War of words over Korean peace treatyWASHINGTON - South Korea and the United States are colliding on what has emerged as one of the more partisan issues in their already strained relations.
The question is whether to follow the lead of North Korea and demand a peace treaty to replace the armistice that ended the Korean War in July 1953. Advocates say support for a treaty would be a relatively harmless gesture that would soften up the intransigent North Korean regime; critics believe it would give North Korean negotiators an easy opportunity to press their long-standing demand for withdrawal of all US troops from the South.
The issue has neo-conservatives and liberals battling in Washington while South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun crashes ahead with the notion of the peace treaty as the top talking point in his summit with North Korea's Kim Jong-il early next month in Pyongyang.
Victor Cha, former Asia director of the National Security Council, perceives "a great deal of momentum" toward relations between Washington and Pyongyang but says the Democratic People's Republic of Korea first has to make good on its promises.
"If the DPRK responds," said the conservative Cha, then "the US and the others will push the negotiations harder" - negotiations, that is, not for diplomatic recognition but for fulfillment of the February agreement for North Korea to give up its nuclear program.
Roh, however, was busy playing down the nuclear issue while playing up the theme of a peace treaty - and a "peace regime" unifying the Korean Peninsula. Dismissing North Korea's nuclear program as "being resolved", Roh declared "the end of the Korean War and a peace regime of the Korean Peninsula" as "core items of the inter-Korean talks".
Conservative critics in Washington and Seoul see such talk at the summit as devolving into a chance for Kim Jong-il to press for a pan-Korean "confederation" that will undermine the South's democracy constitution, adopted in 1987 at the height of huge protests against the military leaders who then ruled the country.
Smelling success for the conservative Lee Myung-bak in the presidential election in December, conservatives believe Roh and Kim envisage a triumphant declaration of a "peace system" as swaying voters to a leftist or liberal successor to Roh, who is constitutionally barred from running for a second five-year term. Agreement on a "peace regime", according to this logic, will provide the North with the chance to increase its influence among South Korean leftists who are responsible for periodic anti-American demonstrations at which they invariably denounce the US-South Korean alliance.
Conservatives also charge that Roh and Kim hope to use talk of a "peace regime" as a device to get the South to repeal the national-security law banning activities that might help the communists. Although enforcement of the law has been lax in recent years, it still has an inhibiting effect - and provides authorities with a tool for cracking down on protest.
Roh spoke of his hopes for a peace treaty - and a system for ensuring peace on the Korean Peninsula - after livening up the closing moments of a largely humdrum get-together of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders by attempting to embarrass US President George W Bush into a commitment he had no desire to make.
As Roh and Bush faced television cameras, Roh went way off the script, asking Bush if he could "be a little bit clearer in your message" of when the US is ready to sign a treaty. Bush's response, "I can't make it any more clear, Mr President," was not all that diplomatic. The Korean War will end, he said, "when Kim Jong-il verifiably gets rid of his weapons program and his weapons".
But a debate over a "peace treaty" formally marking closure on the Korean War is largely an exercise in semantics.
Troops were hardly standing in a straight line on either side of the 38th Parallel when the truce was signed. US and South Korean forces were dug in well to the north of the parallel on the east, while Chinese and North Korean troops retained positions south of the parallel on the west, including the critical town of Kaesong, overrun by invading North Koreans at the outset of the war in June 1950. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), 4 kilometers wide, was established where the shooting stopped as a deterrent to a second Korean War, a buffer across which shots are occasionally fired but where wildlife flourishes unmolested.
The 1953 truce, however, did not set the boundary in the Yellow (West) Sea between the two Koreas. The UN Command established the "Northern Limit Line" (NLL) a few years later, and North Korea has challenged the barrier in battles, notably in 1999 and 2002, that have left a number of sailors dead on both sides. The issue is likely to come up at the summit - though it's not clear whether South Korea will yield to a compromise on the NLL, as the US military fears, or blur the issue for later review.
Kim may be willing to put off the NLL issue while pursuing a peace treaty that will help to accomplish the much larger goal of getting US troops to leave. Roh for his part wants to appear on North Korea's side at the second inter-Korean summit - the first since his predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, flew to Pyongyang in June 2000. The summit, if it produces a ringing statement on peace, may be the crowning moment for Roh, whose popularity ratings have plummeted over economic concerns and his rather crude political style.
The issue of a peace treaty, in the US view, is secondary to the much more immediate problem of getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons as the US negotiator, Christopher Hill, believes will happen by the end of this year.
Nuclear negotiations assumed critical importance this week as another US diplomat led a team of Chinese and Russians to North Korea to look over the nuclear complex at Yongbyon in the run-up to the next round of six-nation talks at which Pyongyang is to reveal all details of its nuclear program.
The team got back from Yongbyon full of praise for the access they had to the 5-megawatt experimental reactor, shut down by North Korea as the first step in fulfilling the February nuclear agreement. A US State Department spokesman said the team had seen "everything they wanted to see", including reprocessing facilities and two much bigger reactors at varying stages of construction - one of them 50MW, the other 200MW.
There was no word on whether the team had asked to see facilities elsewhere for developing warheads with uranium at their core - a program North Korea has fervently denied after having supposedly acknowledged it in October 2002. Nor, of course, did the team have a clue as to whether North Korea has been cooperating with Syria, as reported by Israeli intelligence sources and picked up in the US media, on a nuclear facility.
US officials, not wanting to distract from the six-party talks, shrugged off the reports. Instead, the White House notified the US Congress that it would spend US$25 million to send North Korea 50,000 tonnes of heavy fuel provided North Korea continued to honor the February agreement.
Hill has said he expects North Korea to list whatever it has been doing to develop nuclear warheads when negotiators for the six nations, including the two Koreas, China, the US, Russia and Japan, meet again in Beijing this month before Roh goes to Pyongyang.
The US, as Bush indicated, is holding out the promise of talks on a treaty as a reward for North Korea's making good on its commitment; Roh believes the US, China and the two Koreas should negotiate a treaty right away.
But why is a peace treaty so important when the Korean Peninsula has been more or less at peace for more than half a century? Analysts see the answer as simple. If Kim Jong-il can draw the United States into talks on a treaty, he can campaign as never before for complete withdrawal of all US forces. The US still has about 29,500 troops in the South. In the next two or three years, the US military headquarters and most of the remaining US troops will move to a huge new base 60km south of Seoul from which US military planners believe they can still defend South Korea with air and naval support.
Would North Korea, the skeptics ask, pull back its own million-man army from deeply fortified positions above the DMZ? And what about the North's 20,000 artillery pieces within range of the Seoul-Incheon region, home of half of South Korea's 48 million people? No one expects Kim Jong-il, whose power rests in his position as chairman of the North's Defense Commission, to consider such questions.
Some observers believe the exchange between Roh and Bush may rebound against the South Korean president. Bush reverted to an echo of the hard line that characterized his position several years ago, falling back on the familiar demand for "verification", a term US diplomats have been sublimating of late. To Roh and his highest advisers, the whole nuclear issue seems an irritation on the way to reconciliation, confederation - and, long-range, unification unfettered by the US alliance.
Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.