The Deceptively Simple Promise of Korean Peace

Friedman, The Atlantic, Apr 27, 2018

There’s a
reason it hasn’t happened for 65 years.
Korean leader Kim Jong Un crosses the border into South Korea to meet for the
first time with South Korean President Moon Jae In.

Friday, after becoming
the first North Korean leader to step into South Korea, Kim Jong Un joined with
South Korean President Moon Jae In in making an extraordinary
: The two leaders vowed to pursue the shared objective
of a “nuclear-free Korean peninsula” and, by the end of this year, to finally
proclaim an end to the Korean War.

declaration established ambitious, if notably vague, parameters for Kim’s
upcoming nuclear talks with Donald Trump, who had previously given
his “blessing” to North and South Korea to discuss an official conclusion to
the war, which was stopped but not formally ended by an armistice in 1953. But
it also highlighted just how fast diplomatic efforts to address North Korea’s
nuclear-weapons program are moving and just how much work those involved are
setting out to accomplish in the coming months: no less than a peace treaty
that has eluded North and South Korea for 65 years, and a definitive nuclear
deal with North Korea that has escaped international negotiators for 25 years.
In the
abstract, a peace deal to replace the armistice that halted the Korean War
makes eminent sense. Why not draw to a close a conflict that has unnaturally
Korea and perpetuated one of the most militarized and
volatile stalemates on earth? When leaders of North Korean, Chinese, and
U.S.-led United Nations forces signed the 1953 truce
(South Korea abided by the armistice but refused to sign it), they agreed to
hold another conference in three months to ensure “the peaceful settlement of
the Korean question.” A resolution is a long time coming.
But while
North Korean, South Korean, Chinese, and American officials have
proposed and explored a peace treaty over the decades, actually executing an
agreement has proved prohibitively problematic. Given the signatories to the
ceasefire, a treaty “would need to be formalized by the UN—if not the Security
Council, at least the UN General Assembly” and ratified by North Korea, China,
the United States, and most likely South Korea, said Bruce Klingner, a Korea
expert at the Heritage Foundation. (In their joint declaration on Friday, the
North and South Koreans committed, with a number of caveats, to “actively
pursue trilateral meetings involving the two Koreas and the United States, or
quadrilateral meetings involving the two Koreas, the United States and China
with a view to declaring an end to the war and establishing a permanent and solid
peace regime.”)
reaching such a pact, the parties may first need to devise something similar to
the Conventional Armed Forces
in Europe
treaty concluded at the end of the Cold War, in which “we
first capped and then thinned out the Warsaw Pact and NATO forces that were
facing each other in Europe in order to reduce the potential for a
standing-start invasion,” according to Klingner. North and South Korea might,
for instance, restrict the number of tanks, artillery pieces, and light-armored
vehicles that are stationed within 50 miles of the Korean Demilitarized Zone.
“It would
be a huge mistake to sign a peace treaty without first addressing the nuclear,
missile, conventional, chemical, and biological [military] threat that North
Korea poses to the South,” Klingner told me earlier this month.
why, since North Korea began developing its nuclear program in earnest in the
1990s, the United States has traditionally considered a peace treaty between
the Koreas, and a corresponding normalization of diplomatic relations between
the U.S. and North Korea, as the capstone to a grand bargain in which the North
agrees to completely dismantle its nuclear arsenal—the end state after a series
of smaller-scale concessions give the parties confidence that overhauling
relations between the various players on the peninsula would be durable. As
Andrea Berger of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies recently
, “you can’t unsign a peace treaty,” even if you might be
able to withdraw some of the benefits that North Korea would derive from it.
A peace
treaty would likely end the United Nations mission in South Korea that has been
there since the end of the war and that the U.S. has led. The U.S.–South Korea
alliance exists independently, but the end of the UN mission “could lead to a
sense of ‘well the war’s over, bring the boys home,’ both in South Korea and
the U.S. Then the danger is, like in June 1950 [when Kim Jong Un’s grandfather
invaded South Korea], if North Korea doesn’t feel there’s a sufficient defense
or deterrence, then they may feel emboldened” to act aggressively against South
Korea, “especially if they have nuclear weapons.”
Korea aspires to “divide the [U.S.–South Korea] alliance, reduce the U.S.
military presence and involvement in the defense of the Republic of Korea,”
Klingner told me. North Korea desires a peace treaty “to set those dominoes in
In the
lead-up to this week’s summit between North and South Korea, however, reports
that Kim Jong Un, in line with a position his father at times took, might be
willing to accept some form of continued American troop presence in South
Korea. The condition would be that a peace treaty, and the establishment of
normal relations with the United States, shifted the U.S. military’s mission
from one of countering North Korea to one of stabilizing and keeping the peace
on the peninsula.
signals spoke to what would be one of the most significant consequences of a
possible peace treaty. Since the summer, when Kim Jong Un conducted his first
test of an intercontinental ballistic missile that could potentially carry a
nuclear warhead to the United States, North Korea shot up to the top of the
list of concerns for U.S. officials because it uniquely satisfied
both definitions of a security threat: North Korea suddenly had the intent and
the capability to cause devastating harm to the United States—in contrast, for
example, to terrorist groups that mainly had intent without capabilities, or
countries such as Russia and China that mainly had capabilities but not
necessarily intent. North Korean leaders, meanwhile, have long argued that they
are building nuclear weapons because America has the intent and capability to
harm them.
The drive
to “denuclearize” the Korean peninsula, which could involve not just North
Korea giving up its nuclear weapons but also the U.S. removing its
nuclear-capable forces from South Korea, is about blunting capabilities. The
push for a peace treaty is about altering intent. (As the German political
scientist Alexander Wendt once observed,
“500 British nuclear weapons are less threatening to the United States than 5
North Korean nuclear weapons, because the British are friends of the United
States and the North Koreans are not.”) The most pressing question coming out
of the meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea is which problem
will be resolved first, if either is resolved at all, and how those decisions
could transform the Korean peninsula. “KOREAN WAR TO END!” Donald Trump wrote
on Twitter
on Friday. “Good things are happening, but only time will tell!” Based on the
timeline that Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae In outlined, time will tell very soon.