Chinese troops dash through the wreckage of US vehicles in the Kunu-ri are of operations in November, 1950. Photo: National War Memorial of Korea

Grand international peace conferences seem obsolete, but may provide the best route to peace and stability in Northeast Asia. A peace conference to resolve the Korean War Armistice could provide the seed for a wider conference – you could call it a “Conference on Security and Cooperation in Northeast Asia (CSC-NEA).”

Such a conference could create a region in which North Korea might feel secure enough to live without nuclear weapons – it’s hard to see why they would give them up otherwise.

Such a conference would also give the United States and China a venue to discuss their differences while ensuring that other countries of the region were not excluded from the discussion and where they could table issues of their own.

The framework for an international conference on Korea already exists: Article IV of the Armistice, which is still in force, calls for a high-level political conference to “settle through negotiations … the peaceful settlement of the Korean question.”

A Korea peace conference did, in fact, take place in 1954 in Geneva which included North Korea, Russia and China among the 19 countries at the table. It failed to reach an agreement, but it came close.

Why does the very idea of a peace conference seem obsolete? Perhaps because their recent history is not encouraging. The Paris Peace Accords, signed in 1973, did nothing to prevent North Vietnam from overrunning South Vietnam within two years. UN and EU-sponsored peace conferences did not prevent the Balkan tragedies of the 1990s.

An international peace conference held on Syria in 2012 failed to solve Syria’s complex problems. It may seem to some – particularly to those who are directly caught up in conflicts – that holding an international peace conference is a way to avoid dealing with a problem.

Dealing with tensions

And yet, international peace conferences have a long history that includes notable successes, even though less has been written about all of them combined than about single battles such as Waterloo or Gettysburg.

Most peace conferences followed conflicts. The best of them provided mechanisms for dealing with unforeseeable future tensions. Perhaps most importantly, they gave confidence to the public that their governments had a way to promote their national interests without having to resort to force.

The first known peace treaty was concluded between Ramses II of Egypt and King Hatti Hattusili’s negotiators in 1280 BC. The treaty was followed by a visit from the Hittite King to Egypt – the first known summit.

Fast-forwarding 3,000 years, the first big international peace conference was the Congress and Peace of Westphalia from 1641-1648. The purpose was to resolve the complicated set of disputes that led to the Thirty Years’ War. Sixteen delegations negotiated in three different cities to conclude three overlapping treaties.

Notably, the Westphalia negotiations were the first to enshrine the principle of equality among sovereign states. One aspect of the Westphalia peace conference that has a modern feel is that it was not negotiated between winners and losers, but rather between states that had been exhausted by conflict.

The grandest international peace conference was the Congress of Vienna, 1814-1815, intended to put Europe back on a stable footing after the Napoleonic upheavals. A total of 215 delegates were assisted by 100,000 support staff and a neutral “Statistical Committee,” to provide data to support the negotiations.

It had a seemingly modern feel as being a contest between competing ideologies: some who wanted to use it to create a balance of power, some who wanted an agreement based on moral principles and nationalists who wanted to use it to entrench state power.

Competing objectives

The same set of competing objectives reappeared at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, showing how fundamental they are. The Congress of Vienna settlement included the principle of collective security, established a framework for future negotiations, abolished the slave trade and, for the first time, enshrined the protection of minorities.

It was also self-consciously a public relations exercise with press briefings and commercially-available souvenirs. The Congress of Vienna established a culture of summitry that survived until World War I.

During the 20th century, the 1919 Paris Peace Conference produced the Treaty of Versailles which, fairly or unfairly, has been blamed for failing to prevent World War II 20 years later. The Paris Peace Conference did, however, introduce Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” as an influential statement of principles for peace.

The League of Nations that stemmed from the 1919 Paris Peace Conference was a noble, if short-lived, experiment in international collective security.

The 1946 Paris Peace Conference, convened to deal with the aftermath of World War II, was almost incidental to the effort to establish the United Nations, and left many loose ends.

The San Francisco peace conference of 1951-1952, intended to deal with the outcome of World War II in the Pacific, served merely to ratify an agreement with Japan drafted by US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. The San Francisco conference left post-war issues unresolved in the Pacific just as the Paris conference did in Europe.

The most significant peace conference of the 20th century was the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), which ran from November 1972 until July 1992, so lengthy that it is generally thought of as an organization rather than as a peace conference.

And yet, like the Congress of Vienna, its purpose was to put Europe back on a stable footing, because the 1946 Paris Peace Conference had failed to do so. Also like the Congress of Vienna, the CSCE was based on differing objectives: the Soviet Union sought to enshrine the legitimacy of Eastern European regimes and the principle of non-interference; the West wanted agreed-upon principles, such as transparency and press freedom. Both sides were prepared to negotiate arms limitations.

An incentive to negotiate

The CSCE was made possible by a confluence of events similar to what we are experiencing today. It came at a time of Western weakness and Soviet strength. The Vietnam War had reached its enervating outcome and the dollar was suffering weakness.

The Soviet Union had recently put down the Prague Spring and seemed more in control than ever. If it had been otherwise, neither side may have had an incentive to negotiate. Furthermore, the US commitment to maintaining its position in Europe appeared to be weakening, giving European states an interest in asserting themselves against both superpowers.

The parallels to today are obvious: China seems to be in a strengthening position while the United States is domestically weakened, and the countries of Asia, like those of Europe in the 1970s, have an interest in securing their own positions. The stage seems set for a Conference on Security and Cooperation in Northeast Asia.

The unresolved Korean War Armistice provides a proximate cause to convene a peace conference. Another divided country, Germany, was one of the prime instigators of the CSCE because it had the greatest interest in a successful negotiation.

German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher at first saw the CSCE as a way of defusing the East-West tension that threatened Germany. But, as the Conference progressed, he came to see it as the foundation for a new European peace order. The parallels to Korea are clear.

The idea of a grand Asian peace conference would seem quixotic, except for the current absence of any alternative to the Korean stalemate and growing tension between the United State and China. As Brian Vick noted in his 2014 book, The Congress of Vienna: Power and Politics after Napoleon, international conferences “reveal the workings of a world in motion, at a pivotal moment of emergence.”

Mark Tokola

Mark Tokola is vice-president of the Korea Economic Institute of America in Washington, DC. He retired from the US Foreign Service in 2014 after a 38-year career. He served as director of the Iraq Transition Assistance Office in Baghdad from 2007-2008. Tokola received the US State Department’s Superior Honor Award for his work on implementing the Dayton Peace Accords while serving as political counselor in Sarajevo from 1997-1999.