Wary of a deal
The United States and China are moving in strange ways on the Korean Peninsula issue. Their approaches appear to be aimed at ending the current tensions on the peninsula for the short term. In the long term, they seem to going after North Korea’s denuclearization and a peace treaty at the same time. The Wall Street Journal reported on Feb. 21 that the United States discussed a peace treaty with the North before its fourth nuclear test. The report appeared to be related to an email sent by a senior North Korean official at the United Nations to the Korea section head of the U.S. State Department that Pyongyang wants to discuss a peace treaty with Washington and to the U.S. reply that it is willing to talk about the issue, though denuclearization talks are important.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi sparked the idea of discussing denuclearization and a peace treaty simultaneously. When he met his U.S. counterpart John Kerry on Feb. 23 in Washington, he proposed the North’s nuclear crisis be resolved by having a simultaneous discussion about a peace treaty. In a press conference after their talks, Kerry said that if the North comes to the denuclearization negotiation table, it can discuss a peace treaty with the U.S. and address unresolved issues on the peninsula.
This position that Washington can talk about a peace treaty “if Pyongyang joins the negotiation table for denuclearization” — not after denuclearization — goes against the South’s basic stance prioritizing denuclearization. Wang repeatedly floated the idea of parallel talks on denuclearization and a peace treaty. China has clearly decided that a peace treaty is the final destination of the peninsula issue.
The notion of a peace treaty is a favorite of North Korea’s. Pyongyang first proposed it in the Geneva Conference on the Korean Peninsula and Indochina in April 1954. The Supreme People’s Assembly of the North in 1962 and 1974 also proposed to the U.S. to sign a peace treaty in return for the withdrawal of the U.S. Forces Korea from the South. In 1985 and 1991, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung made the proposals of a North-U.S. Peace Treaty and inter-Korean non-aggression treaty in New Year’s addresses.
Kim Yong-sun, the Workers’ Party’s secretary for international affairs, made a surprise offer during a meeting with Undersecretary of State Arnold Kanter when he visited Washington in January 1992. He said the North would stop demanding the U.S. troops’ withdrawal in return for a diplomatic relationship with the United States. Kim Jong-il reaffirmed that offer twice — in June 2000 during the historic inter-Korean summit and again during his meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Pyongyang in October of the same year — by saying he would accept American forces’ continued presence on the peninsula.
The North’s Foreign Ministry statement on July 23, 2005 was the first time that Pyongyang linked the peace treaty to the denuclearization talks. After the joint communiqué of the six-party talks was issued two months later, the North signed it, which means it agreed to the parallel discussions of the two issues.
In October 2007, leaders of the two Koreas agreed at a summit in Pyongyang that they will cooperate to declare the end of the Korean War with leaders of the concerned three or four countries. Noticeably, though, China was to be excluded if it took the form of trilateral talks. But in 2010, the North retreated from the parallel discussions and demanded a peace treaty come first before the denuclearization talks. Pyongyang also stated that Seoul must be excluded from signing the peace treaty.
Washington initially supported the parallel discussions of denuclearization and a peace treaty, but its position changed after Pyongyang carried out three nuclear tests. Washington said the North’s denuclearization is the priority, while a peace treaty must come second. After the New York contact in December 2015, Washington appeared to be leaning toward the parallel discussions again. On March 3 after Wang’s proposal and Kerry’s press conference, a spokesperson of the State Department said Washington won’t rule out talks to discuss both denuclearization and peace treaty at the same time.
Why did the United States and China suddenly start paying attention to a peace treaty? That’s because they share the understanding that denuclearization of the North and peace on the Korean Peninsula are the only ways. Washington and Beijing seriously believe the escalated tensions on the peninsula is caused by Pyongyang’s repeated provocations against the international community and the Park Geun-hye administration’s extreme hardline posture. South Korea, as well as the United States and China, know very well that the North, which insists that it will not give up its nuclear programs, will carry out a fifth nuclear test — possibly a hydrogen bomb test — as early as this year or within a couple of years if it feels acute pain stemming from international sanctions.
While Seoul’s foreign affairs officials are boasting about “smooth South Korea-U.S. and South Korea-China relations,” the South has become a pawn in a chess game being played by the two superpowers. Washington pressured Seoul to allow the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system. But the U.S. suddenly said the discussion on Thaad deployment does not necessarily mean its actual placement, hinting at the possibility of Washington and Beijing having reached a tacit deal behind Seoul’s back.
After the Park administration’s devastating choice of shutting down the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the president’s Korean Peninsula “trust process” and Eurasian initiative all ran aground even before they took off in any meaningful way. In the end, a peace treaty is the only way to resolve the peninsula’s main issue. But if we simply play along with Kim Jong-un’s madness, we will end up being dragged into a peace treaty by America and China. Seoul must accurately grasp the intentions of Washington and Beijing and make sure that the peace treaty will be signed by the two Koreas and the U.S. and China.
JoongAng Ilbo, Mar. 18, Page 35
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.