The Korean War Memorial in Washington. Photo: AFP/Mandel Ngan

As South Korea gears up for its first summit with North Korea since 2007, details are beginning to emerge about what Seoul will be offering Pyongyang to ease the process toward some kind of deal on denuclearization.

The upcoming inter-Korean summit on April 27 is crucial to laying the groundwork for the subsequent first North Korea-US summit, to be held in an as-yet undecided location in May or early June. With Washington taking a firm line – it has ruled out concessions before denuclearization – the onus is on South Korean President Moon Jae-in to make it worth North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s while to stay the course.

It was confirmed on Wednesday that a peace treaty, which would replace the armistice that halted the 1950-1953 Korean War, is one such offering. A long-term North Korean demand, a treaty will be an agenda item.

Various South Korean officials floated the idea early in the week; National Security Advisor Chung Eui-young announced it on Wednesday; and US President Donald Trump separately confirmed that a peace treaty had “his blessing” though he added, in under-reported comments, that it would be subject to “a deal.”

Trump’s statement suggests a treaty would only be signed at the end of a – very uncertain – denuclearization process. That is hardly imminent. Still, in the long game, a peace treaty has been a decades-long North Korean demand.

An armistice without South Korea

The Korean War started with a North Korean invasion on June 25, 1950 – and never ended. After three years of carnage and countless dead, an armistice was signed by three parties: North Korea, China and the United States, representing the coalition that fought under the US-led UN Command. It took effect at midnight on July 27, 1953.

South Korea was not a signatory. The reason why proves that the popular, current notion that the North Korean strategy is to drive a “wedge” between the South and the US was actually predated by a wedge created not by Pyongyang, but by Seoul.

South Korea’s then-president Rhee Syngman was furious that the war was ending with half of the peninsula still under the control of Kim Il-sung. Rhee demanded total victory. To torpedo the armistice, he released thousands of communist POWs from camps, rather than sending them to North Korea or China. Rhee’s tactic nearly scuppered the agreement, and related POW exchanges. Rhee was only mollified after the US offered a Mutual Defense Treaty and a generous economic package. But he did not sign the agreement.

Absent a peace treaty, both Koreas claim sovereignty over the entire peninsula. This contention is embedded in their constitutions and their wider political, social and judicial systems.

Unsurprisingly, fighting has flared up endlessly, post-armistice: border fighting and commando raids in the 1960s; terrorist attacks in the 1980s; naval clashes in the 1990s; and sinkings and artillery attacks in the 2000s.

Who signs – and why?

Logic suggests that North Korea – which signed the armistice – would have primacy in negotiations related to a peace treaty over South Korea – which did not sign. That would offer Pyongyang superiority in the key optics of “legitimacy,” while granting it direct negotiating power with Beijing and Washington.

However, given that Seoul is suggesting the initiative, it almost certainly wants to sign too. This could require some legal-diplomatic finessing. “Had it been rational, a treaty should have been signed by both Koreas, China and the US,” said Andrei Lankov, a Russian North Korean expert at Seoul’s Kukmin University, who characterizes the 1953 armistice as “a tangled web.”

But there are ways around Seoul’s absence from the 1953 document. “The perverted minds of lawyers, who are good at calling white black and black white, can invent something,” Lankov said. “But it won’t be easy.”

One way could be to upgrade negotiations from the military to the political sphere. “The armistice was a military-to-military agreement,” said Dan Pinkston, a Seoul-based American strategic expert with Troy University. “A peace treaty would be a political agreement.” That would make a treaty one between national leaders – presumably of both Koreas, China and the US – rather than generals.

But even Lankov, who studied at Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung University, is puzzled why North Korea wants a peace treaty so much. “Many people attach a great deal of political weight to this document, but to me, it is just another piece of paper,” he said. “We have seen a lot of conflicts and wars happen without a declaration of war.”

Goodbye, GI?

The conventional wisdom behind the North’s demand for a peace treaty – most critically with the US, rather than South Korea – is that it would remove the justification for US troops in the South.

“An agreement is a piece of paper: What are the actions?” asked Go Myong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Asan Institute. “A downscaling of the South Korea-US alliance and permanent cancellation of joint military exercises – if you have a peace agreement, why have these exercises?”

Go added that the “timing is perfect” for this to happen. Washington and Seoul are at odds over the cost-sharing burden for the 28,500 troops of the US Forces Korea (USFK) stationed in Korea. Already, a downscaling of troop size looks likely. “If you look at the history of USFK [since 1953], it has always been a slow-motion withdrawal,” said Lankov. “The numbers have always gone down and seldom if ever gone up.” Indeed. The core combat unit of the USFK, the 2nd Infantry Division, has, over the years, been downgraded from three infantry brigades to only one.

Another bone of Seoul-Washington contention is the planned transfer of wartime operational control of South Korean troops to South Korean, rather than US, command. Given US primacy in war fighting, there is no clear roadmap for implementation.

“The downscaling of the number of troops is less of a concern, the dismantlement of the Combined Forces Command [CFC] is bigger,” said Go. “Now, the commander of USFK can harness reinforcements from all over the Pacific, and this is possible because the USFK commander is head of CFC, but if a Korean general is head, we would be one step removed from that state of coordination between US troops here and rest of the US military.”

A peace treaty could add further impetus to the above factors.

However, a US withdrawal could impact South Korea’s economy: Foreign businessmen say, privately, that the USFK helps underwrite Seoul’s sovereign credit ratings and is a stabilizing factor for foreign investment. “The removal of US troops would remove a stabilizing factor,” said Go.

And a treaty would not necessarily spell the end of the South Korean-US alliance. “There is a US presence in many countries which are not in a state of war,” Lankov said. The late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is even alleged to have said that a continued US presence in Korea is a stabilizing factor against China, which for centuries dominated Korea.

Domestic changes for both Koreas

Domestically, a peace treaty would likely require constitutional and systemic changes in both Koreas: Each would have to recognize the other and neither could henceforth claim sovereignty over the entire peninsula.

This could be embarrassing for Seoul – a democracy, with all the messy politics that entails. Moon’s government is already facing National Assembly opposition to far less radical constitutional amendments it has proposed to coincide with local elections in June. A treaty might also require it to abandon the controversial and powerful National Security Law, which includes a broad raft of sanctions for dealings with North Korea. This step, too, would face conservative opposition.

Superficially, change would be easier for North Korea to make: There are few checks and balances on Kim’s power. However, it would require a massive sea change in propaganda and public thought: North Korea’s national mission, for more than half century, has been Pyongyang-led reunification.

“For it to be real, I would need to see fundamental changes in their world view – like when Gorbachev came along with glasnost and perestroika, the dropping of the Brezhnev doctrine and the release of East Germany,” said Pinkston. “We would know it when we see it.”

Yet a peace treaty – however it is worded – cannot provide the security guarantee that Kim reportedly seeks.

“A treaty might include a promise that the US will not invade North Korea – and some kind of guarantee exists in regard to Cuba, and so far that has worked fine: No matter how angry Americans are with Cuba, they have not attacked,” said Lankov.

“But the major threat for North Korea is not a foreign attack, but a combination of domestic disturbance and foreign attack, and no US president can guarantee the security of the North Korean government against this kind of threat.”

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