There is a prevailing myth among some “experts” that the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or North Korea) wants a peace treaty with the U.S. in order to militarily invade ROK (Republic of Korea or South Korea) again.
Now there is nothing new about the occasional shows of threats and counter threats that characterize the ongoing Korean War. But this year, the risk of war and its tragic consequences may have seemed more imminent due to the reputation of the new U.S. President Donald Trump as untested, unpredictable and under threat politically at home. So after President Trump ordered two aircraft carriers to Korea, many people called for a peace treaty to avert a war which may end up killing thousands to millions of Koreans or worse, lead to WWIII.
But several familiar names among academics, journalists, authors, and think tanks (like B.R. Meyers, Donald Kirk, Bradley K. Martin, Michael Breen, and Rand Corp. Bruce Bennett) responded by arguing that a peace treaty is really a Trojan Horse. The basic argument goes: A peace treaty means the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Without the U.S., the ROK is helpless. Once the U.S. withdraws, it turns its back on the ROK forever. The DPRK then replays 1950 except it will be more like South Vietnam in 1973. They say now that the DPRK has nukes, the ROK or the U.S. won’t be able to resist.
Aside from the intriguing tautology of arguing that peace inevitably will lead to war and so we need to continue the war and forget peace, the argument does not stand the test of time, reality, or logic.
First, the myth demonizes the DPRK as some irrational warmonger hell bent on a forceful reunification at all costs. But since the Armistice, the DPRK has neither imploded nor restarted the war. Instead of a blind obsession for unification at all cost, it is more plausible that their priority is survival, especially that of the elite and the Kim family. Besides, they are in no position to force anything on anyone. They lack food, fuel, modern conventional weaponry, and likely also support from China and Russia for such an endeavor. Rather, any military engagement is suicide for the DPRK or at least the current regime. Instead, they may actually want peace and coexistence, which they have been asking for since 1972. Despite being a martial law state and having a personality cult, they may see a better chance for survival in a future of peace and coexistence. Nukes? You can’t invade and occupy a country with nukes but they are a great deterrence: Libya and Iraq lacked nukes.
Second, the contention that if the U.S. withdraws, the ROK will be so isolated and helpless is also problematic. The ROK is not a sitting duck. It is a thriving democracy and a major trading partner of the U.S., China, and the rest of the world. The international community would not sit by if the ROK was attacked by any foreign power let alone a “pariah” autocracy like the DPRK. Further, the ROK GDP is exponentially larger than the DPRK’s. The ROK’s military is not only better fed and better equipped, it is also more technologically advanced and likely far superior than the show piece DPRK military. Without restrictions imposed by the U.S. on ROK weapons development, it would not be too difficult to overwhelm North Korea using all of the ROK’s economic, technical, and human resources. The ROK is likely more than a match for the DPRK.
Thirdly, there is something strange about the myth. There is a kind of in-built blackmail in the story. It seems to say, “Peace Treaty? The U.S. will have to pull out and we may not be there to save you again. So don’t think about it.” It really sounds like propaganda designed to instill fear in order to preserve the status quo and the U.S.-ROK Alliance. While this may have been true into the 1970s, the ROK today is hardly so vulnerable.
Anyway, in the end, the myth that a peace treaty invites a replay of 1950 or South Vietnam 1973 quickly loses validity. Militarily and economically, it is impossible for the DPRK to attempt unification by force and survive.
So go ahead, give a peace treaty a try, but only a comprehensive and well thought out treaty will untie the Gordion Knot that is the ongoing Korean War.
This article was previously published on August 31, 2017 in the Korea Times as “Is peace treaty prelude to invasion?”
Photo credit: Screen shot from the Ultimatum video reportedly made by North Korea.