After having made an official statement in October last year on the need to conclude a peace treaty to replace the Armistice of the Korean War of 1953 to build a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea allegedly offered a “secret” deal to the United States sometime between then and before its fourth nuclear test on January 6. The offer was to void the test in exchange for a peace treaty and an end to forthcoming joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea. It was only met by the cold shoulders of Washington who demanded that Pyongyang include denuclearization as a precondition for the negotiation for the treaty. In return, Pyongyang rejected Washington’s precondition, thereby forestalling the negotiation and detonating the nuclear test.
Yet another call for a peace treaty was rung again by Pyongyang on January 16 after the test, proposing “a halt to the military exercises to end its nuclear tests.” North Korea’s persistent calls for a peace treaty would garner support from China soon after. On February 17 in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi issued a proposal for both “achieving denuclearization of the peninsula and replacing the Armistice with a peace treaty.” China views this offer as a compromise that satisfies the desires of the United States and South Korea on one hand and North Korea on the other. The former have sought denuclearization while the latter desires security for the stability of its regime.
China would advance its proposal at a joint press conference on February 23 in Beijing. The conference was a follow-up to the meeting between Minister Wang Yi and his American counterpart John Kerry. The occasion was significant in that the two sides had finally agreed to adopt tougher sanctions on North Korea after more than a month since the North Korean nuclear test. Minister Wang Yi stated that denuclearization efforts should move forward in tandem with “transitioning from an armistice to a peace treaty.” In response, Secretary Kerry countered by saying that North Korea “can actually ultimately have the peace agreement with the United States, if it will come to the table and negotiate the denuclearization.”
Prospects for the peace treaty are bleak. One reason is simply that President Obama’s days in the Oval Office are numbered.
Further developments on the peace treaty idea were disclosed in April and May. On April 12 in Hiroshima, Japan, Secretary Kerry mentioned both the possibilities of the peace treaty and stronger sanctions. He stated the US’ readiness to negotiate a peace treaty with North Korea while withholding preconditions. In May, a new set of conditions for the peace treaty was discussed between China and the United States. It was reported on May 10 that it was Beijing that put forward the new conditions. The peace treaty negotiation was premised on the conditions that North Korea freeze its nuclear program and rejoin the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). As of this time of writing, Beijing’s new proposal seems to be under discussion and therefore no response from Pyongyang has been heard.
Prospects for the peace treaty are bleak. One reason is simply that President Obama’s days in the Oval Office are numbered. It is highly doubtful if the readiness of the current administration to engage in peace treaty talks will be carried over into the new administration following the presidential election in November. It will most likely not.
If the United States was sincere about its engagement with North Korea on this matter, it must act sooner. Looking back at Bill Clinton’s administration, the US’ decisions to engage with North Korea always came at times when the clock was winding down for the incumbent president, and always during the last days of the second term of the presidency. And no incoming president would follow through on his predecessor’s engagement with Pyongyang.
President Clinton, for instance, waited until the last year of his tenure, despite having engaged in peace treaty negotiations with North Korea at the Four-Party talks from 1997 to 1999. The negotiations came to an end with the end of the Four-party talks. Hoping for progress, Clinton in his last year sent Secretary of State Albright to Pyongyang but without success. It was too late and a new president was elected who demolished the efforts.
During his tenure, President Bush had chances to advance peace treaty talks both within and outside the framework of the Six-Party Talks. He simply didn’t render any commitment to the “September 19” Joint Statement adopted by the Six-Party Talks in 2005 to negotiate for a peace treaty with North Korea. Three years later the talks also established a working group under its auspices to exclusively deal with the peace treaty negotiations, however this working group did not convene even once. As his tenure neared its end in 2008, Bush hastily sent his personnel to Pyongyang, Singapore, and Beijing, to look for a chance to strike a “package deal” with North Korea on its denuclearization, including a peace treaty.
The efforts were disrupted again by a new president whose first term policy assimilated that of his predecessors, demanding no less than a complete dismantlement of nuclear program. Obama in his last year in office is now compounding the treaty negotiations after seven years of his “strategic patience” policy on North Korea. It’s too late again.
The only viable way to peacefully solve North Korea’s nuclear challenge is to fully implement the sanctions. The Cuban case speaks volume.
Regardless, one common feature of the successive American administrations’ idea of the peace treaty is that it does not share any common ground with that of China’s or North Korea’s. The United States only sees it as a different form of security assurance to North Korea. Hence, it is sticking to something similar to the non-aggression pact that both Koreas signed in 1991. On the contrary, China and North Korea see such security assurance as being only fully realized by the withdrawal of the US Forces in Korea (USFK) and the complete dismantlement of the US-South Korean alliance.
Since the concerned parties of the peace treaty do not hold the same understanding of the terms of the treaty, it is already a difficult, if not impossible, task. Now it has become almost an impossible task largely because of the preconditions that these parties are attaching to the treaty negotiations as we have seen above. Hence, replacing the Armistice with a peace treaty will be less possible now with the additional preconditions.
The only viable way to peacefully solve North Korea’s nuclear challenge is to fully implement the sanctions. The Cuban case speaks volume. The demise of the Soviet Union meant a significant reduction in oil supplies to Cuba, putting its regime on the verge of losing power due to the resultant economic difficulties. Instead the Cuban regime chose to come out of isolation and pursue economic reforms to maintain power. The same logic can be applied to the North Korean case. A significant cut in oil supplies to North Korea, for instance, will not invite its collapse unlike what conventional views hold. Instead it will coerce the regime to come out of isolation and give up nuclear weapons in order to keep the regime alive.