[Viewpoint] Opportunity knocking

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[Viewpoint] Opportunity knocking

Ahead of U.S. special envoy Stephen Bosworth’s trip to North Korea on Dec. 8, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made overtures toward Pyongyang in an effort to persuade the regime to negotiate. On Nov. 19, Clinton said the United States will consider normalizing ties with the country, possibly by signing a peace treaty to replace the Korean War armistice and providing economic assistance - what the North has demanded for years. In exchange, Washington wants Pyongyang to promise complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.

What we need to pay attention to among the various proposals out there at this point is the peace treaty, since the remark was made by a top U.S. official. Under the Sept. 19, 2005 Joint Declaration, the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the Untied States agreed to create a separate forum to establish a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. At the previous U.S.-South Korea summit, then-U.S. President George W. Bush spoke of his intention to officially declare an end to the Korean War. And yet, Clinton’s words appear to be the first remarks by a top U.S. official that actually mention signing a peace treaty.

Since 1974, North Korea has demanded a peace treaty with the United States, and in 1996 it pleaded for an interim treaty. The United States and South Korea, however, rejected these options. The inter-Korean summit in 2007 was also possible because the North wanted to explore the possibility of officially ending the Korean War.

In the aftermath of the collapse of the socialist bloc, the North has found the key to its survival lies with ending hostility against the United States. This has in fact become the North’s long-cherished desire. The country defines its nuclear arms programs as an inevitable consequence of the hostile relationship between Pyongyang and Washington. Therefore, the fundamental solution to the North’s nuclear programs revolves around a peace treaty that would in effect ease hostilities between the country and the United States. It is possible to dismantle the nuclear programs, therefore, by removing Pyongyang’s motive to arm itself with atomic weapons.

Until now, the denuclearization negotiations have focused on stopgap measures rather than on discussing the fundamental issue of signing a peace treaty. That’s why the path to denuclearization has been rough and hardly any progress has been made.

The 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework between North Korea and the United States focused on freezing the North’s nuclear programs. The Feb. 13, 2007 agreement, created after the North’s first nuclear test, provided a three-step solution of shutdown, disablement and abolishment of the country’s nuclear programs, but the key goal was disablement. This agreement, however, deteriorated after the North conducted a second nuclear test this year and reprocessed spent fuel rods.

The Obama administration, which promoted a world free of nuclear arms and a plan to reinforce the non-proliferation treaty, is about to begin bilateral dialogue with the North after a long period of reflection and analysis. Even before the Obama administration shaped its North Korea policy, the country went ahead with rocket and nuclear tests, limiting the scope of U.S. policy toward the country.

The North appears to have presented all of its cards and wants to resolve the situation at once. The Obama administration has also presented a comprehensive package and is readying for serious negotiations.

As Hillary Clinton has already mentioned, the package includes normalization of ties, a peace treaty and economic aid. The highlight of the U.S.-North Korea negotiation will likely be the swap between the North’s nuclear dismantlement and the U.S. signing of a peace treaty. The North’s priority is the continuity of its regime, and winning a security assurance is an urgent task. Unless the North has strong confidence in winning the security assurance, it will act passively to resolve the nuclear crisis. The United States is aware of the issue and included the peace treaty as a key part of its comprehensive package.

The U.S.-North negotiation will inevitably go after a “grand bargain,” a process to realize the two countries’ agreement on denuclearization and a peace treaty. Unlike the past negotiations, the two countries will likely agree on resolving the fundamental issues, and the detailed road map to achieve the goals will be created through the six-party talks. To this end, the United States must propose its vision of a peace treaty, and the North must make clear its intention to give up its nuclear arms.

The door of opportunity will open soon so that a grand compromise between Obama’s vision of a nuclear-free world and Kim Il Sung’s dying wish of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula will be achieved. The package deal will bring about a structural change in the post-cold-war order. The possibility of the change is high, and preparations are being made.

The key to the negotiation to end the North’s nuclear programs is progress in building a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula by replacing the Korean War armistice with a peace treaty.

Until now, the United States did not push the issue, worrying that the treaty would bring about the withdrawal of its forces from the South and the disassembly of U.S.-South Korea combined forces. The U.S. burdens, however, will likely be reduced when it hands over wartime operational control of the South Korean military to the South in 2012 and completes the realignment of U.S. troops in here. Taking into account such a situation, the possibility is higher than ever for the United States and North Korea to strike a comprehensive deal.

*The writer is a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Koh Yu-hwan
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