The Korean War never actually ended — both North Korea and the United States are in their seventh decade of a temporary armistice — but over the weekend it surfaced that the North Koreans quietly reached out to the U.S. for a permanent peace treaty last fall, only to change their minds and abandon the effort after their illegal nuclear weapons test on January 6.
The proposal was very tentative, and according to a Wall Street Journal report, it included an important concession from the Obama administration on nuclear weapons.
During an exchange at the United Nations, North Korea evidently approached the United States about negotiating a formal conclusion to the Korean War, and the U.S. dropped its absolute demand for Pyongyang to cut back its nuclear program before such talks could begin. Instead, North Korea’s nuclear program would become “simply part of the talks.”
Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation, formerly deputy division chief for the CIA in South Korea, described it to CNN as “a tweaking of the conditions.”
“Rather than requiring progress on denuclearization before negotiations, it seems the administration agreed to the idea of peace talks but required denuclearization talks to be included,” Klingner explained.
Despite having just watched Iran take the Obama administration to the cleaners with such a negotiating strategy, the North Koreans balked at this counter-proposal. The Wall Street Journal notes President Obama has actually been using the Iran deal to entice North Korea to the bargaining table. Perhaps Pyongyang was worried that it would not be President Obama and his crew on the other side of the table by the time peace talks could get under way.
The WSJ quotes North Korea expert Go Myung-hyun of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, saying that “for North Korea, winning a peace treaty is the center of the U.S. relationship. It feels nuclear development gives it a bigger edge to do so.”
In other words, the North Koreans do not believe the value of their nuclear bargaining chip has been maxed out yet. They put out some feelers for a peace treaty, learned they could not win the ultimate prize of taking their nuclear program completely off the table, and decided to push ahead with more bomb and ICBM tests.
It might be a moderately hopeful sign that they value nuclear blackmail above a peace treaty that would remove most U.S. troops from South Korea, because that would imply the North is not planning on a ground invasion any time soon. On the other hand, with tensions in the South China Sea rising, China may find it useful to keep North Korea in the position of barely-controlled attack dog, with China’s ability to hold them in check becoming a chip on the table during negotiations with the West.
Naturally, the Obama administration was eager to posture as tough on nuclear proliferation.
“To be clear, it was the North Koreans who proposed discussing a peace treaty. We carefully considered their proposal, and made clear that denuclearization had to be part of any such discussion,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby, as quoted in the WSJ report. “Our response to the North Korean proposal was consistent with our longstanding focus on denuclearization.”
“There was interest expressed by the North Koreans in discussing a peace treaty,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at a press conference, reported by NBC News. “We considered their proposal, but also made clear that denuclearization had to be part of any discussions. The truth is that the North Koreans rejected that response.”
Earnest insisted the discussions were “entirely consistent with the longstanding policy that the Obama administration has put forward.”
The North Koreans have described a peace treaty as a precondition for serious nuclear disarmament talks, refusing both the old U.S. position that disarmament had to come first, or the new position that nukes would be part of the peace negotiations.
“No issue in which the countries concerned, including the U.S., are interested can be settled unless a peace treaty is concluded before anything else. If the United States insists on taking a different path, the Korean peninsula will only see our unlimited nuclear deterrent being strengthened further,” declared a statement from Korea’s state-run media in October, as reported by CNN.