North, South Korea may discuss peace deal at summit, but experts warn of challenges ahead

Pedestrians walk past a banner showing two hands shaking to form the shape of the Korean Peninsula, at Seoul City Hall on April 18, 2018.
Pedestrians walk past a banner showing two hands shaking to form the shape of the Korean Peninsula, at Seoul City Hall on April 18, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - The two Koreas may discuss a peace deal that will finally lead to the formal end of the state of war between them for the past 68 years.

The issue apparently is on the agenda at what would be the third inter-Korean leaders' summit next Friday (April 27).

A senior official of South Korea's Presidential Blue House told reporters on Wednesday (April 18): "We're looking at the possibility of replacing the armistice regime on the Korean Peninsula with a 'peace regime'. But this is not something we can do by ourselves. It requires close discussions with relevant parties including North Korea."

The Korean War broke out in 1950, and a ceasefire was struck three years later. The United States, China and North Korea are parties to this armistice - but not South Korea - making it technically impossible for the two Koreas to formally sign a peace treaty next week.

Yet the move marks a big step towards denuclearisation, leaders said.

"People don't realise the Korean War has not ended," US President Donald Trump said on Tuesday. "Subject to a deal, they have my blessing and they do have my blessing to discuss that."

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said on Wednesday: "The problem on the Korean Peninsula has a long history, and any peace process must move in the direction of denuclearisation. This ensures the peace process will continue and that dialogue will not be broken. As a close neighbour, China is willing to play a constructive role."

Tensions spiked last year after the nuclear-armed North conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test, and fired a volley of missiles that culminated with an intercontinental ballistic one on Nov 29 that leader Kim Jong Un said "realised the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force".

But that has been followed by a flurry of diplomatic activity. Mr Kim, in his first overseas trip since taking power in 2011, met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing last month. Mr Xi is considering a visit to Pyongyang in return in June, Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun, citing sources, reported.

Next Friday, Mr Kim will meet South Korean President Moon Jae In at the Panmunjom truce village. It was agreed on Wednesday (April 18) that parts of the summit - including the handshake - would be broadcast live. By early June, Mr Kim may meet Mr Trump in what will be the first summit between serving leaders of both countries.

The Kyodo News Agency, citing government sources, reported on Tuesday that the US and its allies, Japan and South Korea, are discussing a road map towards achieving the complete denuclearisation of North Korea by mid-2020. The report suggests it is a rebuff of Pyongyang's proposed "phased, synchronised" approach in exchange for benefits.

In Beijing, Professor Su Hao of the China Foreign Affairs University told The Straits Times an eventual peace treaty "would give North Korea the security guarantee it needs for giving up its nuclear weapons".

However, some like North Korean expert Hideshi Takesada of Japan's Takushoku University urged caution. Pyongyang, he said, is entering dialogue in a "position of strength" given that its nuclear weapons - held for years as sacrosanct - will be the major bargaining chip.

Singapore's Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh hailed the talks as a "huge breakthrough".

But he told CNBC in an interview: "The question is not whether Kim will keep the promise - but whether the US is prepared to pay the price for his agreement to denuclearise North Korea."

The details of what a "security guarantee" would involve still remains very unclear at this point, Dr Ken Jimbo of Keio University said. He noted: "The US has offered security guarantees to the North in past decades of negotiations but Pyongyang could not trust them."

One risk, suggested Dr Go Myong Hyun of the Asan Institute of Policy Studies in Seoul, was that Pyongyang might demand the withdrawal of US troops from the Korean Peninsula in exchange for a peace treaty - which the US may not commit to. As such, he said, both US and South Korea will have to "see eye-to-eye on the perception of the North Korean threat".

Japan plays the role of the "voice of extreme wariness", said Kobe University political scientist Tosh Minohara. Japan, which is facing exclusion anxiety amid the flurry of diplomatic actitvity, also has much to lose, he noted.

This could be the reason why Mr Trump on Tuesday pledged, together with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, that their nations will not ease up on the "maximum pressure" campaign on North Korea.

Dr Minohara cited the possibility of the US striking a middle ground with Pyongyang such that it would give up its ICBMs but keep its short- and intermediate-range missiles, putting Tokyo in its crosshairs. Japan has also lobbied other nations to bring up the longstanding abduction issue in talks with the North, though this is seen to be low on the priority lists.

The Japanese, having previously given monetary aid to the North, "are suspicious about the latest diplomatic game by the North and are mindful not to be fooled once again", Sasakawa Peace Foundation research fellow Ippeita Nishida told The Straits Times.

Dr Masashi Nishihara of the Research Institute for Peace and Security in Tokyo warned that the peace treaty might be a "trap" - and that things may go downhill very rapidly if talks were to fall through.

Dr Victor Cha, who was once tipped as Mr Trump's ambassador to South Korea, told MSNBC: "You want a united strategy. Our policy towards North Korea should start with our allies, not at the expense of our allies. North Korea's strategy is to divide all of us and break our alliance system. You have to avoid that decoupling, delinking."

Additional reporting by Goh Sui Noi in Beijing and Chang May Choon in Seoul