How to break the stalemate on the Korean peninsula as North and South Korea take centre-stage
John Barry Kotch says North Korea’s demand for a peace treaty ending the Korean war is worth discussion, but not as a precondition to denuclearisation. An agreement to terminate the UN Command might, however, be a better starting point
Pyongyang’s demand that a peace declaration or peace treaty precede denuclearisation has thrown a monkey wrench into the Singapore summit communique, which omitted any mention of preconditions. If history is any guide – and it usually is – both danger and opportunity lie ahead.
Of immediate concern is the scheduled September summit between the leaders of the two Koreas in Pyongyang for which South Korean President Moon Jae-in has just proposed an ambitious vision for “inter-Korean economic cooperation”. The failure to chart a meaningful denuclearisation process could put warming North-South ties in jeopardy.
It’s now up to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to break the logjam, but it won’t be easy as long as the “maximum pressure” campaign’s intrusive sanctions remain in place and Pyongyang decries Washington’s “gangster-like demands” for a complete accounting of its nuclear and missile programmes.
Two decades ago, in Geneva (1997-1999), negotiations for a peace treaty or mechanism under the rubric of Four Party Talks among the former Korean war combatants – the US, China and the two Koreas – hit a wall after only six sessions. The US and South Korea refused to put the US military presence in the South on the agenda and the North broke off talks, spurning Chinese efforts to broker a compromise.
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While there is undeniable logic to the North Korean demand that a peace treaty or declaration should precede denuclearisation, the fear on the US side – then as now – is that Pyongyang would use it as a wedge between Washington and Seoul to bring about the withdrawal of US forces from the South.
Agreeing to talks under current conditions would similarly open a Pandora’s box, possibly beginning with the demand to end the US military presence and ending with the abrogation of the US-South Korean security treaty while indefinitely delaying denuclearisation.
Still, it’s a discussion worth having, but not as a precondition for denuclearisation. The fact that statesmen with security perspectives as different as Jimmy Carter and Henry Kissinger have proposed the withdrawal of US forces suggests that the subject cannot be ignored indefinitely.
In 1974, then Secretary of State Kissinger proposed to “reduce and ultimately withdraw US troops as the security conditions on the peninsula are stabilised”, while during his term as president, Carter pushed for an open-ended five-year phased withdrawal without preconditions. Although deterrence and defence provided by the US-South Korean security alliance has preserved peace and security by preventing a resumption of the fighting, security conditions have never stabilised and the peninsula remains inherently unstable.
Moreover, a so-called grand bargain at the right time premised on reciprocity – the partial withdrawal or repositioning of US forces offset by the removal of North Korean forward-deployed forces and artillery on the demilitarised zone (DMZ) – would have the positive effect of facilitating the implementation the 1991 North-South Basic Agreement, henceforth governed by and consistent with the provisions of the Panmunjom Declaration “to fully implement all previous agreements and declarations adopted between the two sides thus far”.
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According to the 1991 agreement, “the two sides shall discuss and carry out steps to build military confidence and control of major movements of military units and major military exercises, the peaceful utilisation of the demilitarised zone, exchanges of military personnel and information, phased reductions in armaments including the elimination of weapons of mass destruction and attack capabilities, and verifications thereof”.
One way around the current impasse would be to modify the Korean armistice itself as provided for in Article 62 of the 1952 Armistice Agreement, which authorises the parties to amend the instrument by mutual agreement. This was the thrust of Kissinger’s signature March 1974 National Security Council decision memorandum, prepared in conjunction with the last major UN debate on Korean armistice arrangements and which remains the indispensable starting point today from the Panmunjom Peace Declaration’s aspiration of “turning the armistice into a peace treaty and establishing a permanent and solid peace regime”.
Kissinger’s memorandum proposed inter alia “the substitution of US and ROK [Republic of Korea] military commanders for the Commander-in-Chief United Nations Command as our sides’ signatory to the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement. The ROK and North Korean representatives would then become the principal members of the Military Armistice Commission.” Primary security responsibility would thus devolve to the two Koreas with the US and China in background roles. In effect, this has already taken place in practice through General Officers talks since the 1990s, essentially replacing the moribund Military Armistice Commission.
Kissinger’s memorandum also provided for endorsement by the UN Security Council of the above arrangement. A similar initiative terminating the UN Command and so informing the UN Security Council in a “mission accomplished” statement would constitute a concrete and tangible alternative to Pyongyang’s demand for a declaration ending the Korean war.
As an armistice signatory and permanent member of the UN Security Council, Beijing’s public and unhesitating support would be essential.
Terminating the UN Command would also reinforce the two Koreas as the primary drivers of peninsula detente. Only a genuine North-South rapprochement could convince Washington that the Korean war is finally over.
Finally, as the legacy of the Korean war recedes, the peninsula may now be in play for the first time in 70 years. What this means is that the two Koreas are asserting their rights to reorder inter-Korean relations in accordance with their national interests. Instead of going to war and enlisting the great powers on their behalf, they now appear to be the drivers of a genuine process of rapprochement to which the outside powers will have to accommodate by testing its limits.
John Barry Kotch is co-author of “Sino-American Negotiations on Korea and Kissinger's UN Diplomacy” in the journal Cold War History, and covered the Four Party Talks for the Post