When the government of South Korea announced last week that it would begin work on a formal peace treaty with North Korea, to be discussed at a summit meeting on April 27, its so-called Sunshine Policy of engagement gave way to P.T. Barnum-style, a-sucker-born-every-minute diplomacy.
Fighting in the Korean War ended in 1953 with just an armistice, and South Korean officials are calling for a “permanent peace.” But it is not merely unrealistic to hope that Kim Jong-un, the leader of the North, will offer the South real and lasting peace; it is delusional.
If the past is any guide, the North will offer the South unenforceable verbiage. And if the South accepts a phony peace ploy, it will expose itself to more manipulation by the government in Pyongyang — not only in its domestic politics, but potentially also in its alliance with the United States.
Let’s begin with the obvious. A peace treaty between two countries is a legal document that requires one sovereign state to recognize the other sovereign state’s right to exist. (Think Camp David accords of 1978, when Egypt agreed to recognize Israel.) Yet North Korea cannot commit to any such thing with South Korea, not least because the existential objective of its ruling family, the Kims, has been to wipe the state of South Korea off the face of the earth.
That goal was the reason for the North’s surprise attack against the South in June 1950 that triggered the Korean War. And it has been the main focus of North Korea’s external policy since the 1953 cease-fire in that still-unfinished conflict. It is a central duty, fused into the very identity of the state, indelibly registered in Pyongyang’s institutions and ideology.
The 1980 charter of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the ruling party, identified its “present task” as the “national liberation and people’s democracy in the entire area of the country” — meaning, the whole of the Korean Peninsula. North Korea’s Constitution declares “reunification of the country” to be “the supreme national task” and instructs the government to “carry the revolutionary cause of juche through to completion.” Juche is the doctrine extolling the vision of the entire Korean people gathering together self-determinedly under an “independent socialist state” run by Pyongyang.
For North Korea to end its war on the South, and accept the South as a legitimate, coequal government on the peninsula, would mean abandoning the quest that has legitimized the Kim family’s rule for three generations. The decision would call into question why, exactly, North Korea should hold power at all. It would be system-threatening — a mistake on the scale of the string of blunders by President Mikhail S. Gorbachev that doomed the Soviet Union.
And so the North, rather than committing to a legally binding (and potentially destabilizing) peace treaty, is likely to do again what it has gotten away with in previous meetings with the South: dangle aspirational goals in jointly signed, but totally unenforceable, official statements.
Seoul and Pyongyang have a long history of this. In 1992, there were the Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression and Exchanges and Cooperation between the South and the North and the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. At the historic 2000 summit, there was the South-North Joint Declaration, after which President Kim Dae-jung of South Korea famously declared: “There is no longer going to be any war. The North will no longer attempt unification by force, and at the same time we will not do any harm to the North.”
And in October 2007, there was the so-called “peace declaration” in the eight-point agreement signed by Kim Jong-il and President Roh Moo-hyun. “The South and the North both recognize the need to end the current armistice regime and build a permanent peace regime,” it read.
Not to put too fine a point on it: All of these deals were then trash-canned. The North Korean promises in them were worthless, indeed deceitful. These agreements only seemed to hold force until, well, they no longer did, when Pyongyang unilaterally decided to ignore, violate or repudiate them.
This behavior is wholly of a piece with North Korea’s nuclear discussions with the United States, and with its performance in the Six-Party Talks. In its negotiating playbook, situational ethics rule. Accepting foreign constraints on North Korean power is regarded not only as foolish, but also as positively unpatriotic.
Alas, the South Korean government now seems eager to swallow another order of sucker-bait. Ahead of this week’s planned summit, in return for a peace bridge to nowhere, it has already agreed to leave human rights off the table. (President Trump, for his part, gave his “blessing” to these misbegotten talks.)
Why, given the precedents? Because the Sunshine Policy is something of a secular religion in South Korea — at least among its adherents, who include main players in the current government — and, like all faiths, it is immune to empirical falsification. Sunshiners also seem to be convinced that only they can coax the North onto the path of common sense.
And let’s not underestimate the political psychopathology of appeasement: People grow weary of the prospect of endless conflict with an implacable enemy and want to believe in solutions even if there are none. (Western Europe suffered a similar condition regarding the Soviet Union in the 1970s and ’80s.)
The problem is that North Korea can walk away from its peace promises at any time. And when it eventually does, it will be able to blame whomever it wishes for this tragic result — potentially polarizing politics in South Korea, igniting tensions in Seoul’s alliance with Washington or fracturing the loose coalition of governments that rallied around sanctions against it. In the meantime, Pyongyang will hold the other parties hostage to the fear that if any of its new demands aren’t met, it will quit the peace process.
What, then, would be the path to true peace? Concrete measures and confidence-building acts by North Korea: It could downsize its enormous army, pull back from its offensive positioning near the demilitarized zone, get rid of the artillery it trains on Seoul, allow joint inspections. That sort of thing. To say nothing of true denuclearization.
South Korean officials say that any permanent peace deal will be conditioned on the North’s denuclearization and that the North has agreed to that term. Only, the two governments do not agree on what “denuclearization” means.
The South, and its allies, have in mind a complete, irreversible and verifiable process under which the North would forgo all of its nuclear weapons. The North tends to talk instead of the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” which starts with cutting the South’s ties with its nuclear ally, the United States. And when it comes to denuclearization at home, Pyongyang frames the matter as an arms-control question: If America reduces its arsenal, so will we.
North Korea is a fearsome adversary. Let’s not play pretend-diplomacy with it.
Nicholas Eberstadt is a political economist at the American Enterprise Institute.