Preparations for the April 27 inter-Korean summit are rapidly moving forward. From the logistics surrounding the meeting to an agreement to set up a hotline between President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un and also broadcast the event live, both sides have been shuttling back and forth to set the stage. Most notable, though, are reports regarding ending the Korean War by replacing the 1953 Armistice Agreement with a formal peace treaty and some kind of security guarantee or nonaggression pact.
This is not the first time the two Koreas have discussed ending the Korean War. After the end of the Cold War, both sides agreed in 1992 to work to transform “the present state of armistice into a solid state of peace.” More recently, at the close of the second inter-Korean summit in 2007, then-President Roh Moo-hyun and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il made a commitment to work together with interested parties to discuss a declaration of the end of the Korean War. Yet, despite the hopefulness surrounding current discussions, significant obstacles remain.
The three-year Korean War came to a halt on July 27, 1953, when the commander-in-chief, United Nations Command (CINCUNC, a four-star U.S. general), on the one hand, and the supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army and the commander of the Chinese People’s Volunteers, on the other hand, signed the Korean War Armistice Agreement. As is known, the armistice was a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty, meaning all parties involved technically remain at war.
Notably absent from the agreement was South Korea, a central co-belligerent in the war, whose military made up 590,911 of the 932,964 troops then under UN Command. South Korea’s President Rhee Syngman refused to sign the armistice. He preferred to keep fighting in order to achieve unification under South Korean auspices. Rhee finally agreed to have the Americans sign on South Korea’s behalf and promised not to disrupt the armistice only after the United States agree to a visit by then-U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, $1 billion in aid for reconstruction, and, most importantly, a mutual defense treaty solidifying a U.S. commitment to South Korea’s security. To this day, Seoul is not a direct party to the armistice.
Consequently, there are the limits to what the two Koreas might achieve at the April 27 summit. Replacing the armistice with a formal peace treaty will, of necessity, require the participation of the other signatories, which presents a set of difficulties.
First, China and the United States are currently engaged in a slowly bubbling (if still mostly rhetorical) trade war. It is difficult to see how such antagonism over trade will not obstruct cooperation in negotiating a formal end to the Korean War, a process which, even under the best of circumstances, will require close coordination and sustained, patient engagement.
Second, even assuming such cooperation, the United States and North Korea must also normalize diplomatic relations. Logically speaking, countries cannot make peace without formally recognizing each other’s existence. President Donald Trump may indeed be prepared to extend such recognition. Reportedly, he accepted Kim Jong-un’s invitation for a summit meeting with such alacrity that even the South Korean officials who presented the offer were taken aback. It is easy to imagine Trump quickly agreeing to settle the seven-decade-long alienation between the two countries. Yet some of his advisers and the U.S. Senate may not be so readily inclined; the latter has a say in how this plays out.
Third, there remains an as-yet-unanswered question for all parties involved, namely: peace in exchange for what? Historically, North Korea has eagerly sought direct peace negotiations with Washington and demanded the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces as a condition for a treaty. However, as Robert Carlin at 38 North notes, this demand has waned in recent years, with Pyongyang becoming more flexible on the issue. Apparently, the Kim family now sees the local U.S. presence as possessing wider significance as a stabilizing force in Northeast Asia (vis-à-vis possible Japanese remilitarization).
Indeed, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in announced that North Korea is currently not asking that U.S. forces leave; they “only talk about an end to hostilities against their country and about getting security guarantees.” However, it bears mention that as recently as 2016 Pyongyang demanded U.S. forces depart as part of any normalization and denuclearization process. Also, the North Korean authorities have not yet confirmed Moon’s statement.
Thus, a security guarantee may boil down to something else, possibly a nonaggression pact and some kind of reduction in U.S.-ROK military exercises or U.S. deployments of strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula. Chung Eui-young, head of the Blue House’s National Security Office (NSO), said he and John Bolton, Trump’s new national security advisor, spoke last week in Washington about “setting a nonaggression pact and therefore a permanent peace regime to alleviate Pyongyang’s concerns.” Nevertheless, a nonaggression pact presupposes a peace treaty, insofar as the former implies an agreement not to start hostilities, and the latter to end them; one cannot promise not to initiate a war if that war is still not over.
And for the American side, what will Trump demand in exchange for a formal peace treaty (and the normalization of relations that must accompany it)? During his summit meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump said the two Koreas had his “blessing” to discuss the end of the war. He continued, “subject to a deal, they would certainly have my blessing.” Whatever Trump means by “deal” is the rub. Does it mean denuclearization first, and a peace treaty and security guarantees to follow? Chung himself indicated that security guarantees would be a reward “should the North make the right decision,” thus indicating Pyongyang must move first.
Even a casual observer knows full well that Pyongyang is certainly not going to begin to scale down its nuclear program without something very concrete upfront. Furthermore, for it to fully relinquish its nukes and accept the invasive inspections regime necessary for verification (which on balance seems highly unlikely) would require even greater concessions. The important point in all of this is that the order by which tradeoffs occur is just as important as the trade-offs themselves.
Returning to the matter at hand, if not a peace treaty, then what might the two Koreas achieve at their April 27 summit? Ironically, South Korea not being a signatory to the armistice provides space for North and South Korea to declare a cessation of hostilities between them; essentially to formulate an inter-Korean armistice. This would reconstitute the spirit of the July 4, 1972 Joint Communique, providing a positive political signal moving forward. High-level Blue House officials also mentioned tension reduction measures that could coincide with an agreement, including returning the DMZ to its original state by pulling back guard posts from the heavily fortified border area.
Still, any agreements that come out of April 27 inter-Korean summit will remain tentative or without real weight. Moon himself made this point on Wednesday. The best his administration can do is continue to mediate the process and try to “guide” events in a positive direction.
Until the Kim-Trump meeting (the location for which is still undetermined), it will be difficult to say where things are headed. Even after the meeting, assuming it goes well, the reciprocal process of any settlement will take time. Is this something Trump and his hawkish advisers, like Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo and Bolton, are willing to countenance? Is the lack of an immediate, grand settlement something Trump will consider “not fruitful” and thus unacceptable? Or is he merely looking for the appearance of a large international achievement, no matter its real substance, in order to offset mounting domestic and legal troubles at home? The stark uncertainty surrounding each of these questions is reason to be concerned.