Is the U.S. Moving Toward a Peace Treaty with N.Korea?

      November 23, 2009 13:05

      U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters at a press conference on Thursday, "We are going to go with a very clear message that there are significant benefits to North Korea if they recommit to the verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." She added that the U.S. "would explore some of the issues which they have raised continually with us over the years; namely, normalization of relations, a peace treaty instead of an armistice, economic development assistance." "All of that would be open for discussion," she said.

      In the September 19 Joint Statement of 2005 and the February 13 Agreement of 2007, the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia agreed to hold separate talks over a permanent peace treaty on the Korean Peninsula, but this is the first time for a top U.S. diplomat to mention the peace treaty publicly.

      Until now, North Korea has been demanding a peace treaty as a precondition to giving up its nuclear weapons program. In a recent meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il said the nuclear standoff could end only if the U.S. government abandons its "hostile" policy toward the North. By that he means the signing of a peace treaty that will substitute the armistice, the dissolution of the South Korea-U.S. alliance or similar measures and the departure of American troops on the peninsula.

      Regardless of whether North Korea really wants U.S. troops to leave, it could view the evacuation of American forces as the greatest threat to South Korea and seek to use that weakness to its benefit. The reason North Korea has been so adamant about a peace treaty is because the signatories of the armistice were China and the U.S. And the participation of those two superpowers in signing a peace treaty would play into Pyongyang's strategy of excluding South Korea from the negotiating table.

      Nobody would be against a peace treaty that permanently eliminates the threat of war on the Korean Peninsula. But realistically, if that peace treaty includes the departure of U.S. troops, the greatest deterrent against North Korean aggression would disappear, with only a paper document remaining that promises no war in principle but can be torn up any time. South Korean and U.S. officials are fully aware of this. But if North Korea demands a peace treaty and the departure of U.S. troops in exchange for abandoning its nuclear program, it is difficult to gauge Washington's response, whose first priority is to get rid of nuclear threats against it. From that standpoint, Clinton's "peace treaty" comment deserves a closer look.

      If nuclear talks with North Korea make progress and negotiations about a peace treaty begin, all parties must be aware that South Korea is a concerned party. It accounts for two-thirds of the population of the Korean Peninsula, and it makes no sense to discuss any treaty of that kind excluding the main economic force in the region. The issue of U.S. troop presence can be discussed later after a watertight security framework is created in Northeast Asia, similar to the common security system shared by European countries.

      There is no chance that Washington and Pyongyang will sign a peace treaty any time soon. But Clinton's comments have made it clear that the U.S. could simultaneously discuss the North Korean nuclear problem and a peace treaty with the North. South Korea should not miss this critical point.

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