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(News Focus) Calls for peace treaty talks pose dilemma to S. Korea

All Headlines 14:04 March 09, 2016

By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, March 9 (Yonhap) -- Growing calls for a peace treaty with North Korea are posing a tricky policy dilemma for South Korea as it moves to put more pressure on Pyongyang to give up its nukes amid calls by Beijing for talks, experts here said Wednesday.

The decades-old issue of forging a peace treaty to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War resurfaced last month as China proposed a "dual-track" approach whereby peace treaty talks with the North would proceed simultaneously with denuclearization negotiations.

The proposal was seen as a move to defuse tensions on the Korean Peninsula that rose after the North's recent nuclear test and rocket launch. But Beijing's repeated overtures that seemingly side with North Korea's position may pose complications for Seoul's denuclearization-first policy, analysts noted.

Pyongyang's longstanding demand for a peace treaty got an unexpected boost after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said during his visit to the U.S. last month that without a peace treaty, the goal of denuclearization would not be achieved.

Wang also called for Russia's cooperation in pursuing the dual-track approach during his phone talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov last week.

Seoul has dismissed this approach, stressing its "unwavering" position that Pyongyang's denuclearization should remain a top priority. It also warned that peace treaty talks would deflect attention away from the efforts to hold Pyongyang responsible for its latest provocations.

In a rare sign of cacophony with its ally, Washington said it would not rule out the possibility of the talks, although it still prioritizes the denuclearization issue. In the past, it spurned any North Korean offer of peace treaty talks.

The subtle difference in the allies' positions spawned speculation that the U.S. might be leaning toward China's position. Some observers even warned of the possibility that the U.S. and China would dominate the issue of a peace treaty while sidelining the South.

Mindful of the growing speculation, the U.S. renewed its emphasis on denuclearization this week.

In an interview with Yonap News Agency on Tuesday, Amb. Sung Kim, U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, said that Washington remains "completely focused" on denuclearization.

"Our policy toward North Korea remains the same. We are completely focused on denuclearization. That is our number one priority goal when it comes to our policy toward North Korea. That has not changed at all," Kim said during the interview at his State Department office.

The U.S. Embassy in Seoul also issued a statement, carrying the same message.

Seoul and Washington have long been suspicious of Pyongyang's calls for peace treaty talks.

The allies have thought that through the treaty, Pyongyang would seek to drive U.S. forces out of the peninsula, remove the U.S. provision of the nuclear umbrella for the South, dismantle the U.N. Command -- tasked with observing the armistice -- and ultimately erode the South Korea-U.S. alliance, observers said.

Some pundits also said that Pyongyang might hope to replicate the 1973 Paris Peace Accords that ended the Vietnam War. After signing the treaty, U.S. troops withdrew from the Southeast Asian state and then the entire country became communized.

"The peace treaty with the North is linked to the status of the U.S. forces in Korea and the character of the South Korea-U.S. alliance," Nam Chang-hee, international politics professor at Inha University, said. "The North would, after all, seek the dismantlement of the alliance."

In the face of repeated calls from Beijing to pursue the dual-track scheme, Seoul may need to exert "some flexibility" over the issue of a peace treaty, some observers said, noting that talks for the treaty would help facilitate the now-dormant dialogue on denuclearization.

"The basic rationale for the North's nuclear development is the hostile relationship between Washington and Pyongyang that has fomented fears about any challenge to its regime," said Koh Yoo-hwan, North Korea expert at Dongguk University.

He said to find an exit out of the current confrontational situation and restart dialogue to at least halt the growth of the North's nuclear program, the concerned countries may utilize the peace treaty talks.

But a peace treaty may not be a guarantee for enduring peace on the Korean Peninsula, others pointed out, emphasizing Pyongyang has utilized the "peace offensive" to ease its international isolation and dilute the criticism about its relentless provocations.

"A peace treaty is only a piece of paper. It may not bring about an enduring peace here," said Kim Yeol-su, international politics professor at Sungshin Women's University. "What is crucial is trust among nations that guarantees peace."

sshluck@yna.co.kr
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