The sequencing of nuclear and peace negotiations has become a sticking point in talks between the United States, North Korea, and South Korea. This impasse, driven by US insistence that the nuclear issue be resolved first, is rooted in deep skepticism of North Korea’s intentions and trustworthiness. These impulses are not misguided. There are real risks involved in moving forward with the peace process in the absence of progress on denuclearization, which could jeopardize the future of the US-ROK alliance.
These risks might not preclude action. Declaring a formal end to the Korean War, while a relatively minor concession on the part of the United States, would represent a major step forward. Importantly, it would also preserve the US and South Korean right to withhold additional incentives as negotiations move forward. Should talks break down, any pressure that has been removed can be re-imposed. As South Korean President Moon Jae-in recently observed, “Nothing”—not even the end of the Korean War— “is irreversible other than the death of a human being.”
Former adviser to President George W. Bush, Michael Green, has argued that an end-of-war declaration “is a perfect formula for North Korea to claim that our military exercises, our sanctions, our criticism of human rights are all breaking this opportunity for peace,” weakening the US position in the region, risking alienation from Seoul, and leaving open the possibility of stalled future progress in nuclear negotiations.
Seoul has already indicated that it wants to separate its engagement with the North from progress on the nuclear issue. President Moon is eager to press ahead, and there is a risk that the issue could drive a wedge between the allies. The United States has pushed back, indicating that it might take the unprecedented step of sanctioning Seoul if it proceeds on its own.
The United States must tread carefully if it hopes to avoid this nightmare scenario. And the prospects for overall success, at this point, seem slim. Fortunately, there is some hope to be found in history.
In the late 1980s, just two years prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ronald Reagan, the US president at the time, expressed skepticism that the international system of competing superpowers would change, but offered a vision of the future: “After these four decades, then, there stands before the entire world one great and inescapable conclusion. Freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces the ancient hatreds among the nations with comity and peace. Freedom is the victor.”
The unraveling of the apartheid system, the Oslo and Camp David accords, and other major steps toward peace had their own detractors, and their announcements were largely met with surprise. Today, the United States finds itself at an uncomfortable starting point for progress toward lasting peace, but a starting point nonetheless.
Declaring a formal end to the Korean War, while a relatively minor concession on the part of the United States, would represent a major step forward.
There are clear incentives for all parties to move towards a peaceful resolution to the crisis. Few experts believe that Kim Jong Un will wake up on the wrong side of the bed one morning and launch a nuclear weapon at Los Angeles. Rather, there is overwhelming agreement that the economic and political benefits of retaining nuclear weapons as a deterrent far outweigh the consequences of actually using them. On the contrary, the use of nuclear weapons by North Korea would guarantee the destruction of the regime, a scenario that 65 years of history indicates that Pyongyang will seek to avoid at all costs. This view is only bolstered by Kim’s recent declaration that the state is shifting its main priority from its nuclear weapons program to bolstering economic development.
China’s motives are largely focused on its sovereign integrity. Regime collapse would send North Korean refugees pouring across China’s border and bring US troops to China’s doorstep. Beijing also sees the possibility that improved relations between Seoul and Pyongyang could help drive the United States off the peninsula, a factor that Washington must carefully navigate.
For its part, South Korea wants to improve relations to avoid a conflict that would likely be the most devastating war in human history. On a political level, the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in has staked his reputation on a positive outcome of the negotiation process, providing an additional incentive to move quickly and avoid any breakdown in talks.
The American president is the wildcard in this equation. Donald Trump has invested a great deal of political capital in the success of negotiations, (although not as much as president Moon) but his erratic tweets and outbursts could easily derail them. Palace intrigue is largely as unhelpful as the President’s tweets, both for deciphering the administration’s policy, and for signaling US intent. There is little question that the Trump administration currently lacks the expertise to navigate these delicate negotiations and will continue to do so for some time. Stephen Biegun, the recently appointed special representative for North Korea, is a shrewd negotiator and foreign policy expert, but has little experience that is specific to North Korea. The United States will once again lose time as Beigun gets his bearings and builds the relationships he’ll need to do his job effectively.
These considerations aside, it would be unfair not to admit that the Trump administration is wrestling with a very tough negotiation. Trump’s pledge to Kim Jong Un at Singapore to move forward on an end-of-war declaration, only to reverse his decision at the urging of his aides, has made the negotiating teams’ jobs even harder. They now find themselves in a position where the United States is the bad guy, reneging on what North Korea justifiably sees as a promise. In a key moment of discord, the move recently prompted Secretary Pompeo’s North Korean counterpart, when pressed on denuclearization, to hold up his cell phone and taunt, “why don’t you call your president?”
Despite Trump’s change of heart, the South Korean government is pushing forward with its vision for an end-of-war declaration, and has set its sights on the United Nations General Assembly in late September for adoption. This timeline may yet prove too ambitious, but the United States would be well advised to consider embarking on what would be the first step in a much longer process. A carefully negotiated peace agreement can and should come later. Expectations, and potential consequences, can be managed along the way. And nothing is irreversible, not even the end of a war.