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U.S. Strategy for Implementing a Peace Framework on the Korean Peninsula

June 6, 2007

By Scott Snyder

This entry is a summary of a presentation given at an international conference sponsored by the Korea Institute for National Unification titled, “The June 15 Summit and the Building of a Peace Regime on the Korean Peninsula,” held on June 7, 2007.

The history of the American security role on the Korean peninsula is well-known. Despite dramatic changes in the global structure of international relations, the relative power of North and South Korea, the nature of the inter-Korean relationship, and the dramatic economic and political transformation that has taken place in South Korea ” the nature, forms, and objectives of the American security presence in and commitments to the Korean peninsula have essentially remained unchanged.

However, the role of the United States in maintaining stability on the Korean peninsula has diminished, making South Korea, not the United States, the natural negotiating partner for North Korea on security issues. The Pyongyang leadership, meanwhile, still sees the United States as the preferred political partner for addressing both the nuclear issue and conventional arms reductions.

As inter-Korean reconciliation proceeds and the United States’ security role on the Korean peninsula transitions from a leading to a supporting role, it is possible that the United States may expect that the mechanics of lessening tensions on the Korean peninsula should logically fall to leaders in Pyongyang and Seoul. North Korea has fallen behind the United States and South Korea as its conventional military capacity has degraded and not been replaced or updated with modern weaponry; its nuclear capabilities have developed, but there is no viable strategic option for North Korea to use nuclear weapons to achieve regime survival.

Although the United States is likely to remain a critical player in addressing North Korea’s denuclearization, South Korea is now in the lead to reduce conventional arms and levels of military forces, while increasing confidence and security building measures (CSBMs) to ease security tensions on the Korean peninsula. The United States can implement a complementary, forward-looking political strategy to support South Korea and help ameliorate current tensions on the Korean peninsula.

The first element of a U.S. strategy should accept a permanent, institutionalized mechanism for dialogue in Northeast Asia ” not only for dealing with the North Korean nuclear crisis, but as a long-term vehicle for enhancing regional stability. The Six Party Talks Joint Statement and February 13th Agreement build on this idea by establishing a working group on peace and security in Northeast Asia. This working group may be able to develop, in greater detail, the elements of a Northeast Asian Charter, laying the foundation for future cooperation and affirming the commitments of member nations to maintaining regional peace and security as the foundation for an institutionalized dialogue on regional security.

The second element of a U.S. strategy should recognize that peace can not develop on the Korean peninsula without normal relations among all countries in the region. For this reason, it is significant that the United States has publicly committed to normalize bilateral relations with North Korea and is pursuing bilateral talks with North Korea on how to improve the relationship. However, the U.S. commitment to normalization with Pyongyang is directly tied to North Korea’s denuclearization; it is politically impossible to imagine that the United States would be willing to give diplomatic recognition to a nuclear-armed North Korea.

The September 19th Joint Statement calls for replacing the 1953 armistice with a permanent peace settlement on the Korean peninsula at an appropriate, separate forum. This forum will involve the United States, China, South and North Korea ” the parties most directly associated with the original armistice agreement. These negotiations will involve both technical and political aspects, but the most interesting and complex issues relate to the question of how to end and replace the role of the United Nations Command under the armistice.

First, the UN Command Military Armistice Commission (UNC MAC) holds responsibility under the armistice for implementing the terms of it and managing technical interactions with North Korea to uphold the agreement. This role would most likely be formally turned over to the two Koreas, presumably in the context of further steps toward normalization of inter-Korean relations and the establishment of clear precedents for the management of border disputes. The formalization of an inter-Korean mechanism for handling border disputes in a new peace arrangement will dissolve UNC MAC and further disentangle the United States from negotiations on conventional security issues.

The second UN-related issue that would be involved in this process would be the cancellation of the original UN Security Council authorization that called for the formation of a UN-led command to resist North Korean aggression in June of 1950. Both of these actions would require U.S. support as a tangible expression of American will to coexist peacefully with North Korea and allow the DPRK’s full integration into the international community. But progress in implementing a peace regime for the Korean peninsula is still likely to be hamstrung by two basic contradictions. The first is the mismatch between South Korea’s expanding role as the natural partner in addressing conventional military issues and North Korea’s desire to negotiate with the United States on such questions. The second is the mismatch between an improving inter-Korean relationship and the continued tensions in U.S.-DPRK relations.

The 1992 Basic Agreement and 2000 inter-Korean joint declaration paved the way for enhanced inter-Korean exchanges, but there has been no similar political agreement between the U.S. and North Korea that would facilitate exchanges and cooperation between the two countries. In order to resolve these two contradictions, there is a need for more intensive U.S.-ROK coordination on how to promote this and other confidence and security building measures (CSBMs) involving North Korea.

Scott Snyder is a Senior Associate for International Relations at The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Korea
Related topics: North Korea

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