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SEOUL– This week’s defense minister-level meeting on Cheju Island is welcome news as the two Koreas take another historic step forward in their rapidly developing rapprochement. But the road ahead will be long and convoluted. According to one well-placed South Korean official, “we are in the realm of ambiguity” when it comes to structuring the peace process.

Even demining the Demilitarized Zone to clear a path for relinking the rail line between North and South raises jurisdictional questions that must be sorted out since the frontier falls within the control of the United Nations Command. Even though the 1991 Basic Agreement calls for military confidence-building measures, according to the 1953 armistice agreement, the Military Armistice Commission — recently redesignated as the “General Officers Talks” — is the only direct channel of communication between the two sides. In both bodies, a U.S. general officer is and was the senior official present on the U.N. Command side, while military representatives of North and South do not deal directly with each other, and never have.

In theory, this problem was resolved in four-party (the United States, China and the two Koreas) talks charged with implementing confidence-building measures and charting a new peace, and clearly should be dealt with in this venue. Thus it is significant that Defense Minister Cho Sung Tae and U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen affirmed at last week’s security consultative meeting in Seoul that they expect recent developments in inter-Korean relations and U.S.-North Korea relations will result in a resumption of four-party talks.

It is therefore ironic that South Korean President Kim Dae Jung — the architect of rapprochement — has muddied the waters with his recent call for a modified two-plus-two formula with the U.S. and China in standby roles as guarantors, while the two Koreas do the heavy lifting. It’s hard to reach a final destination if the road to take hasn’t been laid out.

In this case, two-plus-two doesn’t equal four. The problem is that South Korea isn’t authorized to negotiate confidence-building measures under current arrangements since it did not sign the armistice and does not enjoy a defined relationship with the North on military matters. Still, there is no need to go all the way to Geneva to resolve this discrepancy. Rather, it merely needs to be made clear that any informal military agreements reached between North and South Korea are contingent upon U.N. Command approval.

A good deal of time (four years) has been invested in launching and nurturing the four-party talks. There have been three preliminary rounds in New York and six plenaries in Geneva. Agreement has been reached on the formation of two subcommittees: one on confidence-building and the other on a peace treaty or peace mechanism. This is not a lot to show for four years’ work, but talks have been stymied from the start over including the withdrawal of U.S. forces as an agenda item.

Here again, ambiguity breeds confusion. While the North has not repudiated its position, Kim Dae Jung has asserted that his northern counterpart, Kim Jong Il, no longer opposes the troops’ presence, although Pyongyang has remained conspicuously silent on the subject

Ambiguity and unanswered questions also prevail with respect to ultimate objectives — a peace treaty and/or a peace mechanism that supplants the U.N. Command and Military Armistice Commission. Whether the latter is dependent on the former and how it would function continue to be unclear.

Conceivably, the peace-building process could begin with a hot line, advance notification and observation of large-scale exercises, major military movements and an exchange of liaison officers. But unlike the other dimensions of North-South rapprochement, it can only go forward in close consultation with and the concurrence of both the U.S and China, the other armistice signatories. It is likely that some form of U.S. and Chinese military supervisory commission would be required to provide an international imprimatur if a full-fledged peace regime is agreed.

More broadly, the necessity for a peace treaty that precedes such a peace mechanism can be questioned. By virtue of the 1991 Basic Agreement and the June North-South summit declaration, the two Koreas have already concluded what amounts to a de facto peace treaty. Further, since neither Korean state nor any external power involved in the Korean conflict ever formally declared war, there is no reason or necessity in law or in logic for a formal peace treaty. The armistice itself speaks only of a peace conference with the goal of reunification to which the two Koreas have now pledged themselves anew.

Finally, notwithstanding extensive foreign participation, a half-century of scholarship has conclusively established that the Korean War was basically the extension of a violent internal political struggle between left and right in which the launching of the attack by the North was merely a triggering event. Moreover, because civil wars generally end with the surrender or capitulation of one of the parties or factions — or in rare cases an agreement to move the dispute into the political sphere (as in El Salvador) — peace treaties are virtually unknown.

The two Koreas appear to have turned a historic corner in their relations with each other. A peace treaty at this juncture might do more to point them toward a troubled past than a promising future.

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