Sixty years after the end of the Korean War, it has become an article of faith among some policy-makers that a peace treaty between the United States and North Korea would help ease tensions on the Peninsula.
Often, reflecting North Korean propaganda statements, these policy makers explicitly link US troop withdrawals on the Korean Peninsula to a treaty ending the war. Such narratives generally state that a peace regime would assuage North Korea’s security concerns and get the Six-Party Talks back on track. A recent article in China’s Global Timesmakes this very argument, and though convincing it ultimately rests on faulty assumptions.
First, a US peace treaty at this stage would implicitly act as a symbol of recognition that the United States accepts North Korea’s status as a nuclear power. While some may argue that that horse has already left this particular barn, the United States simply cannot explicitly or implicitly accept a nuclear North Korea. It would undermine the non-proliferation treaty even further than it has already been and could shatter South Korean/Japanese confidence in the US nuclear umbrella. While this may not disturb regional powers like Russia and China, it should. Such a loss in confidence would undermine the current balance in deterrence and could ultimately lead to Seoul and Tokyo seeking nuclear weapons for themselves. In April this year, while on a visit to Washington, M.J Chung, a South Korean politician, claimed that the South might have to develop its own deterrent. Finally, accepting the North’s nuclear status may well encourage North Korea’s provocation-in-exchange-for-aid strategy.
Second, the peace regime argument assumes that North Korea’s decision to develop nuclear weapons derives purely from ‘insecurity’. Dig deeper, and there is the further assumption that North Korea’s insecurity derives from external forces — the result of pressure from the combined forces of the United States and South Korea. While it is true that North Korea’s decayed military forces are outmatched by the forces arrayed south of the Demilitarized Zone, the simple fact is that the North already has a weapon of deterrence: artillery. Seoul’s proximity to North Korean artillery has always meant that the North could obliterate the city within five minutes, a danger that has stayed the hand of US–ROK forces many a time during previous periods of hostility. Furthermore, the US has offered a number of written and spoken guarantees – long demanded by the North – as a part of its efforts in the Six Party Talks process, including seven by President Obama since 2009.
But are external factors the only reason for Northern insecurity? One could argue that all totalitarian states are inherently unstable and suffer from massive internal insecurity. After all, they require large amounts of capital for internal security forces, propaganda and ideological social training. Some argue that the percentage of secret police and their informers to population is larger than the Stasi to population in East Germany during the height of the Cold War. Totalitarian regimes are expensive to run, after all. In other words, North Korea’s insecurity is also self-created and stems from the regime type of the country as much as it does the regional geopolitical situation. The case of Vietnam shows that other choices are possible for the North: Hanoi has successfully managed to adopt economic reforms, while forging a new relationship with the United States, all while remaining a nominally communist-run state.
If Pyongyang’s insecurity is derived from the unaffordability of its system, why does it not enact economic reforms to ease the lives of its citizens and pay off the bureaucracy? While it has tried small incremental reforms over the years, and there are signs of a small middle class in Pyongyang, it has always rolled these back because of the fear that reforms would create a strong entrenched merchant class, which would call for political rights. Economic opening would lead to political opening, and the general population would become aware of the economic and political success of South Korea, surely a regime-killer in any scenario. Despite proclamations of systematic superiority, North Koreans would learn that their fellow Koreans in the South live a life which is nearly 18 times wealthier. This fear of the effects of economic reform, explain the 2009 currency reform, which destroyed the savings of the emerging merchant class in the country. Pyongyang is systematically unable to fully reform its economy in the way that Beijing and Hanoi have managed. Thus, North Korea is impelled to rely on external support to prop itself up.
While North Korea’s rulers realise that they cannot accept economic reform, they also know that the economy is in critical condition. Without a strong economy, internal security and the military become weaker and private markets sap the regime of its legitimacy as the sole provider of resources to the population. Despite the development of special economic zones with China, these have had limited success. Indeed, the relationship between the two is increasingly characterised by extractive policies by Beijing on the North’s resource base. Naturally, Pyongyang also realises this, and knows that without nuclear weapons it has a strong chance of simply becoming a Chinese resource–client state.
It must be clear to the ‘Dear Successor’: Nuclear weapons are more than just providing security from ‘foreign forces’ for the North. They also provide the only way for the North to squeeze aid from China, the United States and its allies while avoiding economic reform. The most recent nuclear test and bellicose rhetoric show that Pyongyang is becoming increasingly desperate for that aid. The silence from Washington must be puzzling. But with its hand slapped away, the Obama administration has played it cool, deciding it would ‘not buy the same horse twice’. Chinese patience with Pyongyang now also appears to be slipping. On a visit to the North to mark the 60th anniversary of the Armistice, Chinese Vice-President Li stressed regional stability in his remarks to Kim Jong-un. Financial figures published before his visit underscored China’s testiness: PRC–DPRK trade has plummeted 13.6 per cent between June and January.
A Peace Treaty sounds like the right thing to do. It sounds like the sane and humane thing to do. However, unless a peace treaty were explicitly tied to denuclearisation, it would only act as a means of legitimising the regime’s nuclear status. It would also enable the North to continue pressuring the region to bankroll what is the world’s least efficient form of government. And it would continue the suffering of a great many North Koreans.
Surely, that’s a price too high to pay?