When information regarding the U.S.-North Korea diplomatic overtures from the end of 2015 was publicly revealed, perhaps the most startling aspect was that the possibility of a peace treaty officially ending the Korean War was mentioned.
The initiative failed, of course, as the U.S. refused to pursue such a treaty as long as North refused to consider abandoning its nuclear program. But calls for such a treaty have persisted.
In fact, on February 17, just before the reality of U.S.-North Korea negotiations was revealed to the public on February 21, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was already openly proposing peace talks, a little more than one month after Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test. The proposal, referred to as the “Wang Yi Initiative,” calls for parallel denuclearization and peace treaty talks for the Korean Peninsula, as mentioned in the September 19 Joint Statement. China has continued to back this approach even after supporting new UN sanctions against the North.
Even though Washington-Pyongyang contact prior to the fourth test did not bear fruit, it nevertheless signaled a change in the traditional U.S. policy of denuclearization before dialogue, some observers believed.
Former U.S. presidential advisor Victor Cha said at a press conference in Seoul on April 27 that the U.S. position on a peace treaty “has shifted,” even though it is still not identical to China’s proposal.
‘There seems to be a willingness to engage in peace treaty talks and denuclearization talks at the same time’
“There seems to be a willingness to engage in peace treaty talks and denuclearization talks at the same time,” Cha said. “There is a big difference between China and the U.S.; the U.S. has preconditions such as the freezing of nuclear tests, the freezing of operations at Yongbyon (nuclear facility), no missile tests, (and) no provocations against South Korea.”
Secretary of State John Kerry mentioned the peace treaty on April 12, though it is not clear how committed the U.S. State Department is to the idea. On the occasion of Pyongyang’s Seventh Party Congress, the New York Times printed an editorial urging that the parties involved in the Six-Party Talks between 2003 and 2009 seek to revive negotiations with North Korea. Experts said the NYT editorial reflects the contradictions in U.S. policy towards North Korea.
North Korea has been proposing a peace treaty with the U.S. since the 1970s. Ten years of Korean Central News Agency data shows Pyongyang’s increasing interest in the idea, particularly around the fourth nuclear test.
The JoongAng Ilbo reported on May 7 that a former U.S. intelligence officer secretly visited Seoul on May 4-5, to sound out South Korea’s position on peace talks between the U.S. and North Korea, and how many concessions Seoul would be willing to offer.
The report cited a few unnamed South Korean government officials.
“China is strongly asserting the necessity of the peace treaty discussions, and North Korea is likely to put this issue forward after the Party Congress,” an official told the paper. Even though the South Korean Ministry of Unification officially denied the report, experts based in Seoul have raised the scenario of peace talks, possibly on the condition of a North Korean nuclear freeze and a nonproliferation declaration.
OR REGIME OR A TREATY?
There are a few issues to resolve before discussing peace talks, a peace treaty or a peace regime; the latter being the term discussed in the September 19 Joint Agreement signed in 2005. At the fourth round of meetings of the Six-Party Talks in Beijing, representatives promised “an appropriate separate forum” for a peace regime. However, what North Korea is calling for these days is a “peace treaty.”
In a policy briefing document published by the Sejong Institute in March, senior researcher Lee Jong-seok defined a “peace regime” as the goal of a peace treaty. Lee, the former minister of unification during the presidency of Roh Moo-hyun, wrote that a peace regime means the realization of permanent peace on the peninsula, with structural measures to maintain it. A peace treaty, therefore, would include the normalization of relations between North Korea and the U.S., as well as arms control.
However, Victor Cha said North Korea does not seem to fully understand these terms.
“In 2005 we (the United States) purposely didn’t use the term ‘peace regime’ and North Korea uses the term ‘treaty,’ which is more formal,” he said in late April. “When I asked them whether they mean five or 10 years of negotiation (on a treaty) or a political declaration (immediately), they don’t have any answer.”
North Korea first mentioned the term “peace treaty” in 1962 as goal for the two Koreas to achieve. In 1974, North Korean foreign minister Ho Dam suggested a “peace treaty” in a 1974 letter to the U.S. Congress.
“In order to relieve the tension in Choson (North Korea’s name for itself) and remove the external factors which disturb independent unification, (North Korea) should solve the issue of a peace treaty with the U.S., which grasps the supreme command over the military,” the letter reads. This letter demonstrated that North Korea had apparently changed its intended counterpart in treaty negotiations from South Korea to the U.S.
Park Myung-rim, political science professor at Yonsei University in Seoul has argued that North Korea’s shift, by isolating South Korea and reaching out to Washington, negates its own argument that peace and unification should be settled by the two Koreas without outside interference.
“A peace treaty between North Korea and the U.S. implies a serious problem, not only isolating South Korea but also attributing the peace and security issue to the U.S., which is opposed to North Korea’s ‘independent peace’ argument,” Park wrote in an academic paper in 2004. “This confirms North Korea’s contradiction in designing this proposal while strongly asserting an anti-U.S., out of U.S. influence.”
This controversy originates from the complexities of the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953. Its official title is the “Agreement between the Commander-in-Chief, United Nations Command, on the one hand, and the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army and the Commander of the Chinese People’s volunteers, on the other hand, concerning a military armistice in Korea.” As can be seen from the title, South Korea was not included; the then-President Syngman Rhee opposed a peace agreement that left the nation divided and not under the South Korean side’s control.
Mark W. Clark signed as a representative of the UN Commands, but most of the Commands were composed of members of South Korean army. The military of the People’s Republic of China was not officially involved in the hostilities; the PRC side claims that a “volunteer force” intervened in Korea to prevent the takeover by the U.S.-backed side. And yet, even though North Korean representative Nam Il signed the agreement, it was China’s “volunteers” that actually had Operational Command of their side during the Korean War, which would seemingly require their involvement in settling a treaty.
According to the October 4 declaration signed at the inter-Korean summits in 2007, however, South Korea remains a counterpart in the discussion.
“South and North recognized the need to put an end to the armistice system and establish a permanent peace regime, then will cooperate to organize three or four summits to declare the termination of the war on the Korean Peninsula,” Article 4 of the declaration reads.
The critical part is the expression “three or four summits.” Obviously, the two Koreas would be involved in the negotiations, as the agreement was signed by then-President Roh and former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Also the U.S. was intended to take part, as the peace treaty would include normalization of the relationship between Washington and Pyongyang. It then implies China that might be excluded if only three participants attend on the meeting, one expert told NK News in February.
Choi Jin-wook, current chief of the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) said there is a need to separate the armistice treaty from a peace treaty, because the Korean War was purely a conflict between South and North Korea. Choi cited article 4, clause 60 of the armistice, which reads that commanders from both sides recommended meeting again within three months “to insure the peaceful settlement of the Korean question.”
BEHIND CHINA’S PROPOSAL
Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) says that China has tried to get the U.S. to demonstrate a willingness to give in to some of North Korea’s wishes, as it did in 2005 with the September 19 Joint Statement.
“There was a mention of a light water reactor, for example, and the U.S. had strongly opposed that but that was giving North Korea something,” Glaser told NK News in early May. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi on February 17 said that the call for the peace treaty was a “reasonable concern of the DPRK.”
Lee Seong-hyon, researcher at the Sejong Institute said that this reflects China’s consistent position in favor of peace on the Korean Peninsula. Whenever China mentions the implementation of the UN resolution, it always mentions dialogue and peace.
“China views the essence of the North Korean nuclear program as a conflict between North Korea and the U.S., and the absence of a peace treaty has exacerbated North Korea’s security anxiety,” Lee wrote in a paper.
Even though the peace treaty demand originates from China’s strategic preference for stability near its borders, it is nevertheless a relatively new proposal. Former South Korean Minister of Unification Lee Jong-seok said that China only became an active mediator after the fourth nuclear test.
“This proposal is based on China’s wish to avoid being dragged into the U.S.-style solution as represented by sanctions,” Lee wrote in a policy paper.
The possible THAAD deployment is another motivation for China.
“In recent days the main ROK-U.S. grounds for concern have been North Korea’s growing nuclear capacity. Therefore, for China the main means to block the deployment is via progress on North Korea’s denuclearization,” Lee wrote.
Such moves from China have raised opposition from some experts who have called for the continuation of sanctions against North Korea. Kim Sung-han, chief of the Ilmin International Relations Institute (IIRI) at Korea University expressed concern over the peace treaty proposal and the U.S.’s shift on the treaty.
“If the parallel peace treaty and denuclearization happens before the full implementation of the sanctions, it will make it difficult to fundamentally solve North Korea’s nuclear issue,” Kim, former vice minister of foreign affairs wrote in a column on February 22.
PROSPECTS FOR PEACE
Kim Jong Un has stated that Pyongyang will not abandon its nuclear aims, and has defined North Korea as a nuclear state. However, this doesn’t mean it has given up on talking with the U.S.
“I think emphasis on nonproliferation is an important message to the U.S.,” said Choi Jong-kun, associate professor of political science at Yonsei University during a May 8 interview. “While the denuclearization talks are not ongoing, North Korea has declared its intent not to proliferate nuclear material to the Middle East region and terrorist groups.”
This implies that North Korea is attempting to lower the bar for a conversation, as China intends. Regarding this, South Korea has officially declined a peace treaty for now, asserting “denuclearization first.”
“South Korea’s negative position may delay the progress of the treaty in the short term,” Lee wrote. “Considering China’s intent and the general dynamics of international society, however, the possibility of official discussion seems to be growing.”
‘Looking at the U.S. domestic situation, dialogue with North Korea may provoke criticism of the Democratic Party’
There are some obstacles though. Experts generally pointed out the deep-rooted U.S. perceptions toward North Korea and Pyongyang’s continued desire for a nuclear deterrent. President Obama, a Democrat, is unlikely to pursue serious negotiations while there’s an election to determine his successor.
“… the situation cannot change before next spring,” Professor Andrei Lankov at Kookmin University told NK News. “Looking at the U.S. domestic situation, dialogue with North Korea may provoke criticism of the Democratic Party.”
A greater challenge lies in the U.S.’s negative understanding of North Korea, Lankov said, pointing out the widespread expectations of North Korean regime collapse.
“For most American journalists from the mainstream media who’ve never researched North Korea, it is a failed state, and can collapse any time,” he said.
Professor Im Hyug-baeg from Korea University’s Department of Political Science referred to this as “collapsism,” which was prevalent during Bush administration.
“It seems there are two policy lines in the Obama administration, one which argues for hard-line approach, while the other one speaks in favor of a peace treaty,” Im told NK News. “Clapper’s visit to South Korea shows U.S. interest in peace treaty. It seems like the phase has already shifted from sanctions to negotiations.”
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