After Kim meets Trump, here’s how peace could break out on the Korean peninsula – just don’t expect a quick fix
John Barry Kotch says a peace treaty could relieve the Korean peninsula of its tensions, and a series of confidence- and trust-building measures could produce denuclearisation and end the need for the UN command there. The process, however, would almost certainly be gradual
High on the list of tangible deliverables at this week’s Singapore summit is a peace treaty ending the Korean war. US President Donald Trump acknowledged as much during North Korean envoy Kim Yong-chol’s pre-summit White House drop-by, noting that the meeting could lead to a treaty formally ending the war of 1950-1953, a goal enunciated in the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration and a staple of North Korean propaganda for decades.
More importantly, it dramatically shifts the summit’s goal posts from an “all-or-nothing” denuclearisation gambit to a more modest and measured process. This development makes sense both logically and pragmatically. After all, what better than a peace treaty between former enemies on the battlefield and current adversaries than to encourage denuclearisation, a long-term process at best.
Nevertheless, a peace treaty is not without its own challenges given the nature of the Korean war itself; it origins, the multiplicity of combatants fighting under different flags and an armistice agreement ending the active fighting but not the underlying conflict – embodied in the mantra, “The war hasn’t ended, it’s only a truce”.
The Korean war – a conflict comprising three distinct phases – began as a civil war when the North invaded South Korea in June 1950 without a formal declaration of war which, under international law, would normally be preceded by breaking diplomatic relations between sovereign states.
But there was no such declaration inasmuch as the two Koreas never recognised each other as sovereign states, each considering the other illegitimate and a rival regime contesting the same political space on the Korean peninsula.
The United States then entered the Korean conflict under a United Nations Security Council collective security mandate to “repel aggression”, taking a leadership role under a unified UN command under which 14 other countries contributed troops in the defence of South Korea.
And while then-president Harry Truman characterised the war as “a police action under the UN”, and thus the US was not a state party to the conflict, US forces fought under their own flag, not the UN command.
The war took a dramatic turn when US/UN forces broke out of the Busan perimeter following General Douglas MacArthur’s amphibious landing behind enemy lines at Incheon, liberating Seoul, and precipitating the collapse of North Korean forces in the south.
In the war’s second phase, UN forces entered the North – again without a declaration of war – in a mirror image of the previous North Korean invasion of the South, advancing to the Yalu border with China, with a view to unifying the peninsula militarily.
In the war’s third and final phase, so-called Chinese People’s Volunteers, numbering several hundred thousand troops, crossed the Yalu in a massive counter-attack, forcing the hasty retreat of UN forces south of the 38th parallel, resulting in a prolonged military stalemate.
An armistice was signed, ending the fighting 2½ years later, in July 1953, not far from where it began along the 38th parallel in June 1950. This provided for a political conference in Geneva the following year but no progress was made towards the pre-war goal of Korean reunification through free and fair elections under UN or neutral supervision.
However, the South refused to sign the armistice while Chinese troops remained on the peninsula. And while a US general signed in the name of the UN command and his Chinese counterpart signed in the name of Chinese People’s Volunteers, only the representative of the North’s Korean People’s Army (KPA) signed as a representative of a nation-state.
Still, whether a formal peace treaty is necessary is problematic. The 1991 Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression and Exchanges and Cooperation Between the South and the North constitutes a de facto peace treaty while the US and China have officially recognised each other as sovereign states, enjoying normal diplomatic relations since 1979.
Similarly, Seoul and Beijing consummated diplomatic relations in 1992. If and when Pyongyang were to complete the process of denuclearisation, the establishment of diplomatic relations between the US and North Korea would effectively end the existing state of suspended hostility.
However, as sovereign states, the two Koreas, the US and China could also issue a joint declaration formally amending the current armistice agreement or its replacement by a separate peace agreement. (Article 62 of the Armistice Agreement provides that: “The Articles and Paragraphs of this Armistice Agreement shall remain in effect until expressly superseded either by mutually acceptable amendments and additions or by provision in an appropriate agreement for a peaceful settlement at a political level between both sides”.)
More importantly, a peace treaty is only a piece of paper. A new mechanism superseding the 65-year old armistice agreement must stand behind it. The obvious mechanism would be the aforementioned 1991 agreement, which calls for “a solid state of peace” based on tension-reduction and confidence-building measures including provisions for prior notification and observation of military exercises under the aegis of a military committee and commission.
This agreement could then be endorsed by the outside powers, the US and China in particular, as former combatants and future co-guarantors of security assurances which might emerge from negotiations.
The final step would be the termination of the UN Command, informing the UN Security Council that its mission of “repelling aggression” and restoring international peace and security on the Korean peninsula had been accomplished.
However, for now, the latter remains a work in progress and should therefore be held in abeyance pending agreement on a new security framework for the peninsula in negotiations among and between the great powers and the two Koreas which, like, denuclearisation, promises to be an equally long-term process.
John Barry Kotch is a political historian and former State Department consultant