The Latest Bogus North Korean Peace Offering


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Once again, North Korea asked for a peace treaty last week to formally end the bizarre stand-off on the DMZ. This was the topic of my weekly radio chat on Busan’s English language radio station. As you might imagine, every tremor from the North is felt in the South, no matter how small or gimmicky. The CW is that last week’s offer was not serious. Both the US and SK quickly rejected it. But nevertheless, it is amazing to see how ‘keyed in’ SK is to NK. That must be a great, albeit perverse, joy to Pyongyang. Whenever they want to make a fuss, they have a captive audience in the South who will jump whenever they pull the strings. His own country may be falling apart, but at least Kim can keep South Koreans jittery and jumpy year-in, year-out. Awful. In fact, there is probably a good master’s thesis in there about how states in a highly integrated region have massive side-effects (lateral pressure) on each other. Think about how inter-linked where Europe’s militaries before World War I. Once one mobilized in 1914, everyone else had to. It is the same here.

The interview below is mostly a review of how we got here. The inter-Korean border is the most militarized in the world, and the most irregular. The DMZ is technically an armistice space, not a border. (And it’s downright surreal to visit.) Legally, the war is still on. But no one really quite knows what that means. In practice of course, it means that the SK and US militaries are on a hair-trigger. The UN has long since been sidelined.

I don’t buy it at all that last week’s treaty offer was serious. My best guess is that now that NK has demonstrated that it is a nuclear weapons state, it is on a charm offensive. As I argued on air, I think NK is pursuing an ‘Indian strategy’ on nuclearization. The US told India not to go for nukes in the late 90s. They did anyway. The US and the other nuclear states complained and sanctioned for awhile, but after a few years, everyone just gave up. India hung tough, and eventually, it came back into international society with no serious damage for nuclearization and a nice new toy to prove it is a great power.

I think the same bargaining logic is occurring here. NK has changed the ‘facts on the ground.’ It is now a nuclear weapons states. It can now reconfigure the ‘status quo’ in any negotiation to include its nukes. The US will see the status quo ante is the baselines, but NK will not, and the reality of its functioning nukes will implicitly change the game. As always, NK proves to astonishingly successful and canny at brinksmanship.

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Petra:

So last week, North Korea suggested a peace treaty be brokered to officially end the Korean War.

REK:

That’s right. North Korea is really struggling under the weight of sanctions imposed by the United Nations. A lot of experts think North Korea is desperate.

Petra:

I see. Why do we need a peace treaty at all? The war is long since over…

REK:

That’s right. The active, shooting war ended in 1953, but amazingly, a formal treaty was never signed. Technically North and South Korea are still in a state of war. What exists today between them is simply a pause, what we technically call an armistice. But this has never actually been formalized in a signed document. So it would be technically legal for both sides to start shooting again.

Petra:

Yes, that’s right. So why don’t they?

REK:

Well, by 1953, everyone was exhausted from the war. Everyone wanted the peace, and over time, the armistice hardened into this long-term stalemate that we see today at the demilitarized zone. Indeed, the inter-Korean border and its strange war-like status is unique in world politics. Not even the two Germanies in the Cold War had this sort of relationship. In Korea, neither side has wanted a formal treaty, because neither side wants to officially recognize the other. Both claim to be the legitimate government of the whole Korean peninsula, so the war devolved into this unfinished stalemate. As I said, it’s a strange, unprecedented situation.

Petra:

So why is North Korea proposing a peace treaty now? What does this mean?

REK:

The North Koreans have sought a treaty for about 15 years now. In the early 90s, North Korea was badly hurt by major changes, including the withdrawal of Soviet support, China’s diplomatic recognition of South Korea, and the death of Kim Il Sung. Then of course came the brutal famine. Given all this difficulty, Pyongyang has repeatedly tried to get a peace treaty to bolster its own existence. North Korea has basically lost the race with South Korea, and it is desperate to get the US and South Korea to recognize it officially. Pyongyang fears that the continuing stalemate is helping to slowly destroy the country. A peace treaty would open the door for aid money.

Petra:

So why did the US and South Korea so quickly reject the offer last week?

REK:

Two reason. First, US official policy is that North Korea must negotiate with South Korea primarily, and North Korea has not made clear if the peace treaty would include South Korea. Excluding South Korea from Northern diplomacy is a longtime Northern trick. It prefers to negotiate directly with the US. The second reason is nuclear weapons. Last year, the North clearly demonstrated to the world that it is a nuclear weapons state. But the US and South Korea do not want to recognize that nuclearization. So any progress on the peace treaty is linked to denuclearization.

Petra:

Is that likely?

REK:

Quite honestly, I don’t think so. North Korea has endured staggering levels of poverty and deprivation to get nuclear weapons. Even as its people starved, the regime continued nuclear development, and 2009 was a banner year in which all that work came to fruition. After so much hardship it is almost unimaginable that the North will go back – unless there were some kind of amazing deal of aid and support from the US, South Korea, and perhaps Japan. But this is terribly unlikely.

Petra:

The North already know most of your argument about giving up its nukes right?

REK:

We think so. It is terribly hard to read Northern intentions, but US secretaries of state have been saying basically the same thing for almost twenty years now.

Petra:

So why are they proposing the peace treaty now if they already know it is unlikely to advance?

REK:

Again, no one knows for sure, but probably because of the weight of UN sanctions on the regime. Last year, after the nuclear test definitively proved North Korea was a nuclear power, the US, South Korea, and Japan pushed a tough set of trade and economic sanctions though the UN. These newest sanctions more than ever target the foreign enterprises and wealth of the North Korean elite. The sanctions are beginning to bite not just the long-suffering population, but also the ruling clique, especially the military, and that is dangerous for Kim Jong Il.

Petra:

So the treaty is just a trick or a gimmick?

REK:

No, I don’t think so. They genuinely want it, because they are so fearful of the South’s superior economic and military power. North Korea faces a perpetual legitimacy crisis, because South Korea is so obviously more successful and happy. Few Koreans would choose to live in North over South Korea, so the regime desperately wants Southern recognition and money.

Petra:

Bu nuclear weapons make that so much harder to achieve.

REK:

It does, which is why the decision to nuclearize is somewhat puzzling. I think the nukes are to prove that even though North Korea is economic inferior to South Korea, it is military superior. I think the regime hoped that it could stall and obscure the negotiations long enough to get nuclear weapons, and then the US – and South Korea and Japan – would be forced to recognize its nuclear status.

Petra:

So the negotiations would ‘reset’ after the achievement of nuclear weapons…

REK:

That is exactly right. Before nuclearization, North Korea’s cards in its poker game with the South were weaker. But now, the nukes are huge new ace. I think North Korea wanted to mimic the success of India with nuclearization in the 1990s.

Petra:

What happened there?

REK:

Well, the US told India not to pursue nukes. They did anyway – to have the global prestige of being a nuclear power. The US responded with sanctions, but not really with much commitment. A few years later, America gave up, and its normal relationship with India resumed. In other words, India hung tough through a few years of US-led sanctions, but eventually the US dropped the issue. So India got to keep its nuclear power, and have its relations with America.

Petra:

And North Korea is trying to do the same?

REK:

Basically yes. They know the US and South Korea are furious over the nukes, but they guess that if they can weather that dislike for a few years, they will be able to keep them, just like India. The peace treaty is just a way to signal that they are nice now they achieved nuclear weapons.

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