Seoul

July 27 marks the 65th anniversary of the 1953 armistice agreement that ended the ferocious fighting that marked the Korean War. Signed by generals from the United States—representing the UN Command—as well as North Korea and China, it ushered in an uncertain peace that millions of people on both sides of the conflict now hope to extend with a formal treaty ending the war once and for all.
“Nearly 70 years ago…an extremely bloody conflict ravaged the Korean Peninsula,” President Trump declared after his unprecedented summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore on June 12. “Countless people died in the conflict, including tens of thousands of brave Americans. Yet, while the armistice was agreed to, the war never ended.… But now we can all have hope that it will soon end. And it will.”

Over a month later, as Trump continues his quest to persuade Kim to give up his nuclear weapons with promises of a peace process, a lifting of sanctions, and economic assistance, five prominent analysts with extensive experience dealing with Pyongyang are looking to that armistice as a vehicle to provide the North with the security guarantees it needs to eliminate its only deterrent against the US military forces arrayed against it in the Asia-Pacific region.

In an article published by the Berkeley-based Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability earlier this month, the analysts—four Americans and one Australian—make an audacious proposal for the United States and North Korea to shift from their present status as enemies to virtual allies.

Under their proposal, the two warring countries would become “security partners” in which the North “would be neither an enemy nor an ally, but somewhere in-between, albeit on the cooperative end of the spectrum.” The situation, they say, could be analogous to the US relationship with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Washington and Pyongyang could accomplish this, the analysts argue, by transforming the current armistice agreement into a partnership involving the US and South Korean militaries with Kim Jong-un’s Korean People’s Army.

Such an arrangement would “amend” the mission of the present UN Command—which has been led by the United States since its formation in 1950—changing it into a “post-Armistice role” that would “change how extended deterrence is maintained on the Korean Peninsula, such as where US troops are positioned or how and where [military] exercises are conducted.”

The five analysts also outline ways the “amended” UN Command could engage with the militaries of South and North Korea on joint operations, such as search-and-rescue operations in Korean waters, military training and counterterrorism, management of mine clearance in the demilitarized zone known as the DMZ, and even “participation by a joint South-North force in UN peacekeeping.”

“In short, treating the DPRK as a ‘security partner’ may serve American, allied, and regional security interests better than either ally or enemy,” the paper, published on July 6, concludes (the DPRK, or the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea, is North Korea’s formal name).

The paper was written by Morton Halperin, a former Pentagon official in the Clinton, Nixon, and Johnson administrations and a senior adviser to the Open Society Foundations; Peter Hayes, the Australian co-founder and executive director of Nautilus; Thomas Pickering, a former ambassador and US under secretary of state for political affairs; Leon Sigal, a former State Department official who wrote a book about North Korean diplomacy; and Philip Yun, executive director of the Ploughshares Fund, who was a senior adviser on North Korea to former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman.

Hayes, whom (in the interest of full disclosure) I have worked with in the past on investigative projects involving nuclear power and weapons, explained the gist of the Nautilus proposals when we met in late June during a conference on peace and security on Jeju Island in South Korea. He said the idea of using the armistice as a vehicle for a new US–North Korean relationship had been around for a long time, and that he had once discussed a similar proposal in a meeting in Pyongyang with Kim Yong-chol, Kim Jong-un’s top negotiator and the former director of North Korea’s powerful intelligence service.

The opening for Nautilus’s joint proposal may have been the comments made by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a week after his meetings in Singapore. Speaking to the Detroit Economic Club in Michigan on June 18, Pompeo offered the intriguing observation that President Trump is “committed to making sure that we alter the armistice agreement [to] provide the security assurances that Chairman Kim needs.”

I asked the State Department to clarify Pompeo’s comments, but only received a statement of principles that clearly reserved any substantial change to the armistice until Kim fulfills his pledge in Singapore to dismantle his nuclear weapons. “The U.S. and its allies are committed to the same goal—the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea, as agreed to by Chairman Kim Jong-un,” the statement for The Nation read. “We committed to the building of a peace mechanism with the goal of replacing the Armistice agreement when North Korea has denuclearized.”

North Korea, too, is anxious to replace the armistice and has been stepping up pressure on Washington to do so. “Ending the current abnormal situation of an armistice and establishing a solid system of peace is a historical task we cannot put off,” Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of Kim’s Workers’ Party, stated Wednesday. The party added that “the adoption of a declaration ending the war will be the first step toward easing tension and establishing a solid system of peace on the Korean Peninsula and is an essential requirement to establish trust between North Korea and the U.S.”

In Seoul, officials with US Forces Korea and the UN Command would not comment. Instead, they referred me to an expert on the armistice, a retired US military officer with more than 30 years of experience in South Korea. He agreed to meet but would only speak on background. Over coffee and tea at a Starbucks in the Korea Press Center downtown, he explained that the armistice was not a complicated document. “It was a cease-fire agreement between warring commanders, and could be abrogated,” he said. “If they sign a peace treaty, then the armistice is off.”

The primary use of the armistice today, he told me, is to recognize the Military Demarcation Line, which marks the boundaries between North and South Korea over land and sea. “You can’t really alter it because there’s nothing to alter,” said the former officer. He wouldn’t comment on the Nautilus proposal. But he said that the DPRK’s current intentions are hard to assess because “they bring something to the table we haven’t seen before.” As for the peace process, he said “it’s a thousand-step process, and we’re at step five.”

Still, the proposal made by the five analysts reflects the views of many diplomats and analysts who believe that North Korea is seeking a completely new relationship with the United States that would end their mutual status as enemy combatants and allow both countries to fully normalize their political and economic relationships. These analysts claim that this has long been the DPRK’s goal in its dealings with past US administrations, going back to the 1994 Agreed Framework with the Clinton administration.

“We have to shift out of our intellectual ruts—the North Koreans are thinking very big steps,” Robert Carlin, a former North Korea analyst for the CIA and the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, told the conference in Jeju where I met Hayes. Carlin, who was part of the US team that negotiated the 1994 agreement during the Clinton administration, argued for a US strategy that aims at creating a long-term relationship of trust (he also said the Clinton agreement was later “murdered” by the Bush administration).

“From the American side, we have to stop focusing like a laser on the concept of denuclearization,” said Carlin. “If we continue to do that, we will trip ourselves up. I get the feeling that this administration realizes that. This is a much broader process; it has a lot more depth and a lot more promise. Denuclearization is not the only thing that needs to move.”

Speaking on the same panel, Glyn Ford, a member of Britain’s Labour Party who has been to the DPRK more than 50 times, said Kim is “looking for a deal that buys him out and keeps him safe. There’s a lot of talk about CVID [complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization], but he’s looking for complete, verifiable, irreversible security guarantees. Not ones that are temporary.”

But the Nautilus proposal goes completely against the grain of most thinking in Washington. Over the past few weeks, North Korea watchers in media and the think-tank world have decided that Trump’s peace initiative with Kim is withering on the vine and ready to be replaced with tougher policies, including military force.

A common theme is that denuclearization must occur before a peace agreement is signed. “Peace and denuclearization can overlap, but shouldn’t until enough [denuclearization] happens first,” Duyeon Kim, a Seoul-based fellow with the Center for a New American Security, told me in a Twitter exchange after making those arguments on CNN this week.

The criticism of the Singapore process intensified after Pompeo’s third visit to Pyongyang on July 6-7, when he met again with Kim Yong-chol. The meeting was largely seen as a failure because the North Koreans rejected US demands that it move rapidly to dismantle its nuclear arsenal before receiving any benefits, such as the lifting of sanctions or the security guarantees promised by Pompeo in Singapore.

Although Pompeo declared afterward that he had “made progress on almost all central matters” during his talks, North Korea’s foreign ministry issued a sharp attack on his negotiating position. The US side, Pyongyang said (according to a translation from journalist KJ Noh), had failed to discuss the “wide-ranging, simultaneous, mutual, proactive steps” proposed by Kim during the Singapore summit, including a “public declaration” of the end of the Korean War that would “build a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.”

The sharp differences convinced many US analysts that the process is dead. “The United States needs to start working on a Plan B now, or be left with a binary choice between accepting a nuclear North Korea or going to war,” Josh Rogin, an influential Washington Post analyst who is often a conduit for North Korea hard-liners, wrote on July 19.

Rogin’s opinion piece was followed in the Post a few days later with a triple-bylined story arguing that Trump himself “has fumed” over the lack of progress with Kim. “U.S. negotiators have faced stiff resistance from a North Korean team practiced in the art of delay and obfuscation,” the Post team reported. Although the claim of apparent failure was immediately challenged by Trump on Twitter and in interviews, it became the instant meme for experts who have been skeptical about Trump’s outreach from the start.

In particular, the critics cited the DPRK’s alleged failure to follow through on commitments made in Singapore to destroy a missile-engine facility and return the remains of US soldiers killed in northern Korea during the war. Kim “will just give enough to keep this [process] going,” predicted Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, at a Washington forum on July 23. “[Kim will] make these more cosmetic concessions that the Trump administration can take and call a success.”

That same day, the independent research group 38 North released commercial imagery showing that Kim’s government has, in fact, started dismantling the missile-engine test site.

“Since these facilities are believed to have played an important role in the development of technologies for the North’s intercontinental ballistic missile program, these efforts represent a significant confidence-building measure on the part of North Korea,” the analyst, Joseph Bermudez Jr., concluded. Pompeo agreed with that assessment at a Senate hearing on Wednesday. The administration, he said, is “tracking Kim’s commitments on the missile-engine site. They’re beginning to dismantle that. It’s a step forward.”

The day before, on July 24, CNN reported that Defense Department officials would soon fly to the North to retrieve US remains and take them to a US military base in South Korea for examination and identification. That, too, was verified by Pompeo. “They reaffirmed their commitment to return remains they have in their possession,” he said (sure enough, on Friday a US military plane transported the remains of 55 American soldiers from the North Korean port city of Wonsan to Osan Air Base in South Korea). “It’s not fair to characterize [the North Koreans] as walking back commitments,” Pompeo said in the hearing. But “there’s an awful long way to go and a great deal of work to that will be highly contested,” he admitted.

In response to the pessimism expressed in the Post stories, Leon Sigal, one of the authors of the Nautilus report, pointed to recent comments by the US Commander in Korea, Gen. Vincent Brooks, challenging critics who say no progress has been made with North Korea. Brooks “noted that the peninsula had ‘gone now 235 days without a provocation,’ and that he had seen a slowdown in the operating tempo of North Korean armed forces,” Sigal reported in a commentary for 38 North. Brooks, he added, “emphasized that building trust was not a job for the North Koreans alone.”

“That’s called diplomatic give-and-take,” Sigal concluded, “and whatever the impatience in some parts of Washington, it will take time.”