TROY expert: Korean peace talks may be premature

Daniel Pinkston, an international relations expert who lectures at a TROY site in South Korea, isn't sold on North Korea's desire for peace.

Daniel Pinkston, an international relations expert who lectures at a TROY site in South Korea, isn't sold on North Korea's desire for peace.

Recent news out of the Korean peninsula has given many hope that peace between North and South Korea is closer than ever, but Troy University professor Dr. Daniel A. Pinkston remains skeptical.

Daniel Pinkston
Daniel Pinkston

Pinkston, a Lecturer at a Troy University teaching site in South Korea, previously served as Northeast Asia Deputy Project Director for the International Crisis Group in Seoul.

Pinkston recently discussed the summit and North Korea’s recent public claims regarding denuclearization and peace talks with South Korea.

Question: What actually took place between North Korean and South Korean leaders at their summit in April?

Dr. Daniel Pinkston: Kim Jong-un led a delegation of senior North Korean officials to the southern side of the Joint Security Area (JSA) at Panmunjom, where the Korean War Armistice was signed in July 1953. This marked the first time a North Korean leader ever stepped foot into the territory south of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). The two leaders held talks and President Moon hosted a dinner that was attended by their wives and other senior officials. Following their talks, the two sides issued the “Panmunjom Declaration.”

Question: Historically, how significant are the events that took place?

Pinkston: It was the third inter-Korean summit following the first in June 2000 with Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il. The second summit was in October 2007 with Roh Mu-hyon and Kim Jong-il. Both of those summits were held in Pyongyang. The third summit is noteworthy because it was held on the southern side of the MDL, and it was held early in President Moon Jae-in’s term. He was elected one year ago, so he will have four more years to work on the implementation of the summit declaration. The first two summits were later in the terms of President Kim and President Roh, so some people feel they ran out of time to keep the momentum for inter-Korean reconciliation.

Question: What are the next steps that may be taken toward completing the promise of today’s meeting?

Pinkston: Both sides stopped broadcasting propaganda on May 1, and they have agreed to hold more high-level talks including general-level military talks later this month, working up to defense ministers talks soon. President Moon agreed to visit Pyongyang in the fall. The military talks might focus on the re-connection of transportation corridors and confidence-building measures.

Question:  Do you sense that North Korea is serious about its pursuit of denuclearizaton?

Pinkston: I don’t see any signs of that. I have expressed my views on this. If North Korea is serious, it can sign and ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Question: What is North Korea’s current nuclear capability, and does South Korea also possess nuclear capability?

Pinkston: North Korea has conducted six underground nuclear explosive tests. They probably have enough fissile material for about 15-30 bombs. They continue to produce plutonium and enriched uranium that can be used for bombs.

South Korea has 23 nuclear power reactors, and the country had a nuclear weapons program in the 1970s. However, Seoul abandon that program under extreme pressure from the United States. South Korea is a NPT member in good standing with the International Atomic Energy Agency and is in compliance with its safeguards agreements. South Korea also has signed the Additional Protocol to allow more intrusive IAEA monitoring and inspections to ensure that nuclear materials are not diverted for military purposes. However, South Korea has much greater human resources, more advanced technology, and more financial resources than North Korea if Seoul decided to acquire its own nuclear deterrent. That would come at great cost, so it is not feasible or likely under current conditions.

Question: What is the significance of the claim that both countries will seek a formal end to the Korean War?

Pinkston: There are a number of legal and political issues to be discussed, as well as the implications for the regional security architecture and the forward-deployment of U.S. military forces in the region. The U.S. has a mutual defense treaty with Seoul and a bilateral security treaty with Tokyo. It’s unclear what a “peace mechanism” or “peace regime” would look like, and who would be party to it. If it were a treaty, that would be an agreement between sovereign states, but North and South Korea don’t consider each other to be separate sovereign states even though both are UN member states. Also, treaties have to be ratified, and if the U.S. were a signatory, it’s difficult for me to imagine the Senate ratifying the treaty unless North Korea were to meet a number of conditions that Pyongyang would be very unlikely to accept.

If some kind of “peace regime” were to be established, it raises questions about the security architecture. There is no collective security regime in East Asia, and if the San Francisco Treaty system were to collapse and the U.S. were to withdraw from the regime, China almost certainly would emerge in the driver’s seat as a regional hegemon. I don’t think any of the other actors, including North Korea, would be happy with that, but not too many people are thinking that far ahead.

Pinkston is a lecturer in international relations at TROY’s teaching site at the Yongsan Garrison in Seoul. Previously he was the Northeast Asia Deputy Project Director for the International Crisis Group in Seoul, and the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Pinkston received his Ph.D. in international affairs from the University of California, San Diego, and he has a M.A. in Korean studies from Yonsei University. He is the author of “The North Korean Ballistic Missile Program” and has published several scholarly articles and book chapters on Korean security affairs. He also served as a Korean linguist in the U.S. Air Force.