Peace in Korea: Next Steps

Global Asia - - CONTENTS - By Philip Ze­likow

Why peace ef­forts shouldn’t fo­cus ex­clu­sively on de­nu­cle­ariza­tion.

At the an­nual Jeju Fo­rum for Peace and Pros­per­ity in South Korea, held this year on June 26-28, former US diplo­mat and his­to­rian Philip Ze­likow laid out his views on how ef­forts to achieve peace on the Korean Penin­sula should be pur­sued, fol­low­ing the flurry of sum­mit diplo­macy ear­lier this year.

The broader the ap­proach, the bet­ter, be­cause an ex­clu­sive fo­cus on de­nu­cle­ariza­tion is fraught with dif­fi­cul­ties, he ar­gues. Be­low is an edited ver­sion of his re­marks in Jeju.

I thank the or­ga­niz­ers of the Jeju Fo­rum for giv­ing me the op­por­tu­nity to con­trib­ute to these im­por­tant dis­cus­sions. I am not an ex­pert on Korea. I am sorry to say it, but I must ad­mit that I do not even speak Korean, as all mod­ern peo­ple should. I can only of­fer some ex­pe­ri­ence in how to try to solve in­ter­na­tional prob­lems. I usu­ally work as a his­to­rian. But I have also served my coun­try as a ca­reer diplo­mat and oc­ca­sional of­fi­cial over more than 30 years, work­ing for five Amer­i­can pres­i­dents. There were prob­lems in Europe, the Mid­dle East, and Asia — diplo­matic, military, and in­tel­li­gence prob­lems. On sev­eral oc­ca­sions, I have helped make pol­icy to­ward North Korea — work­ing in the Pen­tagon, in the State Depart­ment and in the White House.

Let me start with my sum­mary of where we are now. We have just com­pleted the tem­po­rary res­o­lu­tion of a re­cent and se­ri­ous cri­sis. This cri­sis was cre­ated by North Korea’s con­tin­u­ing nu­clear and mis­sile tests, to de­velop a ca­pa­bil­ity that could also threaten the main­land United States, in ad­di­tion to long­stand­ing threats against South Korea and Ja­pan.

These North Korean choices pro­duced two fore­see­able re­sults. The first was that the US govern­ment very se­ri­ously con­sid­ered military ac­tion to stop the fur­ther de­vel­op­ment and per­fec­tion of these North Korean ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Such ac­tion could lead to a dev­as­tat­ing war. At least some US of­fi­cials were pre­par­ing to ac­cept this risk. I do not be­lieve the cur­rent govern­ment of North Korea would sur­vive such a war. There­fore, al­though we al­ways hear that North Korea puts regime sur­vival above all else, its govern­ment made choices that be­gan to put regime sur­vival at risk. The sec­ond fore­see­able re­sult of the North Korean test pro­gram was that it would cause

the United Na­tions to pass new and even tougher sanc­tions that would hurt the North Korean econ­omy and peo­ple. China sup­ported these sanc­tions, for rea­sons you can imag­ine. These sanc­tions also cre­ated a long-term dan­ger to the sur­vival of the North Korean regime. Those of you who be­lieve you un­der­stand the North Korean govern­ment can guess at why the North Korean govern­ment felt the need to take these dan­ger­ous steps.

In late 2017 and early 2018, the two Korean gov­ern­ments moved to re­duce the im­me­di­ate risk of war and de-es­ca­late ten­sion. They have driven the re­cent diplo­macy that has pro­duced the cur­rent un­der­stand­ing, which has not been turned into a writ­ten agree­ment. That un­der­stand­ing is a trade. North Korea sus­pends fur­ther nu­clear and mis­sile test­ing. In ex­change, it gets to re­tain these new ca­pa­bil­i­ties (for now); it gets enor­mous in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion with mul­ti­ple sum­mit meet­ings, in­clud­ing a bi­lat­eral meet­ing with the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent in front of the world press; it gets a sus­pen­sion of Us-south Korean ma­jor military ex­er­cises; and it may also be get­ting a quiet eas­ing of some of the re­stric­tions, es­pe­cially in trade with China. The world knows lit­tle about what was dis­cussed in the three re­cent sum­mits be­tween Xi Jin­ping and Kim Jong Un.

In the short term at least, the re­sults are a def­i­nite suc­cess for the two Korean gov­ern­ments and for China. Al­though I wel­come the sus­pen­sion of North Korean tests, the meet­ing be­tween the lead­ers of South and North Korea, and a re­duced risk of war, some other re­sults are more mixed for the US.

Per­haps the US govern­ment is pre­pared to tol­er­ate the cur­rent North Korean nu­clear and mis­sile ca­pa­bil­i­ties. I can un­der­stand that ar­gu­ment. But per­haps the trade I have just de­scribed could have been achieved just as well with­out the Us-north Korean sum­mit and with­out the sus­pen­sion of the military ex­er­cises. From what lit­tle we can see in public, both the Sin­ga­pore sum­mit and the ex­er­cises sus­pen­sion seem un­nec­es­sary and pre­ma­ture. The South Korean govern­ment has made a de­ter­mined, en­er­getic and suc­cess­ful ef­fort to head off the risk of war and fa­cil­i­tate the cur­rent un­der­stand­ing. But what now? I will de­vote my re­main­ing com­ments to the fu­ture, and to next steps.

First, there is a ba­sic choice about what kind of diplo­matic process to pur­sue. I have noth­ing against de­nu­cle­ariza­tion. My ar­gu­ment is that a diplo­matic process fo­cused on broader peace is­sues is more promis­ing than one fo­cused only on de­nu­cle­ariza­tion.

Short­com­ings of the De­nu­cle­ariza­tion Track

The de­nu­cle­ariza­tion track has three ba­sic weak­nesses.

Weak­ness 1: Step-by-step de­nu­cle­ariza­tion has al­ways stum­bled. For many rea­sons, which ex­perts like Siegfried Hecker, El­liot Serbin and Robert Car­lin have re­cently dis­cussed, it is hard to en­vi­sion a quick, clean-sweep trade of com­plete, ver­i­fied, ir­re­versible de­nu­cle­ariza­tion in ex­change for a clean-sweep lift­ing of sanc­tions. So, very quickly the ne­go­tia­tors start work­ing on in­cre­men­tal bar­gains, a “step-bystep” process. This has been tried again and again. It has al­ways failed. North Korea of­fers to give up some­thing it doesn’t re­ally need for some short­term pay­off. Both sides usu­ally end up dissatisfied. Mean­while, the real roots of the North Korean nu­clear and mis­sile pro­gram are not re­ally ad­dressed.

Weak­ness 2: The de­nu­cle­ariza­tion track nec­es­sar­ily puts the US and North Korean sides into a mainly bi­lat­eral pos­ture. The tech­ni­cal is­sues re­quire a cen­tral Amer­i­can role. Since North Korea has usu­ally pre­ferred to treat the US as its peer, and South Korea as an in­fe­rior US pup­pet, the de­nu­cle­ariza­tion track re­in­forces North Korea’s pre­ferred im­age and tends to side­line South Korea and the South Korean peo­ple.

Weak­ness 3: The de­nu­cle­ariza­tion track puts nu­clear and mis­sile is­sues and ex­perts front and cen­ter. These is­sues and ex­perts get fur­ther from core po­lit­i­cal is­sues and they are not well un­der­stood by po­lit­i­cal lead­ers or publics. So, the diplo­macy is too nar­row and po­lit­i­cally ster­ile. There is a time for hard work on de­nu­cle­ariza­tion. And per­haps some ini­tial work can be ac­com­plished in a de­nu­cle­ariza­tion track that at least gains in­for­ma­tion about the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion and con­sol­i­dates the present freeze. But the scale of co-op­er­a­tive ef­fort needed for com­plete de­nu­cle­ariza­tion is so large that I think now, even more than in the past, a wider eas­ing of ten­sions and bet­ter in­ter-korean relations are es­sen­tial if de­nu­cle­ariza­tion is ever to be­come com­plete. As the cur­rent freeze holds and ten­sion eases, a peace ne­go­ti­a­tion process seems more promis­ing.

From what lit­tle we can see in public, both the Sin­ga­pore sum­mit and the sus­pen­sion of military ex­er­cises seem un­nec­es­sary and pre­ma­ture. The South Korean govern­ment has made a de­ter­mined, en­er­getic and suc­cess­ful ef­fort to head off the risk of war and fa­cil­i­tate the cur­rent un­der­stand­ing. But what now?

Set­ting an Agenda

A peace process agenda should be quite broad with no pre­con­di­tions. I will skip over the his­tory of the three past ef­forts to do this work, in 1954, in 199799 and in 2005. The main point to note is that none of these peace ne­go­ti­a­tions ever re­ally got started. Such a process has never re­ally been tried. What might a peace process ac­com­plish? I will men­tion seven tracks, which can be ad­dressed in what­ever or­der the sides might wish.

1) The process should clar­ify the na­ture of the relations be­tween South Korea and North Korea. A start­ing point could be the Ba­sic Agree­ment be­tween the two states that was reached in De­cem­ber 1991. A first stage of ne­go­ti­a­tions could re­in­force, sup­ple­ment, or su­per­sede that agree­ment.

2) In cre­at­ing new in­ter-korean relations, Kore­ans may also wish to dis­cuss con­cerns they have about hu­man rights and the treat­ment of their fel­low Kore­ans, or of Ja­panese cit­i­zens who were kid­napped and brought to North Korea against their will. These are also is­sues that con­cern the wider in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.

3) The is­sue of bor­ders and their per­ma­nence leads to the ques­tion of whether there should be a con­fed­er­a­tion or uni­fi­ca­tion process. I par­tic­i­pated in the ne­go­ti­a­tions over Ger­many in 1989 and 1990, but there are many dif­fer­ences in this case.

4) The peace process should re­place the Ar­mistice agree­ment of 1953. There­fore, the treaty should re­place that agree­ment’s Military De­mar­ca­tion Line (MLD) with an in­ter-korean bor­der, ei­ther per­ma­nent or in­terim. One pos­si­bil­ity, based on Euro­pean prece­dent, is to turn the MDL into a bor­der, re­garded as in­vi­o­lable, sub­ject only to peace­ful ad­just­ments agreed to by the par­ties con­cerned.

5) If peace ne­go­ti­a­tions re­place the Ar­mistice agree­ment, it must also re­place that agree­ment’s Demil­i­ta­rized Zone. A treaty can have no DMZ or the treaty can de­sign a new one.

6) A DMZ is only one as­pect of the se­cu­rity is­sues that could be ad­dressed in or­der to end the dan­ger­ous military con­fronta­tion in Korea. North Korea has al­ways ar­gued, for ex­am­ple, that US forces must be with­drawn from the Penin­sula. If that is still North Korea’s view, the govern­ment can make their ar­gu­ment. South Korea (and the US) will have

con­cerns and ar­gu­ments of their own. Af­ter all, it is up to the peo­ple of South Korea to de­cide, work­ing with us, if they want or need Amer­i­can military as­sis­tance as part of our al­liance. South Korea should be proud of its democ­racy. The path has not been easy. Many South Kore­ans and many Amer­i­cans fought and worked for many years to help South Kore­ans have a democ­racy. Amer­i­cans will re­spect that democ­racy’s choices. But both South Korean and US ex­perts are right to be wor­ried about the size and de­ploy­ment of con­ven­tional armed forces on the Penin­sula, in­clud­ing shorter-range bal­lis­tic mis­sile sys­tems and other kinds of ar­tillery. Ne­go­ti­a­tions can ad­dress these con­cerns. A very large-scale and rea­son­ably suc­cess­ful prece­dent, de­fus­ing the largest con­ven­tional military con­fronta­tion in the world, was the treaty on Con­ven­tional Armed Forces in Europe, con­cluded in Novem­ber 1990. I par­tic­i­pated in this ne­go­ti­a­tion in a cou­ple of ways and would be glad to of­fer more de­tails about it.

7) In ad­di­tion to con­cerns about con­ven­tional armed forces on each side, South Korea and the US have con­cerns about North Korean de­ploy­ment of weapons of mass de­struc­tion. The nu­clear weapons and mis­sile is­sues are fa­mil­iar and there should be a track to dis­cuss them. So, I will just add that South Korea and its al­lies are also con­cerned about North Korea’s pos­ses­sion of chem­i­cal and bi­o­log­i­cal weapons as well.

If these seven points seem like a large agenda, it is worth re­mem­ber­ing the range of is­sues that were dis­cussed at the end of the Cold War in Europe. Back then, there were at least six dif­fer­ent ne­go­ti­at­ing tracks be­ing pur­sued si­mul­ta­ne­ously in those years. If the coun­tries in­volved find they need to hire more diplo­mats, so much the bet­ter.

What about sanc­tions re­lief? Each set of sanc­tions was adopted for spe­cific rea­sons, of­ten linked to some spe­cific UN res­o­lu­tion. If any coun­try wants to ask the UN to can­cel a set of sanc­tions, it can do so and give its rea­sons. The coun­tries that adopted the sanc­tions should then de­cide.

My guess is if North Korea wants to do a grad­ual open­ing, per­haps on the model of Viet­nam dur­ing the 1990s, it will wish to do so with a grad­ual pace and pro­gram, not a sud­den shock ther­apy. These grad­ual plans can be linked to the diplo­macy. As time passes, a peace process would com­pli­cate a North Korea de­ci­sion to con­duct fur­ther ICBM tests. If the North goes back to test­ing, this dis­rup­tion of a peace process will make it eas­ier for the US to gain sup­port for a strong re­sponse to such fur­ther tests.

Par­tic­i­pants in the Process

Rather than a Six-party process, we could all con­sider a diplo­matic process that looks more like 2 + 2, and pos­si­bly more at a later stage. The first steps that I have out­lined are best con­ducted be­tween the two Korean states, with each consulting with its friends along the way. At the point the DMZ and other se­cu­rity is­sues are en­gaged, it would be use­ful for the US and China to join the process. Both coun­tries were sig­na­to­ries to the 1953 Ar­mistice agree­ment and were key par­tic­i­pants in the 1954 Geneva con­fer­ence.

In dif­fer­ent ways, both Ja­pan and Rus­sia will un­der­stand­ably be deeply in­ter­ested in this process. For dif­fer­ent rea­sons, I think their in­ter­ests can be bet­ter rep­re­sented in­for­mally, rather than through for­mal par­tic­i­pa­tion.

The Po­lit­i­cal Im­pact

I am ad­vo­cat­ing a broad peace process. An im­por­tant pur­pose of diplo­macy is to clar­ify in­ten­tions, cre­at­ing sit­u­a­tions where choices are pre­sented for de­ci­sion. This is a time for clar­i­fy­ing in­ten­tions. A broad peace process will en­gage is­sues that or­di­nary peo­ple can con­nect with and un­der­stand. I do not think any­one has, or can, fully reckon with the huge po­lit­i­cal im­pact of such a broad peace treaty ne­go­ti­a­tion among the Kore­ans. North Korea has long asked for such ne­go­ti­a­tions and has agreed to them in prin­ci­ple.

Nei­ther I nor any­one else can con­fi­dently pre­dict how these dy­nam­ics will play out. But my strate­gic judg­ment is that we should pre­fer those pos­si­bil­i­ties and un­cer­tain­ties to the pos­si­bil­i­ties and un­cer­tain­ties in the sta­tus quo, or in an ap­proach fo­cused only on de­nu­cle­ariza­tion.

Philip Ze­likow is the White Bur­kett Miller Pro­fes­sor of His­tory and As­so­ci­ate Dean for the Grad­u­ate School of Arts and Sciences at the Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia, and former Coun­selor of the US Depart­ment of State.

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