Denuclearization issue killed peace treaty talks

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Denuclearization issue killed peace treaty talks

The United States was revealed to have agreed to secretive discussions with North Korea regarding a peace treaty to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War, a move that appears to deviate from Washington’s fundamental policy that sincere steps toward denuclearization must come first.

The agreement reportedly took place ahead of Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6. But the South Korean government on Monday said that it had shared with Washington its stance that denuclearization should be the priority in any talks with Pyongyang and added that any discussion for a peace pact was something that should be led by Seoul.

According to the U.S. State Department on Sunday, talks on a peace treaty to officially end the Korean War, which concluded with an armistice agreement, fell apart because Pyongyang refused to address denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.

“To be clear, it was the North Koreans who proposed discussing a peace treaty,” U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said in response to the Wall Street Journal report Sunday headlined, “U.S. Agreed to North Korea Peace Talks Before Latest Nuclear Test.”

According to the article, the Barack Obama administration secretly agreed to talks with Pyongyang to formally end the Korean War, despite its longtime policy that Pyongyang must take steps to curtail its nuclear program before any discussions could take place.

Instead, Washington simply asked for North Korea’s atomic weapons program to be a part of the talks, which Pyongyang declined, according to the report, citing U.S. officials familiar with the events. Days later, North Korea went on to conduct its fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6.

“We carefully considered their proposal and made clear that denuclearization had to be part of any such discussion,” Kirby said in statement, emphasizing that Washington’s response to Pyongyang’s proposal “was consistent with our longstanding focus on denuclearization.”

“The peace treaty negotiations is not just an issue between the United States and North Korea, but needs to be led by South Korea,” Jeong Joon-hee, a spokesman for the South Korean Ministry of Unification, said in a briefing Monday.

An official from South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs added, “Our government has made efforts to coordinate between the other six-party nations to draw North Korea to the table before its fourth nuclear test. The five party nations already agree that if North Korea shows concrete signs toward denuclearization, it will be able to resume six-party talks.”

The six-party talks were a platform originally formed with the two Koreas, Japan, China, Russia and the United States, with the aim of convincing Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear aims. The talks, however, have been stalled since 2008, when North Korea walked away from negotiations.

The official added that Seoul has “offered exploratory talks to check if North Korea had willingness in this direction,” so talks between Washington and Pyongyang could have been in the same vein.

“Washington’s fundamental position on the peace treaty issue has not changed, and South Korea and the United States are in close consultation and cooperation on North Korea’s nuclear program and other issues including its call for a peace treaty,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

It went on to say that the two sides “hold the consistent position that any dialogue with North Korea needs to put denuclearization as a priority.”

“South Korea and the United States are currently stepping up all diplomatic efforts along with the international community to pass a strong and effective comprehensive sanctions resolution in the United Nations Security Council in response to North Korea’s fourth nuclear test [on Jan. 6] and long-range missile launch [on Feb. 7],” the ministry spokesman added, indicating that the two allies were currently focused on applying more pressure to North Korea.

A source in Washington told the JoongAng Ilbo that North Korea initially brought up the proposal for a peace treaty late last year, but that the U.S. government had replied that the focus of discussions would be denuclearization. While Washington showed a willingness to talk with North Korea while adhering to this stance, “Pyongyang did not show any sincerity toward denuclearization, so talks folded,” the source said.

Washington and Pyongyang do not have formal diplomatic ties but communicate unofficially through its New York channel.

Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi proposed to move forward with the denuclearization of North Korea in tandem with transitioning from an armistice to a peace treaty. The suggestion received a lukewarm response in Seoul.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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