APLN and Korea Times Essay Contest Honorable Mention
Analysis of Current Stalemate in Negotiations and Prescriptions to Resolve It
by Ji-hun Park
Against backdrop of continued sanctions and international opprobrium, North Korea has cut all ties with Seoul, once again. After three decades of handshakes and grandiose rhetoric, not a single framework for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula has withstood the test of time. However, an old mechanism enshrined in the Korean Armistice Agreement, the only sustaining agreement between the two Koreas, may be able to break the deadlock in negotiations.
Over the years, scholars have identified a quandary of reasons, from Washington’s unwavering ‘all-or- nothing’ strategy on international sanctions to Pyongyang’s demands for closing of the regional nuclear umbrella, as key reasons behind the failure of denuclearization talks. Nevertheless, one problem has persisted—a lack of trust. Power relations make trust formation complex and fragile, and any negotiation requires parties to have confident expectations and “make oneself vulnerable”; somebody has to give in first. Years of broken promises by Pyongyang and the Trump administration’s unilateral renege on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (despite Iran honoring all of its treaty commitments) has made both side deeply suspicious to any proposal.
The increasingly temporary nature of denuclearization talks has added to this mistrust. While sustained face-to-face talks that can lead to compromises are more likely to succeed than one-time press statements and speeches, conferences seem to be becoming shorter and shorter. The Agreed Framework and the Six Party talks were annual events, but the Trump administration’s summit in Hanoi and Singapore lasted a few days and latest Stockholm working-level meetings lasted only 8 hours. This is not sufficient to build trust between two nuclear powers, especially between an extremely isolated country such as North Korea. Meetings have also been disposable with each new administration, introducing new framework for talks every time and lack any gravity and are easy to leave. What is needed are year-long discussions with the promise of the other side fully commit to talks, possibly with enforcement measures to keep all parties at the table.
To this end, Military Armistice Commission (MAC) is as a historically tested and stable option. Established as part of the Korean Armistice Agreement in 1953, the MAC is the sole supervisory body of Korean Armistice Agreement, vested with the powers to discuss ‘any hostile act’ on the Korean Peninsula. It consists of 10 members from the United Nations Command (UNC), Korea People’s Army
(KPA) and Chinese Peoples Volunteers (CPV), with additional Joint Observer Teams from 22 other nations. It has held over 450 weekly meetings over four decades at the Military Armistice Commission Headquarters Area (MACHA) during the most testing of times, including the Axe Murder Incident at Panmunjom and downing of a U.S Navy reconnaissance plane in 1969. Through a permanent representation by all parties to the MACHA area, key players had year-long, uninterrupted access to each other’s situations and could gauge expectations. However, the MAC was paralyzed in 1993 when a South Korean officer was appointed as the Senior Member (representative) of the UNC delegation and North Korea withdrew in protest.
The MAC has the best chance for a lasting, long-term discussion between actors. The Korean Armistice Agreement provides the basis for all weekly discussions at the MACHA and remains the only document that North Korea recognizes. Even after announcing to withdraw from the Korean Armistice Agreement six times, Pyongyang continues to follow the protocols of the agreement as there is no alternative to the only legally binding international law document governing inter-Korean relations. It also maintains a delegation to the MACHA as per the Korean Armistice Agreement, while not participating in the weekly discussions. The MAC is the only denuclearization negotiation to have legal basis and will provide the security and stability for long-term talks and trust-building.
Adding to the firmness will be China’s involvement in the MAC. Any future of denuclearization must involve Beijing, North Korea’s largest economic and political partner, and President Xi has voiced his intention to “play a bigger role” in the talks. However, the United States continues to push back Chinese involvement in fears it would use the leverage in trade negotiations. Chapter 2 of the Korean Armistice Commission allows CPV representation and will allow China to be involved in denuclearization talks for the first time in the 21st century. It’s involvement will not only increase the gravity of negotiations but will make Pyongyang think twice before leaving discussions tabled by it largest partner.
For talks to restart at the MAC, the South Korean government must step down and relegate the UNC senior member position back to the United States. While this may seem like a weakening of foreign policy, with OPCON transition planned for 2021, South Korea will benefit from having a secure place at the table in negotiations. North Korea continues to deal directly with the United States and urged last May to “stop mediating” and leave all talks. The MAC will allow Seoul a permanent representation to the talks and allow it to forge policy as a member. There are too many serious risks of being sidelined.
There is no single magic bullet for the “longest drama of the Cold War.” Even under the proposed MAC guidelines, all parties must be willing to rejoin an old agreement and large political will is necessary. However, there is no better path forward for a permanent and well-established discussion than the MAC. It is the most perfect form of dialogue.