South Korean and American officials are now denying reports that China and the United States have been engaged in “behind-the-scenes discussions” to freeze North Korea’s nuclear weapon program in return for, among other things, a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War.
The rumors of peace talks, going back to February, were fueled recently by comments from John Kerry. “We have made it clear that we are prepared to negotiate a peace treaty on the peninsula,” the secretary of state said in April.
In addition to the denials from South Korean and American officials, Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, seemed to scotch the rumors when he took his nuclear weapons off the bargaining table, declaring he would not stop building them. His promise to “boost” the nuclear arsenal “in quality and quantity” came during the 7th Workers’ Party Congress, the once-in-a-generation gathering that concluded Monday in Pyongyang.
A peace treaty has eluded everyone for decades. Fighting in the Korean War, which started when North Korea invaded the South in June 1950, ended with the July 1953 truce agreement, which drew a new boundary between the two Koreas and established the 160-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone to keep their armies apart.
There has been no lasting progress in the intervening six decades to formalize the temporary deal into a treaty, a “permanent peace regime” as it is sometimes called.
In fact, as dangerous as the Korean peninsula is these days, a formal end to the Korean War at this time is unlikely to advance the cause of peace—and could even lead to the next war there.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has, especially since the 1970s, sought a peace treaty, and it has been especially persistent in calling for one since the beginning of this year. Some analysts think Pyongyang’s “peace offensive” of recent months is a ruse to distract the international community, to prevent countries from imposing and enforcing sanctions for its latest series of provocations. The North began this year’s run of provocations with the January 6 detonation of its fourth nuclear device.
China this year immediately joined in the call for treaty negotiations in tandem with a resumption of the Six-Party Talks. Those discussions fell apart in 2009, when Pyongyang walked away from the “denuclearization” discussions initiated by Washington and hosted by Beijing.
The American position on a treaty has evolved in recent months. As Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told The Daily Beast, Washington earlier this year thought it was, in her words, “premature” to start treaty talks.
American officials had long maintained that the “denuclearization” of North Korea was a precondition to the initiation of peace talks.
Now, the view has softened. “U.S. officials’ discussion with North Korea on a peace treaty or peace agreement is contingent upon North Korea denuclearization being part of the dialogue,” Keith Luse of the National Committee on North Korea told me in April, commenting on the State Department’s latest position on the issue.
The U.S., therefore, is willing to talk on a dual track with Pyongyang about both formalizing the end of the Korean War and terminating its nuclear weapons program.
So why is Washington willing to talk about a treaty now?
There’s a one-word answer: China.
NK News, published in Washington with correspondents on the Korean peninsula, says China is considered “a necessary partner for the U.S. and South Korea to maintain the stability of the region,” and as Robert Kelly at Pusan National University told the news site, Kerry is probably just telling the Chinese what they want to hear.
Dennis Halpin of the U.S.-Korea Institute told The Daily Beast that Kerry is hoping to get China on board, to “entice Beijing into more strictly enforcing the strengthened sanctions in UN Security Council Resolution 2270.” Those measures, adopted March 2, will become just another dead letter if Chinese officials don’t treat them any more seriously than they have treated the previous four sets of unanimously adopted UN sanctions on Pyongyang for its nuclear weapons program.
Mere talk of a peace deal at a time North Korea threatens war, however, can unnerve the region. It is not a lack of a formal treaty that makes the Korean peninsula one of the most dangerous spots on earth. It is a hostile and dangerous regime in Pyongyang that has, over a period spanning eight decades, used violence to destabilize its region.
“What one seldom hears are that peace treaties or non-aggression pacts are often a historical canard, that whereas in the 60-year period leading up to the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 there were four major wars in and around the Korean peninsula, there has not been a single war since the armistice was signed in 1953,” Sung-Yoon Lee of the Fletcher School told The Daily Beast. As he points out, “the de facto peace in Korea over the past six decades was ensured by the credible military deterrence of the U.S. rather than any bilateral or multilateral agreements.”
Pyongyang, after the inking of a peace treaty, would undoubtedly press the U.S. to remove its forces from the peninsula “due to the impression that peace is at hand,” as veteran Pentagon advisor Robert Collins told The Daily Beast. The North would then, in short order, urge Seoul to break its alliance with America and, once that was accomplished, would intimidate its exposed neighbor into submission. Or invade it. Kim family rulers have never abandoned their plan to absorb the South, their overarching goal and the core of their legitimacy.
Force is never out of the question when it comes to North Korea, and a military contest between the two halves of the Korean nation would surely embroil East Asia. As Collins notes, China, Russia, and Japan “may well intervene to some degree,” and of course the United States would almost certainly be drawn into hostilities, as it was in 1950.
No piece of paper will now deter an increasingly troubled North Korea. Only the forces of the U.S. and South Korea, bound together in strong alliance, can prevent the Kim regime from once again moving its army south, seeking final victory in a struggle that has never really ended.