North Korea’s latest nuclear escapade leaves the U.S. with one option that might appear as abject concession, if not surrender, to the DPRK’s demands.
What about if the U.S. were to sue for peace – that is to say: “at last we’d like to discuss your demand for a ‘peace treaty’ marking the formal conclusion of the Korean War?”
What if the next U.S. president concluded that a “peace treaty,” which the Americans have long rejected as a trick to increase North Korea’s leverage and prestige, really represented a realistic way to defuse tensions on the Korean peninsula?
Some analysts think a treaty is what Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un wants as his scientists and engineers move inexorably closer to fixing a nuclear warhead to the tip of a missile capable of zooming to targets in Japan and South Korea – and much further afield as well.
STEPPING BACK FROM THE BRINK
North Korea’s fifth – and biggest – underground nuclear test on Friday, on top of its success last week in launching a medium-range missile from a submarine, leaves the unmistakable impression that Kim’s next step would be to order the firing of a missile with warhead attached and see what happens.
Presumably on such a test mission, Kim would want to be certain the missile flew on a trajectory far from any populated region, but the danger of drifting into nuclear war is high. How about if North Korea fires a long-range Taepodong missile capable of reaching Hawaii, Alaska – or even the American west coast?
For years North Korean leaders demanded a peace treaty in place of the armistice, signed at the “truce village” of Panmunjom in July 1953 by American, North Korean and Chinese generals. Kim Jong-un and his emissaries have regularly repeated the demand while the North’s nuclear-and-missile program steadily advances.
North Korean pressure for a peace treaty is likely to reach a crescendo whenever the North is able to fulfill its threat to nuke the White House.
“A direct nuclear threat toward the United States would give North Korea new leverage in pressing its negotiating demands,” according to Larry Niksch, long-time analyst on North Korea with the U.S. Congressional Research Service. He notes, however, the driving aim behind the North Korean demands: “cessation of major U.S. military exercises in South Korea, withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea and U.S. recognition of North Korea as a nuclear weapons power.”
It’s that basic analysis of North Korean motives and intentions that’s made the notion of a “peace treaty” untenable on the American side for years. Increasingly, though, there’s pressure at least to be willing to talk about it in the context perhaps of six-party negotiations on North Korea’s nuclear program, last hosted by China in Beijing nearly eight years ago.
The great catch has been that North Korea clings to its nuclear program as the bedrock of its survival against its worst enemies. Nuclear prowess is the North’s most visible point of pride, its only real success while poverty and hunger mark the existence of most people outside Pyongyang. So important is the nuclear program to the North’s identity that the concept of the country as a nuclear state is enshrined in its constitution.
A peace treaty, in Niksch’s view, would enlarge “the options of North Korea to institute military provocations against South Korea or even Japan, using the threat of a nuclear attack on the U.S. to deter military retaliation by the U.S. and its allies.”
Such talk stands in stark contrast to the view of relatively soft-line advocates that the U.S. has no choice but to be willing to accept a peace treaty as the best hope for getting North Korea to stop the nuke-and-missile tests while acknowledging the North as a nuclear power.
“They keep surprising us with submarine launches and missiles that go around the earth,” says Tony Namkung, a consultant on North Korean issues, a frequent visitor to Pyongyang and an advocate of a peace treaty. “They’ve outfoxed us.”
GETTING CHINA ONSIDE
Nobody thinks economic sanctions, imposed and then theoretically strengthened by the UN Security Council after every test, are effective. The problem there comes down to China, the North’s only real ally.
That reality persists in intruding.
“Don’t rely on China to put pressure on North Korea,” advises Mark Fitzpatrick, a former senior U.S. diplomat who specializes in arms control issues, even though Beijing formally tut-tuts North Korean testing. “China has to implement sanctions,” he says, but “the Chinese are not going to do it to the extent that will solve the problem.”
North Korea as a condition for a treaty, he says, would demand the end of the U.S.-South Korean alliance while condemning South Korea as a mere “puppet” of the U.S. and refusing to recognize the South as a legitimate negotiator or signatory.
The North Koreans, if nothing else, can always point to the fact that South Korea is not a signatory to the armistice that ended the Korean War. Rather, the U.S. negotiated and signed on South Korea’s behalf after the South’s president, Rhee Syngman, rejected participation in the talks, which he said would sanctify the permanent division of the Korean peninsula.
“I haven’t noticed anyone in North Korea willing to compromise,” says Fitzpatrick, now executive director of the Washington office of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), but he still thinks “at least we should be willing to engage.”
To get to that stage, Fitzpatrick believes the next U.S. president “will have to put North Korea at the top of the agenda,” as President Obama did to bring about the deal for Iran not to develop nuclear weapons. “He or she will have to use all the tools of American policy-making,” he says, even though he credits Danny Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, with “doing his damnedest” to deal with North Korea.
Could it be that Kim would soften his position if only others would recognize North Korea as a power to reckon with?
“Kim Jong-un wants respect,” says Fitzpatrick. He wants others saying, “You be a leader, you’re the head of a sovereign nation.” In a best case scenario, he believes, those are words that Kim would need to hear before cooling it on the nukes and getting along with his enemies.
North Korea’s latest nuclear escapade leaves the U.S. with one option that might appear as abject concession, if not surrender, to the DPRK's demands.What about if the U.S. were to sue for peace – that is to say: "at last we’d like to discuss your demand for a 'peace treaty' marking the formal conclusion of the Korean War?"What if the next U.S. president concluded that a “peace
Donald Kirk is a veteran correspondent and noted author on conflict and crisis from Southeast Asia to the Middle East to Northeast Asia. Don has covered wars from Vietnam to Iraq, focusing on political, diplomatic, economic and social as well as military issues. He is also known for his reporting on North Korea, including the nuclear crisis, human rights and payoffs from South to North Korea preceding the June 2000 inter-Korean summit. Kirk earned his Bachelors at Princeton and a Masters in International Relations from the University of Chicago. He also holds an honorary doctorate of letters from the University of Maryland College Park.