Given the current difficulties in US-DPRK talks, imagining what a sustainable security system on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia more broadly looks like seems a bit premature, if not an outright pipe dream. Even under the most optimistic scenario, the denuclearization process will be years in the making. However, for the success of the ongoing talks, it is important to start exchanging ideas about possible security futures even at this early stage.
Furthermore, it is important to understand and evaluate Pyongyang’s thinking about how a future peace and security system for the peninsula might look, especially since the North Koreans have principles and priorities for this end state that differ from the views of its adversaries. Combining bilateral and multilateral arrangements could help with the reconciliation of these differences; it will be difficult, but these challenges can be overcome.
The North Korean Vision is Based on Isolationism and Fear
Kim Il Sung and the insular group of elites around him came to power with a healthy degree of suspicion and mistrust of outsiders, the result of their experience in waging years of guerrilla warfare. They had what British scholar Aidan Foster-Carter termed a “peasant mentality,” that is, the idea that in an isolated peasant community, everything that is good for the society is good, even if you commit a crime.
Even though Kim Jong Un has broader experience in the world and a more modern outlook, he still cannot ignore the ruling class—an elite tied together with blood relations and common ancestry, birthplaces and heritage. In fact, this is an aristocratic power establishment that is more united by opposition to a common enemy than what is normal for an average governing dynasty.
These “aristocrats” know well that if the regime collapses they will not survive. These elites have vivid memories of fighting the bloodiest per capita war in history—at least 10 percent of the population perished—and almost suffering extermination at the hands of their enemies; they also look at the US toppling of regimes in Iraq and Libya with a great deal of fear. Their collective memory has taught them not to trust anybody, to show no fear, to not ask for mercy from its perceived adversaries, and to be extremely risk-averse in making decisions that could threaten their survival.
So, how would these people see peacemaking? It is unreasonable to expect that North Korea will “trust” their erstwhile enemies and believe that if they surrender their nuclear life insurance policy they will get all the benefits after their ultimate sacrifice. Quite the contrary. They are convinced that the only guarantee of regime survival is force and a balance of power.
The US has done little to dispel these beliefs and fears either before or after the Singapore Summit. Indeed, Pyongyang resents the US administration’s approach to talks that is based on the presumption that a superpower may benevolently forgive the past misdeeds of a criminal and give it a chance for a better life. The North sees it the other way around: their relentless struggle of many years has forced the leader of the strongest nation on earth to sit down at the same table with their leader and ask, “What can I do for you?”
How can North Korea be disabused of its conviction that only force matters? How can Pyongyang be persuaded that it can give up the nuclear card—their “treasured sword”—for something intangible? It may seem like the whole peace process is doomed. But achieving a durable peace is not an impossible task.
What are the Modalities of a Peace Regime?
Unraveling the security situation on the Korean Peninsula is a complex matter, especially figuring out where to start. The core questions to be addressed include: Who has to make peace with whom? And is the goal to build a new peace regime or reconfigure previous arrangements? Getting clarity on these fundamental issues is essential both for understanding who should be at the table and determining the proper sequencing.
The general premise that emerged early in the current round of interactions with North Korea is that a new “peace regime” should “replace” the Armistice Agreement of July 27, 1953, and therefore the same countries should set up this system in a “successor document.” However, I do not agree with that logic. In fact, it was North Korea that first suggested such an approach, presuming it was at war only with the US and wanting to “make peace” with Washington by changing the Armistice into a permanent peace declaration. Only later did Pyongyang agree to the participation of South Korea and China (“three or four states”) to help move the process along.
However, this 65-year old document was signed only by “military Commanders of both sides” who, in accordance with Article IV of the Armistice Agreement, “recommend[ed] to the governments of the countries concerned on both sides that, within three (3) months…a political conference of a higher level…be held…to settle through negotiation the questions of the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Korea, the peaceful settlement of the Korean question, etc.” Nowhere does it specify that the governments to be convened were necessarily the same as the signatories of the Armistice Agreement.
As is well known, the subsequent April 1954 Geneva Conference (with the participation of the US, the USSR, France, China, and North and South Korea) failed. In June 1956, the US unilaterally abrogated Article 13(D) of the Agreement and introduced (in 1958) tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea, thus violating the Agreement. North Korea, in turn, declared it would no longer abide by the Armistice Agreement at least 6 times, in 1994, 1996, 2003, 2006, 2009, and 2013. Therefore, it is questionable whether the Agreement remained effective after such substantive breaches.
Consequently, I do not believe there is a compelling reason why a new peace regime should somehow be related to the 1953 Armistice Agreement, which was not signed by the relevant governments now trying to replace it (South Korea was not included at all) and was obviously of temporary nature. Instead, a new peace regime, or, rather, a security and cooperation system, should be set through all-encompassing dialogue and negotiations—bilateral and multilateral—among the parties concerned to find a sustainable solution.
The Need for a Cooperative System: Who Are The Actors?
In building a new cooperative system, the result will invariably need to be a multilateral solution. While the failures of Six-Party Talks (2003-2008) may be seen as advising the opposite, the forum did work to maintain peace on the peninsula for several years. Even despite setbacks, it still resulted in several instances of North Korea freezing and even entering early stages of dismantling its nuclear program. If it were not for these talks, North Korea might have passed the “point of no return” in nuclear development several years earlier. The problem was not the multiparty format, but the unclear agenda and priorities of the talks: the US saw it as centered only on denuclearization, while North Korea was focused on its broader security concerns. If it had been a strictly bilateral arrangement, the negotiations would have likely broken down much faster.
The calculus for the usefulness of the multiparty format is also determined by the need to create a “safety net” if and when agreements are reached. The example of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action for Iran shows, that even if the US (or another party) withdraws from the deal, the participation of other countries can keep the agreement alive and help prevent the situation from sliding to a catastrophe.
While the US and North Korea are the main actors in this conflict, other countries in the region are deeply and historically involved in Korean Peninsular affairs. Any outcome for the two Koreas will have complex political, economic and security implications for different parties in the region. Should those legitimate concerns not be taken into consideration, neglected factions have enormous potential to undermine or disrupt such arrangements. Therefore, any agreement reached should be endorsed and undersigned by the relevant stakeholders in order to increase their sustainability and durability.
At the end of the day, achieving peace and denuclearization is not simply a bilateral matter. A cast of stakeholders will likely have to play some role in implementing the eventual agreements. Those parties will need to be engaged in the negotiation process in some way before agreements are finalized.
A Phased Pathway to Peace: A Proposal
Several stages, combining bilateral and multilateral approaches, would be necessary to build a cooperative security system for the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia. These steps include the following.
Phase 1. Ending the Korean War
The first step might be a non-binding US-North Korea peace declaration—a recognition of the existing reality of the absence of direct military conflict and statement of general principles that would guide future relations. Such a declaration would symbolize the commitment of the two sides to reconciling and finding solutions to other problems, such as denuclearization. It would not put much of a burden on the US, as it would essentially reaffirm previous bilateral documents. While for North Koreans it would be a vivid sign—tangible proof of a change in attitude by the US establishment and confirmation to Pyongyang “doves” that they are moving in the right direction.
The idea of a North-South declaration and/or trilateral or quadrilateral declaration on the “end of war” is less obvious. First and foremost, both North and South Korea reject the legitimacy of the other state and claim rights over one another in their respective constitutions. Therefore, how can a document signed between them and the US government have legal standing? Moreover, North and South Korea have already signed a number of such bilateral agreements and resolutions—from the North-South Korea Joint Statement on July 4, 1972, to reconciliation agreements of 1991-1992, to inter-Korean summit declarations—which have had no legal or sustainable impact on the nature of inter-Korean relations.
That said, another declaration would certainly not hurt. What the two Koreas might consider instead of repeating the same formulation as previous ones, is sign or adopt some kind of statement in support of and welcoming a US-North Korea declaration on the end of war. That may be done simultaneously as the US-North Korea agreement is negotiated, or within that short period of time. It would be highly symbolic but a signal that both sides were ready to formally end the war.
Phase 2. Normalization of US-DPRK Relations
After the issue of ending the Korean War has been addressed, the US-DPRK bilateral process should become the central element of moving forward. With a tangible manifestation of improved relations between the US and North Korea, the focus can shift to establishing in detail, the terms of denuclearization and road to normalization.
However, while bilateral negotiations are underway, other stakeholders must monitor and endorse the process as moderators and “providers of guarantees” for the fulfillment of subsequent agreements between the US and North Korea.
Their first step might be a declaration among the relevant parties expressing the ability and readiness to facilitate denuclearization and peace processes on the Korean Peninsula. This may include the actors that participated in the Six-Party Talks, but could draw in others as well. A symbolic and visible way to do it is perhaps a joint declaration by these countries’ Ministers of Foreign Affairs, produced as a result of a meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly; the UN Secretary-General also may take part in it as well. A UN General Assembly Resolution of support of these efforts would also be useful.
Phase 3. Parallel Tracks of Bilateral and Multilateral Negotiations
After such a declaration is signed, bilateral and multilateral formats should be combined. While the issue of US guarantees and US-DPRK normalization could be discussed bilaterally, the concern of denuclearization will need the participation of several parties. For instance, the actual process of dismantling and liquidating North Korea’s nuclear weapons program—as it is not under the mandate of IAEA—would require the cooperation of nuclear powers (namely the US, Russia and China). A “P3+DPRK” Working Group could be established to arrange logistics, services for dismantlement, nuclear safety inspections, verification measures, and so forth.
The issue of regional security and peace should also be discussed in a multilateral format; this working group may be based on the former Six-Party Talks structure on establishing a peace and security mechanism (which agreed on a document to this effect).
To facilitate this process, it would be useful to establish an institutional arrangement (secretariat) for supervising and monitoring these talks.
Phase 4. Providing Multilateral Guarantees
At the final stage, the relevant parties could adopt a politically and legally binding multilateral treaty (e.g., “On Security and Cooperation in Northeast Asia”). It can be combined with legally binding deals between the former adversaries in the Korean War.
Another option—or maybe the continuation of the process after a multilateral declaration or agreement—is a set of bilateral, legally binding treaties between each of the relevant parties, which would regulate the relations between them in the context of the Korea issue.
From a political point of view, a Heads of States Joint Statement may conclude such a diplomatic process. The Heads of State could make it, for example, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, also with the participation of the UN Secretary-General.
Such agreements should be built upon the existing bilateral (and multilateral) pacts. For instance, a new agreement between the US and South Korea should be based on their basic alliance treaty and later bilateral documents, although some amendments would be needed. Then, say, Russia and China, for example, could sign a short agreement with one another in which they welcome the results of the talks, support deals between the US, North Korea and South Korea, as well as other parties and vow to help preserve these obligations and use all possibilities (e.g., bilateral political consultations, coordination in the UN, etc.) to promote peace and security on the Korean Peninsula. Similarly, North Korea, South Korea, China and Russia could sign separate addendums to their existing bilateral basic treaties, reflecting their rights and obligations under the new political environment.
While some agreements would come by harder than others, there would be no need to wait— different ones could enter in force immediately after signing (a form, not requiring ratification, should be used). All these treaties can then be deposited in the UN and circulated.
To be sustainable, these agreements would need supervision and guarantees for implementation which can be provided by other members of the multiparty structure and also may involve monitoring by the UN. That means a monitoring mechanism (such as a UN committee or a Six-Party “Secretariat,” or both) would watch how the arrangements are kept and report accordingly to the UN and other institutions and to the leadership of all the countries.
In this process, a “Northeast Asia Security and Cooperation Organization” (NEASCO) may emerge. At a later stage, it might become a venue charting the plans for multilateral and bilateral cooperation and integration.
That might sound a daunting and perplexing endeavor, but there is no rush because denuclearization will, in any case, take several years to achieve and the peace process could develop gradually even in the case of success. Not many of us may live long enough to see such a rosy picture become a reality, but some ideas for how to get there should start to be presented to the actors involved in peace processes now to at least to find out what their reaction may be.
Aidan Foster-Carter, “North Korea in Retrospect,” in The Korean Peninsula in Transition, eds. Dae Hwan Kim and Tat Yan Kong (London, UK: Palgrave MacMillan UK/St Antony’s Series), 1997), 128-130.
National Security Council Report, NSC 570/2, “Note by the Executive Secretary to the National Security Council on U.S. Policy Toward Korea,” August 9, 1957, United States Department of State, Office of the Historian, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1955-57v23p2/d240; and Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005).
“Chronology of major North Korean statements on the Korean War armistice,” Yonhap News, May 28, 2009, http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/northkorea/2009/05/28/46/0401000000AEN20090528004200315F.HTML; and “North Korea ends peace pacts with South,” BBC News, March 8, 2013, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-21709917.
Such a declaration may make use of the language used in the 1991 Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation between South and North, as well as language of the October 12, 2000, U.S.-DPRK Joint Communiqué (“neither government would have hostile intent toward the other,” “the commitment of both governments to make every effort in the future to build a new relationship free from past enmity”).