In recent years, there seems to be a growing number of voices talking about the need to sign a peace treaty that will formally end the Korean War – which was technically merely interrupted by the 1953 Armistice treaty.
The logic behind demands for a formal peace treaty at first glance seems quite persuasive: According to well-established legal traditions, every “proper” war should be ended by a proper peace treaty. A ceasefire agreement that has remained intact for 70 years is an aberration indeed.
North Korea has been pushing for a formal end to the war for quite some time. There is a logic to this. If a peace treaty is concluded, it will become somewhat easier for North Korea to lobby for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula. Additionally, a treaty would, in the eyes of the North Korean state at least, confer upon them more legitimacy, as well as making it more likely that they will eventually be recognized as a de facto nuclear power.
This rather transparently hidden agenda may be one of the reasons why neither the U.S. nor South Korea is particularly enthusiastic about a peace treaty. This not, however, the only reason why it will be difficult to get a peace treaty signed.
ONE KOREAN STATE
The major issue is the unique state of affairs on the Korean Peninsula. Korea is technically a divided nation. This means that from the official points of view of both Seoul and Pyongyang, there is only one Korean state, i.e. their own state. In 1948, when the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” was declared in Pyongyang, and the “Republic of Korea” was proclaimed in Seoul, each government proclaimed itself to be the sole legitimate government on the Korean Peninsula. Neither of these claims has yet to be revoked, and are unlikely to be for the considerable future (due to many different political and ideological reasons).
According to the South Korean constitution, the Republic of Korea has sovereignty over the entire Korean Peninsula and adjacent islands, and the same is the case with the North Korean constitution. Technically, therefore, for both Korean governments its opposite number is an illegal entity.
Once upon a time, the two Korean states when to great lengths to emphasize their sovereignty over the entire Korean Peninsula. Until 1972, the North Korean constitution claimed that it was Seoul, not Pyongyang, that was the lawful North Korean capital (Pyongyang was merely the provisional headquarters of the state, pending the eventual liberation of Seoul). Up until the present, North Korean publications always put all South Korean government titles and agencies in ironic quotation marks. In the North Korean press, the South Korean president is actually a “president,” the national assembly the “national assembly,” and the education minister the “education minister.” These quotation marks serve to reinforce the illegitimacy of the South Korean state in North Korea.
The South Korean government has also gone to some extremes to emphasize the illegitimacy of the North Korean state. The South Korean president continues to appoint governors to the five Northern provinces. The offices are located not far from my own, and play host to a thriving bureaucracy – another reminder that bureaucracy can thrive in any modern state environment.
Until the late 1980s, the two Korean states followed their own version of the Hallstein doctrine, named after a German diplomat of the 1950s. According to this doctrine, no foreign government would be allowed to maintain relations with the two Korean states simultaneously. If a foreign government opened an embassy in Seoul while still having one in Pyongyang, North Korea would sever relations with such apostates. South Koreans would of course react in the same way in the opposite situation.
The Hallstein doctrine was discarded by the two Koreas around 1970, and in 1992 both South and North Korea formally entered the United Nations. The sovereignty fiction has thus been partially revoked. Nonetheless, a peace treaty remains difficult because such documents are usually signed between sovereign states.
There is good reason to believe that if peace treaty negotiations begin, the North Korean side will demand to sign a peace treaty with the U.S. government alone – since the South Korean side is “not a sovereign state” and not a signatory of the official 1953 armistice. Indeed, back in 1953, the Syngman Rhee government refused to sign the armistice, thus creating many troubles for subsequent generations of South Korean negotiators.
As a matter of fact, one can also expect North Korea to insist that China should not be a part of any future peace treaty. Technically, the Chinese government was not a participant in the Korean War or the armistice. According to the then-official diplomatic fiction, it was not the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), but the Chinese People’s Volunteers that fought in Korea. The Chinese government claimed that it had nothing to do with the sudden outburst of enthusiasm that suddenly developed in its armed forces. Rather, entire divisions merely began to move to Korea to help their North Korean socialist brethren in the fight against the bloodthirsty U.S. imperialists. Back then, this diplomatic facade was seen as necessary to prevent a full-scale confrontation between the U.S. and China. It has now developed, though, into a rather peculiar diplomatic issue.
There is, therefore, good reason to believe that North Korea will do what it can to make the peace treaty into one purely between the DPRK and the United States (China cannot be brought in easily, and South Korea allegedly does not even exist). Needless to say, such an agreement would indeed greatly boost North Korea’s aspirations, and it would also seriously damage the international standing of the ROK and its relations with the United States. However, it is very unlikely that the United States would ever submit to such a process in the foreseeable future.
More realistic is a broader agreement, but this will require a very creative definition of peace treaty. Indeed, in the past we have seen such agreements signed between sovereign states and actors that had no formal international standing as sovereign states. The 1993 Oslo agreement between the state of Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the 1996 agreement between the Russian Federation and Chechen rebels, and the 1998 Good Friday agreement between both the British and Irish governments as well as eight separate Northern Ireland political groups are all good examples of such agreements, or de facto peace treaties.
Such an agreement would also be possible in Korea. It might even be beneficial, so long as it is signed by all four interested parties. After all, the widespread fear that such a treaty would undermine the security of South Korea might be exaggerated. The fact that in 1972 the two German states recognized one another as sovereign states and established formal diplomatic relations had no impact on their alliances. A peace treaty (or rather peace system) in Korea might contribute towards increasing security in the area.
A formal peace treaty therefore seems to be impossible, but a multilateral agreement that replaces the armistice agreement might be a good idea. Nonetheless, we should admit there is no pressing need for such an agreement in the immediate future. The armistice continues to work quite well.
Picture: Eric Lafforgue
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