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View more articles by Dan DePetris
Daniel R. DePetris is a columnist for the National Interest and a contributor to 38 North, a program of the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.
Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent the views of NK News.
Senior U.S. national security officials give speeches and participate in think-tank events in Washington, DC nearly every week.
Most of the time, we don’t learn much from them; with the exception of a few off-script remarks during the question-and-answer session, the speeches are largely recitations of the official government line.
No more so than when North Korea is at the heart of the discussion, a topic that can often get stuck in a web of conventionality and inertia.
Yet this week’s appearance by Alex Wong, the State Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for North Korea, actually made news. Speaking in Washington on November 5, Wong told the audience that a peace regime on the Korean peninsula must be a top agenda item in any U.S.-North Korea negotiations going forward.
“The concept of a peace regime is powerful, because it’s also, at heart, an aspiration,” Wong said. “It stands for the idea that a state of war — the state of war that has been regnant for 70 years on the peninsula — should not and cannot be permanent.”
Ending the 1950-1953 Korean War has indeed been a long-held aspiration for multiple U.S. administrations. American officials have been talking about signing a peace treaty with their North Korean adversaries for what seems like an eternity.
The Clinton-era 1994 Agreed Framework, the only accord with Pyongyang that resulted in any substantial rollback of the North’s nuclear program, explicitly cited the establishment of “peace and security” as an explicit objective.
The September 2005 Six Party communique committed all participants to negotiating “a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula at an appropriate separate forum.”
And during their first summit in Singapore in what feels like a different age, President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed to “join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.”
The language has remained almost identical all these years: it’s far past time for Washington and Pyongyang to sit down and engage in a substantive conversation about officially ending the war and turning the page on seven decades of mutual hostility.
Stephen Biegun, the Trump administration’s special envoy to North Korea, perhaps said it best in a speech at Stanford last January: “I am absolutely convinced, and more importantly the President of the United States is convinced, that it’s time to move past 70 years of war and hostility in the Korean peninsula. There’s no reason for this conflict to persist any longer.”
Biegun is right. It is borderline absurd that a conflict that ended in 1953, a much different time when the Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union was just beginning to heat up, continues to impact the bilateral U.S.-North Korea relationship in the year 2019.
It is about as foolish and misguided as allowing an age-old grudge between business associates to prevent the company from a fruitful and prosperous expansion.
There is something imminently sad and distressing about a peace regime on the Korean peninsula remaining out of reach, despite a common acknowledgment among policymakers in Washington, Pyongyang, and Seoul that such a development would be beneficial for all concerned.
Yet like the proverbial mirage in the desert, terminating the Korean War always seems to play with our imaginations. During the start of every diplomatic encounter, we begin to think we are a few steps away from entering the oasis — only to watch as reality smacks us in the face.
There are of course multiple factors hindering progress towards a complete break from the past. U.S. administrations, Republican and Democratic, remain politically cautious to a fault.
No U.S. president wants to be castigated by the political masses in Washington, DC as the appeaser or the wimp who gave one of the most oppressive and inhumane dictatorships on the planet a key concession. Presidents, after all, have been crucified for much less.
Washington politics is some of the most intense bloodsport you can find, so for politicians seeking to retain public support or stay in office, it is easier to just go along to get along.
Why take risks for peace when the other side continues to test new ballistic missile systems, accumulate more nuclear bomb fuel, and threaten to walk away from diplomacy entirely at the slightest grievance?
Rarely, however, are the positives of a peace regime discussed. Those positive attributes are even more numerous than the doom-and-gloom that typically defines the debate: that peace between the U.S. and North Korea would be a groundbreaking achievement that, if implemented carefully and properly, holds enormous potential for a huge domestic political windfall.
Or that transforming the bilateral relationship could help convince the North Koreans over time to lessen their dependence on nuclear weapons for their own security and self-preservation.
Or that a peace regime on the Korean peninsula would be just as beneficial for U.S. national security as it would for the security of Northeast Asia, decreasing the tension and chipping away at the misunderstanding that are both central ingredients to conflict and confrontation.
Or that a majority of the American public believes more constructive U.S.-North Korea ties would have a positive impact for their country.
None of this is mentioned, as if the negative consistently outranks the positive or that improved diplomatic relations are a small appetizer to the main course: denuclearization. This, in turn, fuels the already strong sense among U.S. political leaders that the peace discussion is a political loser.
U.S. administrations, Republican and Democratic, remain politically cautious to a fault
At bottom, Alex Wong is correct. Somewhere along the way, a peace regime must be included in the conversation. The struggling diplomatic process between the U.S. and North Korea cannot be just about denuclearization, a goal that may very well be a fantasy at this point.
If Washington continues to insist on it, Biegun and his team might as well save some taxpayer money by packing up their belongings and flying back home.
The Trump administration can’t remain unwilling to get into the weeds about what a system of peace on the peninsula would entail.
The extent of U.S. and UN Security Council sanctions relief; when to exchange diplomats in one another’s capitals; where and when weapons systems perched along the Demilitarized Zone will be pulled back; how all of this will be monitored and verified; and what punitive actions will be available in the event of a violation—each one of these issues will take time and patience to haggle over. But the U.S. can kiss the faint prospect of denuclearization goodbye if it continues to run away from the discussion.
Not a single thing about this will be carefree. Building peace is hard and complex, even more so between two countries whose entire relationship is defined by an ugly history.
Each step will inevitably consist of extremely complicated horse-trading, loud arguing, and the inevitable backsliding. Hardliners in both Washington and Pyongyang will be certain to use all of their leverage to stall the talks before they make progress — and if this gambit fails, to make successful implementation as politically painful as possible.
But we have been going around in circles on the peace question for decades, saying one thing and doing the opposite. Trump and Kim can break the cycle, but only if they are serious and headstrong enough to buck the trends in their respective capitals.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: The White House