Give Peace a Chance, Just Not This Way
President Trump and Kim Jong-un are currently holding their second meeting in the past year. Speculation is building that the two leaders will announce a peace declaration at their meeting, supposedly ending the state of war that has existed on the Korean peninsula since Kim Jong-un’s grandfather invaded South Korea in 1951. For the millions of South Koreans in Seoul who live in the shadow of North Korea’s artillery—much less the millions more in Korea, Japan, and the United States who live within range of Kim Jong-un’s nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles—such a declaration should be a great accomplishment and a relief.
Should be. Unfortunately, it is not likely to be.
The dilemma in the current rush to talks is not whether peace on the Korean peninsula should be pursued: it should. The dilemma is that little work has been done in either South Korea or the United States to consider what benefits would result from a peace declaration—rather than a peace treaty—and what risks such a declaration would introduce. A peace declaration—however positively it might be viewed—is not a guarantee of peace. Peace is when the parties to a conflict agree to end hostilities, pull back their militaries, and forgo their efforts to subdue the other by force. If there is a peace declaration in Hanoi, it is far more likely to embolden Kim and others like him. He will assess—probably rightly—that his pursuit of nuclear weapons and intercontinental missile delivery systems won him the respect or fear of his primary adversary. Sufficiently so that he was able to achieve what neither his father or grandfather could: not one, but two meetings with the U.S. president and, possibly, a peace declaration.
For 70 years, the United States and South Korea have worked together to ensure that South Koreans are free, prosperous, and safe. This has not always gone smoothly, and the United States has made its share of mistakes. The trajectory of the relationship, and certainly the trajectory of South Korea, has been upward for the past three generations. South Koreans persevered to build a wealthy, highly educated country that is a marvel of the world. The United States can be proud of having partnered with South Korea on that journey so far.
A peace declaration could create the appearance of safety within South Korea while increasing the risk of long-term problems. There are three primary elements to this.
First, a peace declaration would give Kim Jong-un leverage to push President Trump in a direction he is already inclined to move: to withdraw U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula. Despite South Korea’s recent agreement to increase its financial support for U.S. military forces in Korea, President Trump may still view (wrongly) that withdrawing U.S. troops as a way to save money.
Second, in seeking a peace declaration, Kim will most likely focus on reducing the combined U.S.-South Korea conventional military presence at the de-militarized zone (DMZ). He may even be willing to withdraw some North Korean conventional forces from the DMZ. The catch is that in pulling back conventional military units from the DMZ that has divided the Korean peninsula since 1953, Kim will surrender depreciating military assets. The potency of his conventional forces has likely long since eroded. Instead, Kim will push for seemingly even-handed reductions in conventional forces between the South and the North. The result of such agreements would be the North gaining advantage through the U.S.-South Korea alliance making additional concessions beyond last year’s suspension of exercises, possibly ceding positions that provide it advantages relative to North Korea’s declining conventional forces.
Third, a pullback from the DMZ by conventional forces would likely be the first step in a multi-pronged effort by North Korea to demonstrate warming relations with the South—with the goal of creating or expanding a wedge between South Korea and the United States over the stationing of U.S. forces on the peninsula. (To be clear, there is a legitimate political debate to be had over the role of foreign troops in South Korea; the issue at hand is that North Korea will seek to leverage this debate to create opportunities for itself at the expense of both South Korea and the United States.)
Despite President Trump’s misgivings about alliances and overseas basing of U.S. troops, public polling shows strong support for the U.S.-South Korea alliance in both countries. Congress reaffirmed this position in law last year, ensuring continued U.S. commitment of troops to Korea in support of the alliance.
Until North Korea relinquishes its weapons of mass destructions, and until China determines it will be more successful with partners rather than clients, the United States will be best served by maintaining its commitment to South Korea. Through 70 years, the United States concept of partnership has evolved, but it has had a consistent core: the United States is more prosperous when our trading partners are more prosperous; the United States is more secure when our allies are more secure. A peace declaration without a real path to peace makes neither South Korea or the United States more prosperous or more secure. Until it does, it is a bad deal.
John Schaus is a fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, D.C.
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