Rally outside the Yongsan military base in Seoul. Photograph by Gregory Elich
Sixty years have passed since the end of the Korean War, and in all that time a peace treaty has yet to be signed. The armistice agreement that brought an end to hostilities recommended that a political conference be held within three months “to settle through negotiation the question of the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Korea, the peaceful settlement of the Korean question, etc.” That conference never took place.
Decades later, the sides remain technically at war. Activists in South Korea have made the signing of a peace treaty one of their primary goals, seeing it as the surest means of reducing the risk of armed conflict. A peace treaty would also substantially reduce tensions in Northeast Asia and create an environment conducive to improving inter-Korean relations. By any human evaluation, the time for a peace treaty is long overdue.
The United States not only has the central role to play in the peace treaty process; it also presents the greatest challenge to its achievement. Although a peace treaty would serve the interests of the peoples of Northeast Asia, it has little or no intrinsic value for U.S. leaders. From their standpoint, a peace treaty has value only as a carrot to be dangled before North Korea in order to encourage denuclearization. Indeed, from the perspective of U.S. geopolitical interests, there are certain advantages in maintaining a state of tension on the Korean Peninsula, as long as events can be controlled.
No progress can be made toward a peace treaty unless negotiations take place, and U.S. and South Korean leaders present a consistent message, saying that talks cannot take place unless North Korea first begins to denuclearize. In essence, this is a way of ruling out dialogue altogether. It is difficult to see what North Korea would have to gain from talks in which it must first meet American end objectives before the discussion could proceed on what, if anything, the United States might be willing to offer in return.
The United States and South Korea demand the unilateral implementation by North Korea of its obligations under the Joint Agreement of September 19, 2005 as the precondition for talks. Meanwhile, the U.S. has not executed its duties under the agreement, the most important of which is the promise to take steps to normalize relations.
Indeed, the United States undermined the agreement within days of its signing. The U.S. Treasury Department instructed American banks to sever relations with Banco Delta Asia, an institution in which North Korea held accounts that it used in foreign commerce. The Treasury Department sent letters to banks across the world, warning them not to conduct business with the bank, an action that resulted in a run on reserves and a freeze on North Korean accounts.
Those accounts were eventually unfrozen as North Korea’s condition for joining the next stage of Six-Party talks. Since that time, however, relations have only gotten worse. No meaningful dialogue has taken place since Obama took office, and the U.S. continues to pile more sanctions upon North Korea. The U.S. has directly sanctioned, and pressured other nations to sanction, North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank, that nation’s primary conduit for financing foreign trade. In discussions with Chinese officials, U.S. diplomats threatened to boost the American military presence in Asia if China did not sanction the Foreign Trade Bank.
The United States has also slapped sanctions on the Daedong Credit Bank, and American officials have promised to squeeze North Korea through additional sanctions in the months ahead.
We are at an impasse. The Obama Administration will not talk with North Korea until it starts to denuclearize without getting anything in return. From the North Korean perspective, it cannot dismantle its nuclear program as long as the U.S. maintains a hostile policy. Clearly, a step-by-step approach is called for, but as far as the Obama Administration is concerned, that option is off the table.
With talks on denuclearization seemingly blocked, the prospect of a peace treaty is even less encouraging at this time.
In the present circumstances, it appears that there are only two possible paths to the United States signing a peace treaty or agreeing to the establishment of a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. A peace treaty could be included as one of the steps in a negotiated denuclearization process arrived at in Six-Party talks, assuming that a way can be found to end the Obama Administration’s refusal to negotiate.
The other path is if sanctions succeed in bringing about the collapse of North Korea, and peace is established on U.S. terms.
It is important to note that the inclusion of the promise of a peace treaty in a denuclearization agreement is no guarantee of its actual implementation.
One of the motifs in the Six-Party talks was that the U.S. front-loaded obligations on North Korea while committing only to discuss issues after those steps had been implemented. When the United States agreed to later discussion of matters of concern to North Korea, this did not necessarily mean that it would ultimately agree to their implementation.
One former South Korean negotiator recalled how his American counterparts asked his delegation to present a tough front, in order to make American offers to North Korea appear more attractive in contrast. In subsequent discussions with American officials, the South Korean negotiator discovered that the commitment to carry out those offers was lacking. “How could I guarantee that my side would be a bad and tough cop, when the other side cannot be counted on to be a reliably good cop?” he wondered. 
Similarly, just two weeks after the United States signed the September 2005 Joint Agreement, which obligated it to take steps to normalize relations with North Korea, U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill spoke before Congress. Normalization of relations, he explained, would be “subject to resolution of our longstanding concerns. By this I meant that as a necessary part of the process leading to normalization, we must discuss important issues, including human rights, biological and chemical weapons, ballistic missile programs, proliferation of conventional weapons, terrorism and other illicit activities.” North Korea “would have to commit to international standards across the board, and then prove its intentions.”  In other words, even if North Korea were to fully denuclearize, relations would still not move toward normalization. North Korea would only be faced with a host of additional demands.
It can be expected that a peace treaty would face the same barriers. The United States could promise to discuss the subject after denuclearization, and then when the time comes, use other issues to justify the refusal to sign a treaty. Even if a treaty is implemented one day, a peace treaty is not the same thing as normalization of relations. Aside from regime change, there is no conceivable scenario in which the United States would agree to normalization of relations. If the North Korean economy does not offer a welcoming environment for U.S. investors, then U.S. policy will not change. Cuba is a relevant example of a nation at peace with the U.S., yet subject to unrelenting U.S. hostility.
If despite all obstacles, a peace treaty is signed one day, it is unlikely to alter the U.S.-South Korean military alliance. American policymakers are already implementing plans to change the alliance in ways that are unrelated to the situation on the Korean Peninsula. That process will continue regardless of any agreement that may be reached with North Korea.
There is something of a precedent. More than two decades after German reunification and the end of the Cold War, U.S. military forces remain stationed in Germany, and NATO has transformed itself from an ostensibly defensive organization into one that conducts offensive out-of-area operations.
American officials have made it plain that the U.S.-South Korean military alliance should serve a broader purpose beyond the Korean Peninsula. They point to South Korea’s supporting role in Iraq and Afghanistan as models for the future of the alliance and suggest that deeper involvement in U.S. operations is expected in the future. According to the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy, “The crafters of the alliance must constantly push themselves to forge areas of common cooperation that increasingly define the alliance outside of a peninsular context.” 
If South Korea is going to participate more fully in U.S. interventions, then an essential component of the expanded alliance is to ensure the interoperability of weaponry, and along these lines, South Korea is in the process of modernizing its arsenal. As the Kevin Shepard, Deputy Director for US-ROK Combined Forces Command Strategy, put it in a presentation at the Brookings Institution, an upgrade in military technology “will facilitate future cooperation” and the “lack of these capabilities” results in “the inability for South Korea to fully participate as an equal partner on U.S.-led international efforts.” 
South Korea will have to work with NATO if it is going to increase its participation in U.S. interventions. It has joined NATO’s Individual Partnership Cooperation Program, which promotes “practical cooperation in a number of joint priority areas,” including what is euphemistically called “multinational peace support operations.” 
The agreement that South Korea signed with NATO has not been made public, but it is reasonable to suppose that its contents are similar to the Australia-NATO agreement. That agreement specifies that the partnership “aims to support NATO’s strategic objectives…by enhancing support for NATO’s operations and missions.” Listed among the agreement’s objectives is support for the Australian military’s “interoperability, deployability, and mobility to facilitate future participation in NATO exercises and operations.”  Australia (and presumably South Korea as well) is to upgrade its arsenal so that it can fully participate in NATO military operations.
Various policy institutes in Washington are working together with U.S. officials to outline the future of the alliance. A survey of government officials and policy analysts ranked the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) as the most important American think tank in the area of security and international affairs.  Like most such institutes, its board is comprised primarily of former government officials who have considerable influence on the formation of policy. The CSIS not only influences and guides U.S. government policy. On occasion, its members take an active part in its execution. For example, CSIS senior advisor Bonnie Glaser was a member of the U.S. delegation that met with North Korean officials in a bilateral meeting in China in September 2012. 
“The time is ripe to establish a considerably more comprehensive alliance,” the CSIS asserts, and “an exclusive focus on peninsular security is a luxury South Korea can no longer afford.” Among other things, it argues that a restructured alliance would “serve as a visible constraint” against the Chinese.
The U.S. military presence in Korea is crucial, the CSIS claims. “The U.S-ROK alliance, in combination with the U.S.-Japan alliance, allows the U.S. military to maintain a forward-deployed presence in Northeast Asia. The existence of parallel presence in both Japan and South Korea reduces political pressure on Japan that might develop if Japan were the only host of U.S. forces in Northeast Asia.” 
The U.S. Department of Defense commissioned the CSIS to produce a report offering recommendations regarding the U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific. The first finding listed in the report states, “Forward presence is critically important for protecting U.S. national security interests in the Asia Pacific region.” The United States “has an enduring interest in maintaining a favorable strategic equilibrium in the Asia Pacific region” that, among other things, “affords economic access.” To an increasing degree, “a robust forward U.S. military presence anchored in key alliances and partnerships is critical” to advancing U.S. interests. 
The key component in a restructured alliance is “strategic flexibility,” in which U.S. forces stationed in South Korea can freely intervene anywhere in Asia. Plans are in place for the U.S. 8th Army to be designated as a field army by 2017. That would allow it to command other U.S. and multinational forces, and its role would no longer be confined solely to the defense of South Korea. Its mission will become global. 
Whether or not a peace treaty is signed, the U.S. military has no intention of leaving the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. military presence in the region is a guarantee for American economic interests, helping to ensure the free flow of capital. A forward-based military presence combined with the soft power of free trade agreements ensures economic liberalization and, as the Foreign Policy Initiative explains, “increase[s] the access of American businesses and investors to foreign markets.” 
President Obama has vowed that the United States “will allocate the resources necessary to maintain our strong military presence” in Asia, and “we will preserve our ability to project power.” Because the Asia Pacific is “a top priority,” Obama continued, “reductions in U.S. defense spending will not – I repeat, will not – come at the expense of the Asia Pacific.” Instead, cutbacks are targeted at the federal workforce, with furloughs this year and the promise of layoffs next year.
In Obama’s view, it is not the peoples of Asia who will have the primary say over their affairs. “As a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future.”
The U.S. military presence is permanent, Obama emphasizes. “Our enduring interests in the region demand our enduring presence in the region. The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.” 
U.S. officials have no motivation to sign a peace treaty; it is not in their interests. A certain level of tension provides political cover for the broader purposes behind the U.S. military presence, and North Korea is the pretext for encircling China with an anti-ballistic missile system.
However, South Korea’s geostrategic importance to the U.S. means that if the expression of popular will is strong enough, it may be difficult to ignore. In the years ahead, if a more progressive government comes to power in South Korea, the United States may not be able to exclude a peace treaty from a denuclearization settlement, nor indeed to say no to engagement in the first place.
As the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) sees it, South Korea has an important subordinate role to play in the alliance: “America’s ability to maintain stability and project power in the Asian Pacific has long depended on its hub-and-spoke system of bilateral alliances. South Korea has been a valuable component of this system, serving as a regional hub of U.S. power, and projecting ‘spokes’ of U.S. influence across the region.”
Even so, South Korea is not subservient enough, the CNAS argues, as its efforts “have not reached those of a full partner like the United Kingdom.” Therefore, “South Korea needs to examine this issue more closely as it plans its role in the future of the alliance” and come to the desired conclusion that “the South Korean military will need to expand its participation in joint and multilateral operations.” Along those lines, the CNAS says that South Korea’s modernization of weaponry should be aimed at acquiring “capabilities that are useful both for peninsular operations and for out-of-area operations.”
South Korea has a vital role to play in furthering U.S. hegemony, as the CNAS makes clear. “Korea’s overseas engagements can promote U.S. geopolitical interests in key countries and regions of shared strategic interest.”
The interests of the South Korean people simply do not rate consideration for U.S. security analysts and policymakers, who are constitutionally incapable of regarding other nations as having any claim to sovereignty.
American policymakers are keenly aware of South Korea’s history of popular democracy. The CNAS complains that “one of the most significant hurdles” to reconfiguring the U.S.-South Korea relationship into a global interventionist alliance “is domestic political opposition to the ROK’s involvement in overseas operations.” The CNAS is disdainful of what it terms “populist fervor in Korea.” The threat of street demonstrations must be overcome, it argues, in order to push through plans for a more global role for the alliance. 
It is that Korean democratic spirit that has the potential of compelling the U.S. to pay heed, to put a peace treaty on the agenda, and to give that treaty substance so that it does not become an empty gesture.
It will prove a daunting task to dislodge the U.S. military from the Korean Peninsula. U.S. forces are not likely to go, even if the South Korean government demands it, given South Korea’s proximity to China. Popular resistance, however, could place constraints on the mission of the U.S. forces and block South Korea from joining U.S. military interventions.
It would be too much to expect a peace treaty to diminish U.S. hostility toward North Korea. A peace treaty, though, would almost certainly bring about a normalization of relations between the two Koreas and launch them on the path to eventual reunification. In the process, tensions would be reduced. Koreans on both sides of the border would determine their shared future, regardless of U.S. opposition. Progressives in South Korea are calling upon organizations throughout the world to join them in international solidarity and make the struggle for a peace treaty on the Korean Peninsula a global effort.
This article is based on a talk given by the author at the International Symposium on Concluding a Peace Treaty on the Korean Peninsula, in Seoul on July 26, 2013.
 James L. Schoff and Yaron Eisenberg, “Peace Regime Building on the Korean Peninsula: What Next?”, Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, May 2009.
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Originally published on Counterpunch