This week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to meet with North Korea’s Kim Yong Chol. The meeting is clearly designed to reinvigorate U.S.-North Korean discussions, focusing primarily on North Korean nuclear proliferation, which have made little headway in building upon the vague joint statement that President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un issued at the conclusion of their much-publicized summit in June. In order to kickstart negotiations, it would be prudent for the Trump administration to focus on negotiating a peace treaty to end the Korean War and reserve discussion of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula for follow-up negotiations.
Pyongyang has made it quite clear that securing a peace declaration is one of its top priorities. Kim Jong Un reportedly broached the topic with Trump during their June meeting in Singapore, and Pyongyang has continued to press the issue. In September, for instance, North Korea’s state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper editorialized that “The United States shouldn’t delay any further an end-of-war declaration, which the U.S. president promised at the Singapore summit.”
The Trump administration insists, however, that North Korean denuclearization is a precondition for an official end to the Korean War. Recently, following meetings in Seoul with his South Korean counterpart, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun asserted that although the United States is committed to ending hostilities on the Korean Peninsula, “the primary requirement for us to get to the end point is to achieve final, fully, verified denuclearization of North Korea.” Washington and Pyongyang remain at loggerheads over which should come first: denuclearization or a peace agreement.
For a number of reasons, the Trump administration should put nuclear talks on the back burner and focus on negotiating an end to the Korean War.
First, in the near term, negotiating a mutually acceptable peace agreement is a more realistic prospect than denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. A peace agreement is clearly in the interest of both the United States and North Korea — not to mention South Korea and China. Moreover, such an agreement would merely formalize an existing state of affairs.
Although the division of the Korean Peninsula at the 38th parallel has produced an ongoing military standoff, North Korea, South Korea, and the United States have not engaged in any substantial hostilities for over six decades. It is thus sensible to make a virtue of reality.
Another benefit of prioritizing a peace agreement is that such an accord can serve as the first step in the type of confidence-building process that is crucial to the eventual denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. North Korean nuclear proliferation has been motivated primarily by an extreme sense of insecurity. Pyongyang can only be expected to relinquish its nuclear arsenal if the United States finds a way to alleviate that insecurity. As part of a peace agreement, an American pledge against attacking or promoting regime change in North Korea could begin to engender the trust that is essential for nuclear disarmament.
The most common objection to negotiating a peace agreement prior to North Korean denuclearization is that in doing so, the United States would compromise valuable bargaining leverage. That need not be the case. Pyongyang can be expected to call for the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from South Korea and comprehensive sanctions relief as part of a peace agreement. Yet given North Korea’s eagerness to secure a peace agreement, the United States need not accede to those demands.
The Trump administration could assuage North Korean insecurity by including a non-aggression provision in a peace agreement but make clear that troop withdrawals and sanctions relief will only occur gradually in a tit-for-tat process of negotiations over outstanding issues — most notably, North Korean nuclear proliferation.
After all, there is ample precedent for the United States stationing sizable forces in allied states in the absence of an actual state of war — see western Europe, in particular. By maintaining its force posture in South Korea, the United States would preserve substantial leverage in negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program.
As history has shown, in relationships characterized by extreme mistrust, a series of small, symbolic agreements is typically required to engender the mutual trust necessary to achieve breakthroughs on larger, more intractable issues. Negotiating a peace agreement with North Korea is an attainable, low-risk means of initiating a confidence-building process that can gradually promote sustained peace and security on the Korean Peninsula.
Brad Stapleton is a former Visiting Research Fellow at the Cato Institute. Stapleton also served as an adjunct researcher at the RAND Corporation. He earned a PhD in political science from the University of California, Los Angeles, as well as a BS and MA from the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.