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HomeIn-Depth AnalysisTo End America’s Longest War the US-Korea Alliance Must Change

To End America’s Longest War the US-Korea Alliance Must Change

Image credit: The White House

By Charles Knight

While visiting Australia in mid-December, South Korean President Moon Jae-in announced that North Korea, China, South Korea, and the United States have agreed on an end-of-war declaration at the “fundamental and principle levels”. Since 1953, when an armistice ended large-scale combat on the Korean Peninsula, the parties to that war have not signed a peace treaty. Instead, they have prepared for war as though it could or should resume at a moment’s notice.

Moon first proposed the ‘end-of-war declaration’ in a speech before the UN in 2019. He renewed that call before that same body this past September, inviting diplomats from the U.S., South Korea, and North Korea to meet, negotiate, and sign a declaration. He also called for including China in a four-party declaration. The ‘end-of-war’ notion is formulated as an alternative to a formal peace treaty that remains politically out of reach, especially after the failure of the Hanoi Summit in 2019. As such, President Moon hoped that 3- or 4-party talks might lead to a renewal of negotiations regarding the broader issues of peninsular peace. 

In his Canberra remarks, Moon pointed out that “we are not able to sit down for a negotiation on declarations,” because of Pyongyang’s insistence that the U.S. and South Korea “end hostile policies” before any talks could proceed. As the Deputy Director of the Publicity and Information Department of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party Kim Yo-jong stated in September, the first step is to “ensure mutual respect toward one another and abandon prejudiced views, harshly hostile policies and unfair double standards toward the other side.” Of course, this conditionality lacks specificity. Yet, judging from previous North Korean negotiating positions, Pyongyang is likely signaling that moving to meaningful negotiations will require the U.S. to provide offers of sanctions relief and reduce its military presence and joint exercises in the South.  

The United States, for its part, still insists on the unilateral nuclear disarmament of North Korea. Numerous issues of mutual interest to Pyongyang and Seoul are considered secondary and contingent on nuclear disarmament. Given that North Korea is now a (minor) nuclear power that considers nuclear weaponry essential to its strategic posture, Washington’s position is equivalent to a refusal to negotiate from Pyongyang’s perspective.  

Until quite recently, the Biden administration’s behavior suggested it had adopted the Obama administration’s notion of “strategic patience,” a stance that amounts to taking no actual diplomatic initiatives. Recently, this has changed—with the U.S. now signaling that it is ready to talk, take a “step-by-step” approach, and honor the framework agreed upon in the 2018 Singapore Joint Statement made by Kim and Trump. 

A step-by-step approach requires give and take. Moreover, it implies that the U.S. might ultimately have to settle for some tempering of the North’s nuclear arsenal rather than the complete, verifiable, and irreversible disarmament (CVID) it was originally seeking.  Not that Washington is ready to acknowledge this publicly. In fact, the recent G7 meeting statement reasserted the CVID standard. 

Washington might argue that its affirmation of CVID is justified given the Singapore Statement includes a provision which declares: “Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Nevertheless, the formulation “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” is a subject of contention, because North Korea and the United States interpret its meaning differently. 

By reaffirming the Singapore Joint Statement as a basis for negotiations, however, the U.S. hints that it is prepared to negotiate with the North on the precise meaning of “Peninsula Denuclearization”. For instance, might the U.S. eventually agree to stop flying dual-capable (nuclear and conventional) bombers over the peninsula?

Meanwhile, the U.S. Treasury Department recently announced new ‘human rights’ sanctions, blacklisting North Korea’s Central Public Prosecutors Office, a former Minister of Social Security, and the new Minister of People’s Armed Forces. Whatever value these sanctions might have in their particulars, they certainly send a mixed message to North Korea about prioritizing peace and disarmament negotiations. 

Things change, however, and the situation in Korea is not stable. For several years, both North and South Korea have been in a short-to-medium range missile arms race, developing and testing missiles carrying greater payloads over longer distances. As Sangsoo Lee of the Stockholm Korea Center observes: “What we are witnessing today on the Korean Peninsula is the same kind of action-reaction dynamic that developed between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War—a destabilizing and expensive arms race.” This rings true, as despite Moon’s desires for peninsular peace, he has not as of yet demonstrated the political will to reign in ROK’s military establishment.   

In 2018 Pyongyang decided, at the urging of Russia and China, to induce negotiations with the U.S. by initiating a moratorium on testing new ICBMs and nuclear warheads. However, as time goes by, Chairman Kim faces increasing pressure from his military to end this moratorium. Pressure is unlikely to subside, for Military planners in the North are aware that the U.S. has been preparing its Air Force and Navy for conventional preemptive operations to prevent the successful wartime use of North Korean nuclear weapons. Pyongyang also understands that the deterrent value of its partially-developed nuclear arsenal diminishes over time absent ongoing improvements, which require periodic testing. Therefore, if serious negotiations do not begin soon, one could expect the DPRK to end its testing restraint.  

While many in Washington are content with a strategy of waiting patiently for sanctions to force Pyongyang’s capitulation, this approach overlooks how existentially critical nuclear weaponry has become in North Korea’s strategic calculus. Without an adequate national security alternative, Pyongyang will most likely choose to suffer indefinitely under the economic pain of sanctions, however severe. 

President Moon has consistently sought a path toward peace with North Korea. Achievements in this regard include facilitating several intra-Korean summits and the three meetings between Trump and Kim. Economic opening to North Korea has been at the core of Moon’s program, but Washington’s sanctions regime has blocked most initiatives. The end-of-war declaration, agreed to “in principle” by four major stakeholder nations, may well be the last significant peace initiative of his term. Yet, even if it goes no further than the symbolic agreement announced in Canberra, Moon, as a practical politician, likely consoles himself with a secondary objective of burnishing his political party’s reputation for pursuing peace during the run-up to the next election.  

The impasse in Korea raises profound questions about the U.S.-South Korea alliance. What is an alliance’s value for peace and security if a faraway great power effectively vetoes peace initiatives by a middle power dealing with a potential war situation in its immediate neighborhood? Of course, some will argue this to be simply the latest example of Thucydides’ Melian dilemma: “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” But this simple formulation never captures the full complexity or mutability of the real world. It did not do so for the Athenians, nor the Melians, and neither does it do for us today.

Alliances cannot and do not last forever. To endure from one era to another, they must adapt and change. If Washington returns to old habits of leveraging its hegemonic will to control affairs on the Korean Peninsula, it may reap the unintended consequence of hastening the end of the alliance. After all, South Korea is much stronger economically and militarily than it was a few decades ago. It has earned substantial agency in its Northeast Asian geostrategic maneuvers, and it demands certain strategic autonomy independent from Washington. The U.S. would be wise to recognize this and accommodate Seoul. A relationship of partnership will be more productive than the archaic patron-client one that actively shuns South Korean interest. And such strategic recalibration would come with the added benefit of helping end America’s longest war. 

Charles Knight is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy and a principal researcher for the Project on Defense Alternatives (PDA). Knight is an Emeritus Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy, Washington, DC.

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor