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North Korea reportedly wants President Trump to sign a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War 65 years after an armistice established a ceasefire, according to a report by the South Korean newspaper Dong-A Ilbo (cited by the Daily Beast).
It’s a trap. Let’s hope Trump doesn’t fall for it. Certainly, the idea of peace on the Korean Peninsula sounds desirable. Peace is good, right? And what Western politician doesn’t want to make resolution of one of a decades-old conflict seemingly more intractable and far bloodier than the Arab-Israeli conflict to his legacy?
But, in this case, the devil is in the details. When the United States intervened in Korea to protect South Korea from communist invasion, it did so under the flag of the United Nations. Most U.S. forces actually operate as the United Nations Command, a force established at the start of the war in 1950. When Gen. William Harrison signed the Korean Armistice Agreement with a representative of the North Korean army and Chinese “volunteers” in 1953, he was actually representing the U.N. Command rather than the United States government. In the course of negotiating the armistice, U.S. diplomats and officers did not insist that North Korea recognize the South’s legitimacy; to do so might have derailed the sensitive talks.
Still, President Dwight D. Eisenhower hoped to bring American forces home. Three months after signing the armistice, American, Korean, and Chinese officials met at Panmunjom to discuss peace and withdrawal of foreign forces. The talks were even more hostile than the armistice, according to U.S. Ambassador Arthur Dean, the peace talks were anything but peaceful and hardly involved talking. “No individual ever spoke personally to anyone on the other side,” he noted. North Korean representatives read every statement only after the Chinese approved it. He described it as “negotiation without contact,” and, after four weeks, the Americans and North Koreans could not even agree on an agenda. A follow-up conference in Geneva also went nowhere.
The next few decades were tense. North Korea launched attacks across the DMZ, sent saboteurs into South Korea, and kidnapped foreigners. Against the backdrop of North Korea’s threats and its refusal even to recognize South Korea, however, the American commitment to Seoul remained firm. North Korea still talked about their desire for peace and unity, but the assumption that it would be on North Korea’s terms always underlay their rhetoric.
Diplomacy, therefore, became not a mean to a win-win compromise, but rather an asymmetric warfare strategy meant to advance North Korea’s strategic position while simultaneously undercutting South Korea’s relations with the United States. If North Korea could not meet its objective—bringing South Korea under its fold—then it had no interest in talking or peace.
This is why Kim Il-Sung’s sudden outreach to President Jimmy Carter in 1977 raised so much suspicion. Shortly after Carter’s inauguration, Kim sent a letter to the president-elect proposing to replace the armistice with a peace treaty. The North Korean foreign minister followed suit in a letter to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. Carter expressed interest, so long as South Korea might also participate. Kim Il Sung, however, refused. He wanted dialogue, but not compromise. He demanded Carter withdraw all forces from the Korean Peninsula, something Carter considered until his advisers convinced him that such a move would be both rash and dangerous. When Carter shelved his withdrawal plan, Kim reacted bitterly, accusing the U.S. president of aiming to “deceive the world.”
It would be another 15 years before North Korea would again float the prospect of a peace treaty. In October 1993, Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., visited North Korea. He carried a White House letter seeking new talks. He met Kim Il Sung and other senior officials, but was lukewarm in his assessment, saying the talks were “long on symbolism but short on substance.” North Korea wanted concessions before fulfilling its nuclear commitments. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Gallucci, however, was more positive. He spoke about a grand bargain floated by North Korean leaders in which the communist regime would remain inside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and allow inspections in exchange for light water reactors, diminished U.S. ties to South Korea and, of course, a formal peace.
Fortunately, however, Clinton overruled Gallucci. To abandon South Korea for the sake of peace with North Korea would, in effect, be to reverse the outcome of the Korean War. Even as Clinton continued talks with North Korea, Clinton refused to allow Pyongyang to substitute the substance of disarmament talks for the symbolism of peace. (That North Korea cheated on disarmament is another story, one I chronicle in Dancing with the Devil).
With the 1994 Agreed Framework complete, however, Clinton spent the rest of his presidency trying to entice North Korea toward peace. In 1996, Clinton proposed four-way talks with the United States, China, and the two Koreas. North Korea raised numerous objections, all of which boiled down to Pyongyang’s objection to having Seoul represented at the table. After all, in North Korea’s narrative, they are the only legitimate Korea. This is why bilateral talks are so dangerous: When the United States sits down alone with North Korea, it hands Pyongyang a victory before talks even begin.
In 1998, as Clinton and his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright tried again to spur on the peace process, talks stalled when North Korea demanded the United States first withdraw its forces from South Korea. Again, the White House recognized that whatever their political ambition, this was too dangerous a gamble.
Fast forward to the present day. North Korea wants peace, and they want to negotiate it with the United States. Trump, unlike Carter and Clinton, appears willing to engage on a personal level. As my American Enterprise Institute colleague and veteran Korea watcher Nicholas Eberstadt points out, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s desire to negotiate without preconditions is not what it seems: After all, removing preconditions requires the formal voiding of every previous commitment North Korea made in negotiations. But, the risk goes further. Any peace treaty would end the United Nations Command which legitimizes and formalizes the U.S. presence in South Korea. In effect, the Trump administration would be trading the security of a key U.S. ally and one of the most vibrant economies in East Asia for the promise of North Korean denuclearization, a promise North Korea has repeatedly broken.
Trump sees himself as a master negotiator and, without doubt, the president deserves credit for not yet rewarding North Korean bluster in the manner that so many of his predecessors did. But, while the United States should aspire to peace on the Korean Peninsula, it should never be done on North Korea’s terms. Indeed, any juxtaposition of North and South Korea today shows just how wise President Truman’s decision was to defend South Korea from communist aggression. Trump may see himself as master of the art of the deal, but true mastery comes with a recognition that sometimes it’s best not to negotiate a deal in the first place or, at the very least, not negotiate any new deal until an adversary implements all the terms of previous deals to which it has committed.
Peace, naively embraced, can be the shortest path to war.
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Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes
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