Security and Foreign Policy

The Slippery Slope of Signing a Korean Peace Treaty

Last week's Summit with U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-Un left unanswered questions on denuclearization but more importantly on the prospect of a peace treaty. Andy Laub explains why a Korean peace treaty at this juncture could prove to be an impediment to the talks with North Korea.


Last week’s summit in Singapore between U.S President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-Un produced no substantive results or any kind of vision on the way forward towards ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. However, another related issue looming large for the summit was also hardly addressed: Signing a Peace Treaty that formally ends the Korean War. An armistice was signed by all parties in 1953 that simply ended the fighting, but North and South Korea still remain technically at war, hence the reason for 28,500 American troops present on the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone at the North-South border.

The Korean War was fought for the purpose of reunifying the peninsula, which it always had been until the conclusion of World War II when the Japanese occupation of the peninsula had ended. In the Soviet backed North, Kim Il-Sung rose to power as the leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) or North Korea while Syngman Rhee, the American educated President of the Republic of Korea or South Korea rose to power as both claimed to be the legitimate government of Korea.

Since the end of the Korean War, there had been hopes of reunification, particularly if the economically starved regime in the North were to collapse, which is one of the reasons it successfully sought a nuclear weapons program as a deterrent. Thus, without a formal peace treaty ending the Korean War, which would acknowledge both North and South Korea and possibly lead to normalization of diplomatic relations between the United States and North Korea, the United States does not currently recognize the government of the DPRK.

With all of the competing and differing strategic interests of parties involved in the North Korean nuclear issue, whether it is the United States, South Korea, China or North Korea, a peace treaty is something that both the North and the South can agree on. The leaders of each country want to be present for a historic occasion that ends seventy years of hostilities, potentially paving the way for more constructive dialogue. Like everything pertaining to North Korea, it is complicated. Ever since the latest détente with North Korea since the Olympics in February, the thinking was that the parties could start by negotiating a peace treaty, since that is something that everybody wants. Next, they could ease into further negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, which was always thought to be a much harder feat.

In the Panmunjom Declaration signed by both Kim Jong-Un and South Korean President Moon-Jae In after the inter-Korean summit in late April, there was precise language about both leaders signing a peace treaty. However, the question then becomes what would happen after a peace treaty is signed. The question would then be- does North Korea feel emboldened as an acknowledged nuclear weapons state to start making more demands for concessions such as sanctions relief and a reduction of U.S troops from the Korean peninsula, potentially driving a wedge between the all-important US-ROK alliance. This has been part of North Korea’s long attempted efforts, even as inter-Korean relations might improve.

The question of a peace treaty is not one of desire but one of timing as it pertains to the broader negotiating process. As former CIA Analyst and Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Korea Chair Sue Mi Terry recently said in an interview with NBC: “A peace treaty is not ok. That should come at the end of the process because a peace treaty, while it sounds great and could be historic, also undermines the justification of our troops staying in South Korea… You can have a peace declaration saying… ‘OK. Let’s have peace. You can even open liaison offices’” in Washington and Pyongyang for a regular conduit of communications but concluding a peace treaty should come after North Korea dismantles its nuclear weapons program. Ambassador Joseph Yun, the State Department’s former top North Korea envoy feels similarly “it would be a real mistake to have a peace treaty come first, then denuclearization, because that is clearly an open admission that you’re dealing with North Korea as an acknowledged nuclear weapons state.”

Even on an issue where all sides agree in the North Korea quagmire it still remains complicated due to timing when it comes to signing a peace treaty. There is no question about all parties wanting it to happen but the key is when. North Korea in particular would have a lot to gain from a peace treaty including international recognition as a nuclear weapons state and normalization of relations with the United States which further adds to their undeserved legitimacy that was given to them last week in Singapore, which then emboldens North Korea to demand more in concessions and that’s where things could start to run into trouble. A vision for negotiations with North Korea has to be carefully choreographed and of course a peace treaty ending the Korean war will be an important part of it. But it is important not to put the cart before the horse and allow for significant progress to be made on denuclearization first before rushing to sign a peace treaty. As Sue Mi Terry rightly suggests that doesn’t mean not keeping the channels of communication open and taking peaceful actions to enhance diplomacy. Every political leader wants to make history, but they should make sure they make the right kind of history.

Andy Laub is the Director for Partnerships and North Korea Analyst at Political Insights. He also serves as the International Chapters Director for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Andy received his Master of Science in Global Affairs from New York University.

Photo Credit: Politico

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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