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Stories Stories Politics How 11 US presidents failed to make peace with North Korea

How 11 US presidents failed to make peace with North Korea

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Written by jonathan     June 10, 2018    
 
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Contrary to popular perception, the core issue to be resolved at the June 12 summit - and any subsequent meetings - between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is not North Korea's denuclearisation. Pyongyang's willingness to denuclearise is already clear.

What is not clear, however, is whether the US is prepared to give North Korea the guarantee of its security which is its main demand. There is no doubt that Pyongyang can disable and dismantle its nuclear arsenal. It is only a question of process.

But it will not do so if the US insists on unilateral denuclearisation without any reciprocal commitment. To paraphrase George Kennan, a renowned US diplomat: A concept of national security that fails to concede the same legitimacy to the security needs of others lays itself open to moral reproach.

In this sense, the historical record of US failures to deliver peace and security to the Korean Peninsula is discouraging. Successive US administrations have failed to offer and guarantee a security arrangement acceptable to Pyongyang and have repeatedly walked away from opportunities to strike a deal.

Temporary suspension

The recent remarks by National Security Adviser John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence - which quickly led to a flare-up in rhetoric and a temporary suspension of the planned summit - show that such attitudes persist in Washington. It was this type of thinking that made US negotiators choose the language of machismo, ideological posturing and confrontation over compromise 64 years ago.

At the Geneva conference in 1954, where the USSR, China, the US, the UK and France had gathered to decide the fate of the Korean Peninsula and what was then called Indochina, US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (serving under President Dwight Eisenhower) maintained an intractable position which in essence demanded something close to capitulation from his adversaries.

Although the 1953 temporary armistice signed by all sides in the Korean war was predicated on subsequent good faith negotiations to settle the political issue, he refused to negotiate directly with the Chinese. Dulles also made it a point to snub the Chinese envoy, Zhou Enlai, by refusing to shake his hand and left the conference early.

Then, in 1957, the US unilaterally abrogated clause 13(d) of the armistice when it announced that it proposed to introduce nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula. The next year it deployed nuclear-armed Honest John missiles to South Korea.

As a consequence the role of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, which was established pursuant to the armistice to prevent all parties bringing additional weapons or military personnel on to the peninsula, was undermined and the armistice - sabotaged.

Throughout the 1960s (under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations), relations between the US and North Korea were understandably hostile. In 1968, the North Koreans intercepted and captured the USS Pueblo, a US Navy intelligence vessel. And in 1969, a US spy plane was shot down by North Korean MIG-21 aircraft over the Sea of Japan, killing 31 American personnel. 

In the 1970s, North Korea adopted a different policy, one which it has continued ever since. It maintained, as it had in 1954, that a peace treaty was a necessary formality to the achievement of security on the peninsula. In its 1974 letter to the US Congress, Pyongyang publicly invited the US to join negotiations for a peace treaty to replace the armistice. Neither the Nixon nor the Ford administrations took any recorded action in response to this request. 

Subsequently, North Korea's then-leader Kim Il-sung raised the idea of a peace agreement with President Jimmy Carter but nothing came out of it. And although the Carter policy was to reduce US troop numbers in South Korea, the Pentagon successfully opposed it. 

When President Ronald Reagan assumed office in 1981, he increased US troop numbers. He was philosophically opposed to a peace treaty and embraced South Korea. His successor, George H W Bush, withdrew nuclear weapons deployed abroad, marginally reduced US troop numbers in South Korea, but did not seriously consider negotiating a peace treaty.

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Michael Pembroke
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