The mirage of peace in the DMZ


North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (C) inspects the second battalion under the Korean People's Army Unit 1973, honoured with the title of "O Jung Hup-led 7th Regiment", on March 23, 2013, in this picture released by the North's official KCNA news agency in Pyongyang March 24, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • The DMZ remains a place of limbo, frozen in time by the armistice of 1953.

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  • Mr. Kerry seeks a return to fruitless disarmament talks with North Korea.

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  • There can no longer be any realistic hope that the North will denuclearize.

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To understand how North Korea policy has become a diplomatic no-man's land—empty, hopeless and likely to stay that way, if recent pronouncements by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry are any indication—it helps to visit the physical no-man's land of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

The DMZ is not entirely devoid of life, of course, at least on its margins. Approaching from Seoul, only 50 kilometers from the armistice line, a single barbed-wire fence gives way to thicket of guard towers and other fortifications. Busloads of tourists give the scene a surreal commercial streak, while apartment blocks lend a domestic touch here and there.

At heart, however, the DMZ remains a place of limbo, frozen in time by the armistice of 1953. The four kilometers on either side of the border are crisscrossed only by small animals, and the absence of any human activity creates a false sense of calm

That stillness reflects the diplomatic stasis of the defunct Six-Party Talks, and the inability of Washington to devise a new approach that could change North Korea's behavior. If anything, by focusing on denuclearization and encouraging greater Chinese pressure on Pyongyang-two strategies that have never worked-Mr. Kerry seems to have adopted an approach expressly designed to maintain the status quo.

North Korean policy is best understood by crawling through the claustrophobia-inducing tunnels Pyongyang's forces dug under the DMZ in the 1970s. Shuffling hunchback along to a spot just 170 meters from the border, one understands Pyongyang's long-term strategy to undermine South Korea and allied resistance. The North is willing to repeatedly test the South's resolve, hoping to weaken their will to hold Pyongyang accountable for its aggression. Given the failure of Seoul and Washington to respond to any of the North's provocations, including the 2010 sinking of a South Korean naval vessel and the shelling of a civilian island, it seems that Pyongyang's undermining strategy has worked.

The Obama administration's willingness to return to talks under the "right" conditions plays perfectly into this North Korean strategy of undermining collective resolve. The longer Washington sticks to a failed policy, the more confident Pyongyang grows in its survival. It will figure out a way to proliferate WMDs, likely with Beijing looking the other way.

Above all, Mr. Kerry seeks a return to fruitless disarmament talks. In his first trip to Tokyo last month, he told reporters, "Our choice is to negotiate, our choice is to move to the table and find a way for the region to have peace." He reiterated such sentiments throughout his Asia trip.

Mr. Kerry's lack of imagination bodes well for Pyongyang's goal of perfecting its nuclear and missile capabilities, and bodes ill for the security of northeast Asia. There can no longer be any realistic hope that the North will denuclearize.

Looking across the DMZ border from a high vantage point, one sees the desolate North Korean landscape and brutish buildings lying just outside the now-shuttered Kaesong Industrial Complex. The bleakness is a reminder that the Kim regime's strength is solely military, and that the nuclear trump card is the regime's lifeline.

Moreover, China has refused to isolate the regime despite Washington's repeated pleas for joint action. Yes, some Americans with close ties to China now say that they've never seen Beijing so frustrated with Pyongyang. But there is no indication that new leader Xi Jinping is considering serious sanctions against the North or independent economic and political pressure.

Instead, China seems to be betting that Washington's future of defense cuts will lead to a reduced American presence in Asia. President Obama's repeated invocation of the U.S.'s so-called strategic "pivot" to Asia may worry Beijing over the short term, but the Chinese believe the budgetary fundamentals are in their favor. And so they see no incentive to deal with the Americans over North Korea.

All of this leads to the question of what to do. Perhaps unexpectedly, a trip to the DMZ makes regime change in the North seem like the only thing that will alter Korea's destiny. Figuring out strategies to get rid of, or at least seriously undermine, the Kim family regime is something both the Bush and Obama administrations have studiously avoided talking about.

Committed to a failed negotiation strategy, the U.S. government has all but assured the Kim regime of its safety so long as it doesn't attack the South or Japan. That means negotiations are doomed from the beginning.

Unless Washington begins to think about regime change, the DMZ will increasingly be viewed less as the vestige of a 20th-century war, and more as a monument to spineless 21st-century diplomacy.




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About the Author


  • Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies Asian regional security and political issues.

    Before joining AEI, he was an associate professor of history at Yale University. A prolific writer, Auslin is a biweekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal Asia, which is distributed globally on His longer writings include the book “Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations” (Harvard University Press, 2011) and the study “Security in the Indo-Pacific Commons: Toward a Regional Strategy” (AEI Press, 2010). He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, a Marshall Memorial Fellow by the German Marshall Fund, and a Fulbright and Japan Foundation Scholar.

    Auslin has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.A. from Indiana University at Bloomington, and a B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University.

    Follow Michael Auslin on Twitter.

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