SEOUL (Reuters) - The two Koreas, ahead of a leaders’ summit next week, are discussing a peace agreement that could officially end the state of war that has technically lasted since the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice not a treaty.
U.S. President Donald Trump said the effort has his “blessing”, if North Korea agreed to give up its nuclear arsenal.
South Korea and a U.S.-led U.N. force are technically still at war with North Korea and the idea of an official peace deal to change that is neither new, nor something that can be resolved in a single inter-Korean summit, analysts say.
South Korean leaders at the time opposed the idea of a truce that left the peninsula divided, and were not signatories to the armistice, which was officially signed by the commander of North Korea’s army; the American commander of the U.N. Command; and the commander of the “Chinese People’s volunteers”, who were not officially claimed by Beijing at the time.
“Technically it’s not possible for the two Koreas to announce an end of the 1953 armistice at next week’s summit,” said Park Jae-jeok, a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.
“But South and North Korea could agree on their intention to end the war and work toward a peace agreement, and pursue discussions with the involved countries.”
North Korea has previously maintained that it would only negotiate a peace treaty with the United States.
The North’s first leader and founder of the ruling Kim dynasty, Kim Il Sung, for example, raised the idea of a peace deal with U.S. President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s.
North and South Korea have seriously discussed the idea before. In 1992, the two sides agreed to “endeavour together to transform the present state of armistice into a solid state of peace”.
The last inter-Korean summit in October 2007 concluded with a declaration by the two Koreas to “recognise the need to end the current armistice regime and build a permanent peace regime” and “to work together to advance the matter of having the leaders of the three or four parties directly concerned to convene on the Peninsula and declare an end to the war.”
On Wednesday, a spokesman for South Korea’s unification ministry said the government was looking to build on that 2007 position.
What exactly might replace the armistice has been another point of doubt, and neither South Korean nor U.S. officials have confirmed what a new agreement would look like.
“Denuclearisation and a peace regime are two sides of the same coin, so South Korea would raise both matters next week,” said Shin Beom-chul, senior fellow at the Asian Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. “The problem is that security guarantees - of which key would be a peace deal - are what North Korea needs from the United States, not South Korea.”
“We could think of a scenario under which the two Koreas make a largely symbolic announcement that their war is over, but any such agreement would lack substance until the U.S. makes it formal.”
In Seoul, recent government statements have often danced around the term “peace treaty” by referencing a “peace regime” or an “agreement to end hostile acts”.
While North Korea has historically demanded the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the South, there are signs that Kim Jong Un may be flexible on that, Park said, although China has also raised concern about the presence of U.S. troops.
The North Korean leader surprised observers by not objecting to recent U.S.-South Korea military exercises, and Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, once told his South Korean counterpart that Pyongyang might accept the presence of U.S. troops if their role changed to purely peacekeeping.
Some observers, meanwhile, have warned that North Korea could see a peace deal as a way to undermine the South’s alliance with the United States.
“It’s a trap,” Michael Rubin of the conservative American Enterprise Institute think-tank wrote in a recent analysis.
“Let’s hope Trump doesn’t fall for it.”
The U.S. government’s Institute of Peace concluded in a 2003 report that an effective deal would need to be worked out among the United States, China and both Koreas.
A settlement should include agreements to cease hostilities and normalise relations between the United States and North Korea, recognition of the sovereignty of both Koreas, arms reductions and nuclear weapons inspections and security guarantees by the United States and China for both Koreas, the institute said.
The involvement of China in any talks would be a complicating factor, Shin said.
“China would have problems with the U.S. troops staying on the Korean peninsula under a peace regime. Even if it accepts their continued presence, it could demand the United States not to deploy nuclear or other strategic assets, such as an anti-missile defence system,” Shin said.
Both South Korea and the United States have said a peace treaty is possible only if North Korea agrees to give up its nuclear arsenal.
Additional reporting by Soyoung Kim and Joori Roh in SEOUL; Editing by Robert Birsel