US President Donald Trump says he’s given his “blessing” to talks between Seoul and Pyongyang aimed at formally ending the Korean war.
The Koreas have never signed a peace treaty to replace the 1953 armistice that ended combat operations in the conflict. The US and North Korea remain at daggers drawn and without having ever signed a peace treaty the peninsula is still technically at war, with a heavily fortified border dividing the two countries.
Trump has billed his upcoming meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in late May or early June as “a great chance to solve a world problem” and restore peace to the Korean peninsula.
The warring neighbors could take a step towards that when Kim meets South Korean leader Moon Jae-in at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) next Friday. South Korean government minister Do Jong-whan has said the goal of that summit should be to sign a peace treaty.
Many experts think the chances of an actual treaty signing at the April 27 summit are low. Some argue that any treaty would need to be approved by China and the US-led UN Command and involve negotiations beyond North and South Korea.
“If you think through how to get to a proper peace deal and how it will be implemented and enforced and what its structure would look like, plus the levels of distrust and suspicion in the region, there’s a lot of stuff to address,” Daniel Pinkston, lecturer in international studies at Troy University, told CNN.
“We have to be realistic about the obstacles that need to be overcome,” he added.
However, expectations for a historic treaty deal are mounting. “Theoretically, the two Koreas could sign a deal,” John Delury, assistant professor at Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies said. “But they would be moving very quickly.”
Here are the potential obstructions to any treaty deal:
In the past the US has said that denuclearization must come ahead of any peace deal. Trump has previously said he wanted to see “credible moves” towards denuclearization by Pyongyang before talks could even begin.
The North Korean regime may have to offer more than freezing its nuclear program and commit to a staggered rollback of its nuclear capability over a number of years, said Delury.
“Kim has spoken of ‘progressive and synchronic steps’ and that could lead to some sort of nuclear dismantling process,” he added.
But some fear any deal could break down when it comes down to detail.
“It’s all OK making broad statements and giving blessings, but at some point negotiators would have to agree on details like how to complete an inventory of North Korea’s nuclear program and then how to secure and dismantle it,” said Pinkston.
“If you fail to do that you risk repeating the mistakes of the past.”
Lack of trust
Moon is under pressure from South Korea conservatives suspicious of Kim’s diplomatic offensive not to make concessions to Pyongyang.
Analysts point to a long history of broken agreements as a source of distrust.
“Trust is an issue, starting from zero,” said Delury. “The two Koreas have a tangled history and have repeatedly accused each other of breaking agreements. You can’t just say there is now trust and deliver trust. It has to be developed.”
Andrew O’Neill, Dean of the Griffith Business School at Griffith University in Australia said there are powerful forces in both countries with an interest in blocking progress.
“In North Korea, the military – on which Kim Jong remains acutely dependent – will be very resistant to reductions in the nuclear and missile program, let along any move towards denuclearization.”
“Equally, the South Korean military, which continues to exert real influence, remains highly dubious about bargaining with the North on sovereignty and territorial issues,” O’Neill said.
Another bone of contention that may be one of the terms of a peace treaty could be the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea, a move which could prove deeply divisive.
Some analysts suggest Kim may propose that US troops withdraw within an agreed timeframe. This would prompt fears in South Korea of exposing itself to invasion from the North.
“Washington and its allies such as Japan will not look kindly on any South Korean approach that places the ejection of American military forces from South Korea on the negotiating table in return for a North Korean commitment to give up nuclear weapons over time,” O’Neill said.
Standing down US troops in South Korea would also necessitate a total rewrite of the region’s status quo. “A withdrawal of US troops would require a mechanism to be in place to cope with a complete overhaul of eastern Asia’s security architecture,” said Pinkston.
“That would take a great deal of diplomacy and consensus, and there’s no evidence that moves are being made in that direction.”
An ideological problem facing any possible peace treaty would be North Korea’s doctrine which emphasizes “liberating” the South in a move towards “national reunification.”
“Fundamentally the North would have to change its principles and there is no evidence to suggest Pyongyang is ready do that,” said Pinkston.
However, Delury said that there were precedents for deftly altering ideological course.
“It’s been done before,” he said. “Look at China, which long cherished a hatred for American imperialism. Then Nixon made his famous visit.
“The North Koreans are sophisticated at ideology and they know how to tweak it.”
Despite potential hurdles to a bona fide peace treaty, analysts said the upcoming summits could produce results.
“If the two sides can agree to cooperate to denuclearize the Korean peninsula and establish permanent peace that may be seen as a success,” said Pinkston. “Then they can work out the detail later.”
“I want to be hopeful. A hundred years ago who would have believed that Germany and France would ever be allies?”