The fast pace of rapprochement between Seoul and Pyongyang has been surprising, and there has been much coverage – and unwarranted speculation – about upcoming summits between North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and later between Kim and US President Donald Trump.
However, one of the most striking announcements has been the revelation by South Korean government sources that Pyongyang and Seoul will discuss officially ending the Korean War that raged up and down the peninsula between 1950 and 1953 and which ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.
Equally surprising is the blessing by President Trump, giving both Koreas his approval to proceed in working to bring about a permanent cease-fire. What is unclear is whether Trump really endorses this or whether he must save face since the South Korean government first publicly shared this remarkable announcement.
The pace of these developments should give one pause, for the significance of events has likely not been fully assessed. For example, if – and that’s a big “if” – a peace treaty were to be concluded by all belligerents of that conflict, it would bring a difficult question to the fore: What’s next?
One obvious topic of discussion would concern the future of the 28,500 American soldiers stationed in South Korea. Interestingly, at least one report quotes South Korean President Moon Jae-in stating that Kim is no longer demanding all US troops leave South Korea as a pre-condition for denuclearization.
However, a more careful read of Moon’s words yields a more nuanced understanding. Despite his obvious wishful thinking, all that has transpired is that the North is now not mentioning the American military stationed in the South. It is difficult to imagine Pyongyang not demanding at some point the removal of all – or at least many – of the US troops from the peninsula.
The issue of US troops is not as clear cut, however. Even though removal of all foreign – read: American – forces has been part of the North’s mantra for decades, Kim has not brought that up during his charm offensive for a reason. The young dictator may have recognized that US troops have proven to be a useful deterrent – to South Korea. Besides, Kim can always demand their removal during upcoming negotiations.
History buffs know that it was the US military that prevented South Korean President Syngman Rhee during his reign from charging north in response to a number of North Korean provocations. More recently, it was Washington that once again prevented Seoul from pugnaciously reacting to Pyongyang’s sinking of the South’s naval corvette Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong island in 2010.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, the presence of US troops in South Korea would also give Pyongyang another reason to demand economic assistance and security guarantees from either Beijing or Moscow – even Washington. North Korea is nothing if not adroit in maximizing its own utility at the expense of others.
Speaking before thinking
This multifaceted and evolving state of affairs in Korea has been exacerbated by the public expression on both sides of the Pacific of ideas that have not been adequately vetted.
John Bolton, Trump’s National Security Advisor, wants to use the Libyan model as the path to denuclearize North Korea. The mere mention of Libya is just about as foot-in-mouth as it could be with regard to North Korea. Pyongyang cites Libya as a prime reason to never give up its nukes, noting that Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown by US-backed rebels not long after his country terminated its nuclear program. Bolton, a smart operator, almost certainly knows this, so why is he making this point?
There have been missteps by Seoul as well. Moon wants to reopen the shuttered Kaesong Industrial Complex even though it is shielded from the rest of the North Korean population and the relatively few workers there are the only citizens in the North to benefit. While South Korean businesses get cheap labor, Pyongyang skims the major portion of laborer wages for its own uses – and never mind that sanctions proscribe it anyway.
Additionally, Moon’s special envoy to Washington in 2017, Hong Seok-hyeon, only last month proposed an economic alliance between Pyongyang and Washington. This flies in the face of sanctions against North Korea that were imposed by the UN – and unilaterally by the US and other countries as well – for good reason. Short on details, the proposal appears to be nothing more than an ill-disguised financial aid package to the North.
Finally, Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo have contributed to this as well. During his latest visit to the US, Abe hoodwinked Trump into promising to bring up the issue of the several Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. That would deflect attention away from the very raison d’être of the Kim-Trump summit. The negotiations on denuclearization are going to be challenging enough without confounding the agenda with secondary issues.
Deja vu all over again
We are about to enter into talks once again with Pyongyang. A saying attributed to Albert Einstein comes to mind: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”
Even so, the current situation is different enough from circumstances in the past that negotiations are worth another try. As British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once quipped: “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” Consequently, it is time to secure our seat-belts and hope for the best – the upcoming journey is going to be anything but smooth and safe.