terms.
The armistice, while it stopped hostilities, was not a permanent peace treaty between nations.
Although the bullets stopped flying, the lack of a formal declaration of peace and the splitting of the Korean Peninsula into two separate nations has been the source of smoldering tensions in the ensuing decades, which are undoubtedly at their apex today due to North Korea's growing arsenal of nuclear weapons and its dictator Kim Jong Un's repeated threats to use them against the US and South Korea. Kim insists that drills conducted by the US and South Korea are a danger to his country. The democratic allies, meanwhile, maintain that they are rehearsing for the unlikely event that Kim launches an attack.
On Wednesday, retired US Air Force Lieutenant General and deputy commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command Dan Leaf opined in a The New York Times editorial that the time has arrived to formally end the Korean War in order to avoid an atomic confrontation.
"Much of my 33-year career was spent as a nuclear warrior — I later oversaw the US intercontinental ballistic missile fleet and served as deputy commander of American military forces in the Pacific — experience that informs my deep alarm over the growing risk of nuclear conflict with North Korea," he wrote.
Leaf's argument is simple: every attempt to contain Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions has failed, "the United States and South Korea technically remain at war with the North," and brokering peace is the only remaining option to avoid a nuclear catastrophe.
"In this hair-trigger environment, one bad decision or misunderstanding could kill millions," Leaf stressed, recalling that "in my time in the region, I went from scratching my head to pulling my hair out. The standoff is one of the great absurdities in global geopolitics."
The priority, Leaf continued, must be to strip the wind out of Kim's proverbial sails.
"A permanent peace agreement would undermine Mr. Kim's portrayal of the United States as an existential threat and his justification for building up his conventional and nuclear arsenal. It could also short-circuit the siege mentality underlying his repressive regime. Sanctions relief and economic development could follow, leading to long-hoped-for improvements in the quality of life and human rights for North Korea's 25 million people," he explained.
While there has been some cooperative progress toward peace in recent years, those efforts have stagnated or reversed, and Leaf believes that there is a narrowing window of opportunity to achieve what is long overdue.
"After the diplomatic overtures of recent years fell apart, Mr. Kim has only become more belligerent and the risk of conflict is more acute. Passage of a strengthened Peace on the Korean Peninsula Act is essential to securing a lasting solution, yet the current bill has not advanced since it was introduced in 2021," he noted, adding that there is a possibility that "Pyongyang may use a peace agreement as a pretext to demand the removal of U.S. troops from South Korea, which is a matter between Seoul and Washington."
But that should not deter the overall goal, according to Leaf, although he conceded that "the hardest part of ending the war might be building the political will for it in Washington. Accommodating North Korea would inevitably lead to accusations that we are rewarding bad behavior and legitimizing a totalitarian regime. But the Kim family has ruled for 75 years; it's time to accept that this is unlikely to change anytime soon."
Leaf, therefore, emphasized that the stakes are too high for the major players to continue down their current path.
"At this moment, the next generation of men and women north and south of the DMZ are preparing for nuclear war," he concluded. "May they never have to put their training to use."
Leaf's full column is available here (subscription required).
- North Korean official calls John Bolton a 'war maniac' who is 'wrecking peace and security' across the globe ›
- On Asia Trip, Trump Met by Protests Calling on U.S. to Open Diplomatic Relations with North Korea ›
- Biden's on a collision course with North Korea and China ›