Why North Korea badly wants a peace treaty

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 September, 2007, 12:00am

Presidential summits can be boring affairs whose significance gets lost in the verbiage of head-bowing declarations of understanding, friendship and co-operation. Credit South Korea's President Roh Moo-hyun, then, with livening up the closing day of a humdrum Apec gathering in Sydney. Mr Roh did it by attempting either to embarrass US President George W. Bush or to push him into an on-the-spot commitment that he had no desire to make.

The issue was a peace treaty to replace the armistice that ended the Korean war in 1953. Facing TV cameras after their meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum meeting, Mr Roh went way off-script. He asked Mr Bush if he could 'be a little bit clearer in your message' of when the US would be ready to sign a treaty. North Korea has wanted it for years, he noted, as validation of its legitimacy and as another step towards the withdrawal of US troops from the South.

Mr Bush's response, 'I can't make it any more clear, Mr President,' was not all that diplomatic. The Korean war will end officially, he said, 'when [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-il verifiably gets rid of his weapons programme and his weapons'.

Mr Roh is pressing the US on this because the North sees a treaty as strategically essential. Mr Roh is anxious to do whatever he can to appease the North before he meets Mr Kim in Pyongyang early next month.

Talk of a peace treaty is accompanying the much more immediate issue of getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. The nuclear showdown assumes critical importance this week as a US diplomat leads an international team to look at North Korea's nuclear complex at Yongbyon. That will be followed by the next six-nation talks, at which North Korea is to reveal all details of its nuclear programme.

The reason Mr Kim badly wants a peace treaty is intrinsically involved with the nuclear talks. He can hold out for talks on a treaty as a condition both for revealing all details of his nuclear facilities and for then living up to the February agreement. Under that deal, North Korea promised to abandon the entire programme in return for an enormous payoff in aid. The US, on the other hand, can reserve talks on a treaty as a reward for North Korea's good behaviour in honouring its commitment.

But why is a peace treaty so important when the Korean Peninsula has been more or less at peace for more than half a century? The answer is incredibly simple. If Mr Kim can draw the US into talks on a treaty, he can campaign as never before for the complete withdrawal of US forces from the peninsula. The US, downsizing in South Korea for years, still has about 29,500 troops in the South.

In the next two or three years, the US military headquarters and most of the remaining American troops will move to a huge new base 60km south of Seoul.

Would North Korea, under the terms of a treaty, pull back its own million-man army from deeply fortified positions above the demilitarised zone? And what about the North's 20,000 artillery pieces within range of the Seoul-Incheon region, home to half of South Korea's 48 million people? No one seriously expects Mr Kim to consider such questions.

North Korea, demanding US withdrawal, would argue that Beijing has long since pulled out its troops. Mainland troops, however, could move from bases above the Yalu and Tumen rivers, as they did in 1950 as US forces overran the North.

The exchange between Mr Roh and Mr Bush briefly but dramatically highlighted the issue of a peace treaty - and the need for prior resolution of the nuclear issue. Mr Roh's question, intended to catch Mr Bush off balance, may well have hardened the US position. If so, it was a useful reminder of the need for Washington to verify North Korean claims of denuclearisation before negotiating anything else - including a peace treaty.

Donald Kirk is the author of two books and numerous articles on Korea for newspapers, magazines and journals