August 14, 2018 | Policy Brief

North Korea Seeks Formal Peace Treaty to Push Out U.S. Forces

August 14, 2018 | Policy Brief

North Korea Seeks Formal Peace Treaty to Push Out U.S. Forces

The governments of North and South Korea announced on Monday that their leaders will meet again in September, this time in Pyongyang. In the days leading up to the announcement, Pyongyang began to insist more forcefully that it would not denuclearize until the U.S. agrees to declare the Korean War formally over. The purpose of this demand is to force the dissolution of the United Nations Command in South Korea and pressure U.S. forces to depart.

The most senior living defector from North Korea, Thae Yong Ho, warned earlier this month that Pyongyang is pressing hard for an end to the Korean War as a means to protect the nuclear weapons it still considers essential to the regime’s survival. Kim Jong Un and some American pundits believe a formal end to the war would remove the justification for the UN Command’s existence and, more importantly, the U.S. force presence. However, this is incorrect.

The 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) provides the legal basis for U.S. forces in Korea. The MDT does not address North Korea but specifies the purpose of the U.S. presence is for the defense of both nations from threats in the Pacific region. The decision to continue the U.S. presence will be made by the South Korean and U.S. governments and must not become a negotiating point in discussions regarding the end of the war.

Demands for a peace treaty have been an essential element of North Korea’s strategy for 65 years, because Pyongyang believes the departure of U.S. forces from South Korea would allow him to coerce the South and, if necessary, apply force to achieve his objectives without U.S. interference. For this reason, the North ensured both the Panmunjom Declaration and the Trump-Kim statement at the Singapore Summit endorsed a “stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula” before any reference to denuclearization.

While the North wants to sign a peace treaty with the U.S., the two legal belligerents remain North and South Korea. UN Security Council Resolutions 82 and 83 (which remain in force) clearly identified the North as the aggressor and called on member nations to come to the defense of the South. Thus, the U.S. did not declare war on North Korea but fought under UN authorization.

Another obstacle to a North-South peace regime is that both must change their constitutions, since each claims sovereignty over the entire peninsula and the Korean people. Therefore, they need to formally recognize the existence of the other and give up claims to the other’s territory.

The Panmunjom Declaration condemns “the current unnatural state of armistice,” yet the 1953 Armistice Agreement has held for 65 years despite at least two instances in which the North abrogated the agreement. Even with constant animosity, the processes established by the armistice have continued to prevent misunderstanding and hostilities, which is critically important to the South as the North’s 1.2-million-man army is postured for offensive operations.

Thus, Washington should stand firm in its insistence that Pyongyang dismantle its nuclear weapons program before seeking a treaty. Likewise, Washington and Seoul should make clear that they will oppose any agreement that weakens the South Korean-U.S. alliance or leads to the removal of U.S. troops. Kim Jong Un’s demand for a treaty is not a genuine call for peace, but rather an effort to erode the strong South Korean-U.S. position that has prevented war for 65 years.

David Maxwell, a 30-year veteran of the United States Army and former Special Forces colonel, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him @davidmaxwell161.

Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


North Korea