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Northeast Asia Peace Initiative

P. Chamberlin: Korea Peace Regime - Worthy Idea or Red Herring?

Has the time finally come for peace to break out on the Korean Peninsula? Is the call for a Korea peace regime sincere, or is it a distraction—a red herring? What is America’s role?

Prestigious organizations and scholars have dedicated an impressive amount of effort to examining concepts for a Korea peace regime. I share their goal and greatly respect their efforts. Easing North Korea’s stated sense of vulnerability to US aggression and denuclearizing North Korea are very important goals. They seem to be the focus for a Korea peace regime. But is this enough?

As an old Korea hand, I cannot get one troublesome fact out of my head: two Korean governments claim the entire Korean Peninsula as their legitimate territory. To unify the peninsula, they and their allies have engaged in a conflict that has resulted in the deaths of millions of people. How can this history and these competing claims not constitute a source of instability? On the other hand, if the two Korean governments were to recognize and normalize relations with each other as legitimate pre-unified Korean governments, the risk of another Korean War would dramatically shrink.

What I am talking about is the need to resolve the long-standing “Korea question.” For more than sixty years this important question has been: “What Korean government shall govern the Korean people?” The implied answer is one unified government. The result is continuing tension, given the existence of two sovereign but competing Korean governments. Any Korea peace regime must resolve the Korea question.

As I outline my views, please accept that I am all for a peaceful settlement of long-standing tensions that could quickly produce a devastating war. I am also cautious about pursuing red herrings, ideas that will distract us from this important goal.

Turning to the current calls for a Korea peace regime, what is the origin of this concept? What are the sources of tension? Can North Korea accept a peace regime? For that matter, can the United States? What else should we keep in mind as we think about the various proposals that have been made?

In July 2005, a North Korean government official told a South Korean counterpart that a peace regime was necessary to help resolve the nuclear issue. This North Korean idea found expression in a joint statement issued by the six parties on September 19, 2005.

Sources of tension

Why has a Korean peace settlement been unachievable for over half a century? The primary reason is because of the existence and competing claims of two Korean governments. In my mind, the recommendation for a Korea peace regime that originated with North Korea raises questions about Pyongyang’s objectives. Perhaps they are sincere. Perhaps they are meant to distract us from its denuclearization commitments.

One North Korean goal is to improve US-North Korea relations. I am all for this, within reason. The United States should begin moving towards normalization today! But normalizing relations with North Korea before the Korea question is resolved would be a mistake.

Given North Korea’s refusal to acknowledge the government of the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Pyongyang’s long-standing efforts to reduce US influence on the Korean Peninsula, could a second North Korean objective be to weaken the US-ROK alliance?

Can Kim Jong-il maintain his authoritarian system if a comprehensive Korea peace regime is verifiably implemented? Pyongyang has used the threat of US aggression to suppress dissent. This imagined threat has strengthened the influence of the North Korean People’s Army (KPA), and Kim Jong-il’s Military First policy has focused on placating the only major threat to his rule, the KPA.

A comprehensive Korea peace regime would eliminate the rationale for the KPA as presently deployed. It would also put pressure on the government to improve North Korea’s standard of living. Can Kim Jong-il’s authoritarian system survive such challenges? Look how modernization changed South Korea. The impact in North Korea could be relatively much greater.

North Korea surely has thought about the implications of a comprehensive peace regime for its system. So should we.

In 2005, the six parties called on “the directly related parties” to negotiate a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula at an appropriate separate forum. Who are the directly related parties?

Americans see North Korea as the primary source of tension on the Korean Peninsula. They regard its nuclear weapons program and the associated risk of nuclear proliferation as direct threats to the security of the US.

North Koreans say the Americans with their hostile policy are the primary problem. And as you know, Pyongyang claims it needs nuclear weapons to deter US aggression.

Do these factors make the US and North Korea the directly related parties? Is the appropriate solution a US-North Korea peace treaty? Given the unresolved Korea question and Pyongyang’s historic refusal to include the ROK in its peace formulations, what would be the impact of a US-North Korea peace treaty on South Koreans?

Koreans know that the Korean Peninsula is strategically important due to geography and the strategic ambitions of the surrounding powers. Foreign powers have invaded Korea 970 times. The most recent invasion in 1905 left Korea a divided nation since 1945.

Do these factors make China, Japan, Russia, the United States, and both Koreas the directly related parties? No. First, the six parties have already admitted they are not the directly related parties. Second, the ROK-US alliance deters foreign aggression against Korea. It is a strategically vital alliance to maintain regional peace. Circumstances permitting, Washington and Seoul should consider expanding their alliance to include North Korea at some point in the future.

Too many cooks spoil the broth. Similarly, involving too many parties in a comprehensive Korea peace regime is problematic. Conflicting national interests will frustrate an efficient process. China, Japan, and Russia seem to prefer two Koreas. The United States envisions “…a prosperous, democratic, and unified Korea Peninsula.” North and South Koreans envision a unified Korea, albeit each under their respective systems. Absent a resolution of the Korea question, these views perpetuate insecurity.

There is no question that the six parties have varying degrees of responsibility in promoting peace on the Korean Peninsula, but expecting them to craft a mutually satisfactory Korea peace regime is unrealistic. They are not the “directly related parties.”

Then who are the directly related parties? I submit they are the two Koreas. Only Koreans can resolve the Korea question. International efforts before the Korean War could not do it. The Korean War could not do it. Various initiatives since 1953 have also failed, including the 1992 Basic Agreement and the historic inter-Korea summit in 2000.

I submit that the Korea question needs to be rephrased to take modern realities into account.

  • There are two sovereign Korean governments, and they are both UN members.
  • They do not recognize each other, and each government claims its territory comprises the entire Korean Peninsula.
  • They each have a powerful military ally and have waged war to establish their system over the entire peninsula.

Can anyone think that this is not a source of concern to Koreans on either side of the Demilitarized Zone?

The Korea question should be updated to be, “What Korean governments [plural] shall govern the Korean people in mutually accepted territories as pre-unified Korean governments until they achieve peaceful unification?” Mutual recognition would not prevent Seoul and Pyongyang from pursuing peaceful unification formulas.

America's role

What is or should be the role of the United States? North Korea has been a US enemy since 1950. A period of rapprochement existed from 1994 through much of 2002 until the US returned to its historic hostility.

The hostile policy of the US has been counterproductive. It empowered North Korea to become a nuclear weapons state. It has been a major source of concern to regional states and at least one of our treaty allies. In addition, it has strengthened China’s credibility among Asian states as a regional leader.

Washington has many tools to shape the strategic environment. We need to use them. We need to be the honest broker.

  • Washington needs to acknowledge that coercive policy and hostile rhetoric will not help us achieve our objectives.
  • The United States should begin now to improve relations with North Korea. We should appoint a high-level envoy and begin a broad range of confidence-building measures, some of which are outlined in the February 13 agreement.
  • However, the United States should not finalize normalization until after the Korea question is resolved and North Korea has returned to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapons state.
  • Resolution of the Korea question, which is the only remaining condition established by the 1953 Armistice Agreement, will permit the Korean War belligerents to legally terminate the Korean War.

In closing, the primary source of instability on the Korean Peninsula is the unresolved Korea question. Let us not forget this as we craft a comprehensive Korea peace regime. This is a worthy endeavor. Let us make sure peace proposals do not become a red herring.

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