What Would it Take to Bring Peace to the Korean Peninsula?

As the North Korea and US talks begin at the 2018 Singapore Summit, Don Baker reflects on the barriers to be overcome and precursors necessary to finally bring peace to the Korean Peninsula.

What Would it Take to Bring Peace to the Korean Peninsula?
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The Singapore Summit

The Korean War is not yet over – and it’s not likely to end this week. Fighting between North Korea, supported by its Chinese ally on one side, and South Korea, supported by the U.S. on the opposing side, ended with a ceasefire on July 27, 1953. Almost 65 years later that ceasefire has yet to be upgraded to a formal peace treaty. That may change however, after the U.S. President Donald Trump and the supreme leader of the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK) Kim Jong-un meet at the 2018 Singapore Summit

The official purpose of this meeting between the leaders of two countries – which have been adversaries for well over half a century – is to negotiate the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. However, since the two countries disagree over what denuclearization means, we should not expect much progress toward that goal.

The U.S. wants North Korea to unilaterally dismantle its nuclear bomb and ICBM program, while the U.S. continues to maintain its own nuclear war potential in Northeast Asia. North Korea wants to keep its nuclear weapons as a deterrent against a possible U.S. attack until the U.S. withdraws the nuclear umbrella it has provided South Korea. The gap between the two is too wide to be significantly narrowed in just one summit meeting.

That does not mean, however, that nothing good will come out of this unprecedented meeting between the leaders of the U.S. and the DPRK. Kim may insist that it would be unreasonable to expect him to abandon his nukes when his country is still officially in a state of war with a nuclear-armed adversary. Donald Trump might then counter with an offer of a peace treaty.

Even if President Trump makes such a proposal, we cannot expect a peace treaty to be signed this week. It took two years to finalize the details of the armistice. A workable peace treaty may take even longer to negotiate, since such a treaty will have to include provisions dealing with, not only North Korean nuclear bombs and ICBMs, but also with the U.S. military presence in South Korea.

A particularly difficult issue in a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War will be the relationship between the South and the North. South Korea did not sign the armistice agreement, so it would not be a signatory to a peace treaty. But it would have to be included in the negotiations. A peace treaty between the U.S. and North Korea which does not lead to improved relations between the two Koreas will be worthless.

In their constitutions, both Korean governments claim to be the only legitimate government on the peninsula. North Korea claims its territory reaches all the way to the southern tip of the peninsula, and South Korea claims its territory reaches all the way to the border with China. Such unrealistic claims obviously have to be dropped.

Moreover, the two Koreas will have to agree to pull their troops back from the current point of confrontation along the Demilitarized Zone that splits the peninsula in half. Such an agreement will require a level of trust which will take quite some time to build, yet such an agreement needs to be part of a comprehensive peace treaty.

Another barrier to a rapid agreement on a peace treaty is that the other countries who signed the cease-fire agreement will not be in Singapore. China will not be part of the negotiations between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. Furthermore, the U.S. fought against North Korea and China in that war under the banner of the United Nations. But the United Nations will not be joining this two-man summit meeting, either. All those involved in the war need to sign a peace treaty if the war is going to finally come to a formal end.

The best outcome we can hope for from the Singapore summit is an agreement to continue discussions, with a focus on a peace treaty first and denuclearization later. Such an agreement will be a good start, since talking about peace is always better than threatening nuclear war.