Thursday, December 6, 2007

The impact of the Inter-Korea Summit on the Korean Peninsula Security Environment

Right after the conclusion of the new round of the six parties talk that claimed to start the second phase of “disabling and dismantling” the North Korea nuclear weapon program, the Inter-Korea Summit began at early October in Pyongyang. Though this is the first summit seven years after the previous one, the observers in and out of the South Korea all seem to believe it will not achieve much.

Some observers believed that the reason for the out going President Roh to pushed for this summit is due to the need to improve the election momentum for his party’s presidential candidate, and to secure Roh’s own personal legacy. This is nothing more than Roh’s personal political show, as the argument goes. Some people also believe that the reason for Kim Jong-Il to agree on holding this summit is also to influence the upcoming South Korean presidential election on December 19th this year. Knowing that the opposition party (Grand National Party, GNP) candidate, the former city Mayor of Seoul, is having a big lead and that he might not be as accommodating as the North Korea wished to be, a summit whether that might set the tone for the next South Korean new president’s North Korean policy or that might bring down the momentum of GNP’s presidential candidate, is a task might be worth trying.
In a word, this Roh-Kim summit lacks the historical significance as the previous summit in year 2000, and people also question the adequacy of the timing. It was viewed from the outside as part of the Roh’s election agenda aiming to influence the South Korean domestic audience, not much strategic significance has been attached to it.

As the Inter-Korean Summit went on, it received criticism that the gesture was wrong (Why not wait for Kim Jong-Il to fulfill his promise to reciprocate a visit to Seoul seven years ago but going to Pyongyang instead?) and that it has been silent on the denuclearization of the North Korea. They also criticized the one-sidedness of the summit declaration: no qualification required on the North Korea part in order to obtain the South Korea assistance.

This leads to the outside suspicion that the South Korea has unilaterally decided to provide assistance regardless of the North Korea’s behavior in the denuclearization process defined in the six parties talk. This could give the decisive blow to the denuclearization effort. Thus, the Inter-Korean Summit has been regarded to pose negative impact upon the North Korea nuclear issue.

Despite the lack of direct mention of denuclearization of the North Korea, the most direct security impact of the summit declaration is the stated goal to transform the status quo of the Korean Peninsula from current armistice to a permanent peace regime. This effort corresponds to the fact that no peace treaty was signed after the 1950-1953 Korean war, only the temporary armistice reached between China, the North Korea and the United States.

Obviously, the task of transforming the temporary armistice into a permanent peace regime is a huge and complicated one. There are several issues to be sorted out. First, the North Korea has not accepted the legitimacy of the South Korea till today. How can a peace treaty be signed (with the South Korea in it) to replace the armistice in which the South Korea was not a signatory back in 1953 presents some interesting political and legal complexity.

Second, the roles of the United States and China cannot be ignored. Not only both of them are the signatories of the 1953 armistice, but the two major defense treaties of the Korean Peninsula also involve both parties: the Sino-North Korea defense treaty and the US-ROK alliance. The consequence of the permanent peace regime is the question whether the Sino-North Korea defense treaty and the US-ROK alliance can continue as such. Especially the defense of ROK from the North Korea attack is the reason for establishing the US-ROK alliance and justification for the presence of the US forces (as part of the overall United Nations peacekeeping force) in South Korea, the establishment of the peace regime will throw the legitimacy of the PRC-DPRK alliance and the US-ROK alliance into question.

Third, the whole bilateral hub-n-spoke security architecture the United States constructed in Asia could be put into question as well after a Korean Peninsula permanent peace regime being established. The US-ROK alliance is one critical leg of the US East Asian security architecture, besides the US-Japan alliance and the ANZUS treaty. The existence of the US-ROK alliance will automatically trigger the review of the whole security strategy the U.S. constructed along the bilateral defense treaty during the Cold War era.

Fourth, for the peace regime to gain any credibility, the denuclearization of the North Korea needs to be accomplished first. When the inter-Korea summit avoids touching upon the denuclearization issue and jumps to the task of establishing a permanent peace regime, it still needs to answer the question of how to settle the denuclearization problem. It is inconceivable that the countries like Japan, the United States (and China to a lesser extent) can be content with a peace deal in which the North Korea is allowed to retain its nuclear arsenal or even remain nuclear weaponry capable. No peace regime in the Korean Peninsula can be constructed without a satisfactory solution of the North Korea nuclear weapon problem.

This is not to say that a peace regime in the Korean Peninsula is not worth trying. It just highlighted how complex and difficult this issue is. All those factors mentioned above complicated a great deal of the peace regime proposal. With the seemingly lack of political support from major regional players, the inter-Korea summit does not seem to exercise much security impact in the foreseeable future. However, it did highlight one serious strategic loophole in the security consultation mechanism within the six parties talk framework: the inter-Korea relationship.

In the last 2-3 years, the U.S. policy circle tended to place the blame on Taiwan, South Korea and Japan for the worsening its bilateral relationship with the United States. The U.S. policy circle tended to accuse those three countries for prioritizing domestic needs than the geo-strategic consideration in which the U.S. national interest has a stake. However, it seems that the current state of the U.S. Asian policy decision and implementation provides no assurance either. The Northeast Asia diplomatic scene now presents a very interesting picture: the United States is quarrelling with Taiwan and the South Korea; the Japan is complaining about being ignored (some even charged betrayed) by the United States; China has been praising how well the coordination it has with the U.S. right now. The ironic picture that the U.S. found its best friend in Asia not in its treaty democratic ally, but in the most populous dictatorship is not very reassuring to many people in this region. Thus, how can the four major Asia-Pacific democracies: Taiwan, U.S., Japan and ROK, find a way to address this issue in the face of a rising China and a seemingly assertive North Korea, is a question pressing for immediate answer.


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