South Korea may have been an innocent bystander hit by a stray bullet fired from Uncle Sam's gun that was aimed at China. This is a plausible decoding of the confusing "peace treaty" drama enacted by Washington and China right before our eyes. It reveals poor strategic communication between Seoul and Washington.
Do China and the U.S. have a behind-the-scenes deal on North Korea? Is the U.S. becoming less aligned with the interest of its ally, South Korea, while pursuing its own interests? Why is China "suddenly" proposing a peace treaty? And why did the U.S. display a willingness to accommodate the Chinese proposal, but backpedal belatedly after it created uproar in South Korea? Further, what about the Wall Street Journal leak of a "secret meeting" between North Koreans and Americans in New York discussing a peace treaty in the days leading up to Pyongyang's latest nuclear test? Is something really transpiring without Seoul's knowledge?
Speculation has been rampant in South Korea that Washington is stepping back from its denuclearization precondition for peace treaty talks with the North. It happened after State Department spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. did not rule out the possibility of a "parallel process" by which it would hold peace treaty talks with the North in tandem with denuclearization negotiations. The remark, coupled with the vigorous Chinese sales pitch for a peace treaty, has created an appearance that Washington and Beijing might have struck a secret deal _ without Seoul's knowledge.
Koreans react with sensitivity when its powerful neighbors make moves, especially without telling them. It is understandable because history shows that such moves could change their destiny in a dramatic way. Koreans still vividly remember the Taft-Katsura Agreement in 1905, a collusion between the U.S. and Japan. The two former imperial powers acquiesced each other's occupations of Korea and the Philippines. That trauma left a scar in Koreans' awareness of superpower politics.
So this warrants a deeper look into the recent peace treaty episode that has produced so many commentaries in South Korea's public sphere. First, is there indeed collusion between the U.S. and China on peace treaty negotiations? Apparently not. We know there is a channel for such talks in New York between North Koreans and Americans. For years, North Koreans used the channel to demand a peace treaty from the U.S. So the peace treaty itself is a non-event and we should not be surprised the meeting took place.
The interesting part, however, is timing. The contact happened sometime in late 2015. But somehow the information was leaked to the Wall Street Journal, timed with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's visit to the U.S.
"The news freaked the Chinese out," said a well-placed source. "China became suspicious that something was going on behind the scenes. They became worried that the North Koreans and Americans were planning something, while completely casting aside China's interests."
This well-placed insight reveals that, contrary to wide speculation, Washington and Beijing were not "coordinating" the peace treaty narrative together. The U.S. knew well that Wang Yi was coming to Washington to sell the idea. Washington preempted it, putting China "off balance," to take the upper hand in their negotiations. Later, Washington massaged the Chinese apprehension a bit with a goodwill diplomatic gesture for the Chinese proposal so that it could draw Beijing's cooperation on the U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang.
Second, why did China abruptly propose a peace treaty? It may have sounded "out of the blue," but it has in fact been a consistent Chinese position.
"China has always argued that ‘peace' is important," Yun Sun, a senior associate with the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C., told The Korea Times. "By that, they mean a peace treaty between the U.S. and North Korea. They identify that the lack of a peace treaty is the fundamental reason North Korea wants to develop nuclear weapons.
"So, the timing of China's proposal for a peace treaty may sound abrupt, but the Chinese position itself is not. Running back to the peace treaty is China's pattern in handling the Korean nuclear crisis."
The Chinese proposal echoed a longstanding demand by North Korea. Minister Wang characterized it as a "reasonable concern of North Korea." Lu Chao, an expert on North Korea at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences in northeast China, echoed the view. "The North Korean demand is reasonable, because after the armistice, there has not been a peace treaty. The armistice is only temporary. If we want North Korea's denuclearization, we should also factor their concerns into consideration."
Jingdong Yuan, an associate professor at the University of Sydney, thinks China is turning the tables with the proposal.
"China has long been criticized for not doing enough on North Korea or scolded to apply more pressure, or cut off oil and stop providing economic aid to North Korea," he said. "China now thinks that if the U.S. folds its arms and sticks to the usual ‘strategic-patience' approach, nothing will really move forward. So, China is saying to the U.S., ‘why don't you also consider this proposal?'"
China's foreign diplomacy on North Korea has been characterized as passive and reactive. China also wants to correct it, by grabbing the initiative for the North Korean nuclear crisis and thus leading the international public diplomacy narrative that has been under Washington's purview. China is also partly motivated by the ongoing discussions on the possible deployment of THAAD and the joint military drills between the U.S. and South Korea that fuel Chinese fears of regional instability.
"China has felt that it has been a bit pushed into the corner," said Yun.
So, do not be fooled. The U.S. and China are playing the usual game: cooperation on the surface, competition inside. This time, China's goal is to combine its salvaged "peace treaty" rhetoric with the resumption of the six-party talks, and take over the initiative of the North Korean nuclear crisis that has been led by the U.S. and its narrative shaped by U.S. media outlets laying all the blame on China for a lack of progress in resolving the North Korean crisis.
An interesting question is whether the U.S. is seriously interested in signing a peace treaty with North Korea.
"Certainly no at the moment," said Lu. "This is something everyone knows."
Yuan underscores the need for the U.S. to invest more political resources in tackling the North Korean issue.
"The U.S. position of not negotiating with North Korea is not a policy that could reverse North Korea's actions," he said. "Diplomacy is the art of getting things done. From China's perspective, the U.S. policy [of strategic patience] is just not going to work."
Lee Seong-hyon, Ph.D. is a research fellow at the Sejong Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.