SEOUL — The North-South Korean summit has opened a new phase in the great debate over the future of the Korean peninsula by calling for a "peace agreement," that is, really, a peace treaty, to replace the armistice that ended the Korean War. Although no one in the South Korean president's entourage dares say so, talk of a Korean War peace treaty, more than 54 years after the guns fell silent on either side of the line that runs through the middle of what was declared the demilitarized zone, presents complications and pitfalls that are sure to become clear all too soon.
Most importantly, North Korea is not interested in a peace treaty with South Korea. The whole point is to strengthen the North's hand by drawing America and China into the process of establishing a "peace regime" under which North Korea stands to receive enormous quantities of aid while giving very little in return.
Furthermore, Mr. Roh and North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-Il, evidently could not agree on how many sides should sit at the table for the talks. Would three countries participate, or would it be four? Their final joint statement said the talks would be "three-sided or "four-sided," a compromise that means that one of the four major participants in the war will not be there.
Might it be China, whose troops were "volunteers" who were theoretically not under the command of the Communist rulers who had completed their takeover of the mainland on October 1, 1949, less than nine months before North Korean dictator Kim Il-Sung ordered the invasion of South Korea?
Or how about excluding America, which waged what it called a "police action" under the cover of the United Nations Command, the umbrella set up after the Soviet Union boycotted the U.N. Security Council vote that got the U.N. into the war?
Incredibly, another candidate for exclusion may be South Korea. That's because South Korea's president at the time, Rhee Syng-man, who called himself Syngman Rhee during his long years as a student in the U.S., refused to authorize a truce that would legitimize the more or less permanent division of the Korean peninsula.
Rhee was a difficult leader. He maintained power by snuffing out his adversaries, relying on American troops to rescue his regime after North Korean troops poured across the border at Kaesong, then part of South Korea, in June 1950. He often refused to heed the wishes of the Americans on waging the war. Finally, seven years after the truce was signed, he was deposed, not by the Americans but by thousands of demonstrators protesting his corrupt, dictatorial rule, and rushed onto a U.S. plane to exile in Hawaii.
Whatever one thinks of Rhee and his legacy, no one can deny he was a gutsy old patriot whose refusal to sign a tainted truce may be remembered as an act of courage. One result, more than half a century later, is that North Korea has an excuse to refuse to countenance the South Korean side as an equal participant in peace talks since South Korea was not a signatory to the armistice.
North Korea has often given the impression that South Korea hardly counts when it comes to negotiating topics like the North's nuclear weapons program. North Korean negotiators would rather talk to the Americans, who have insisted on South Korean participation in six-party talks.
The North would like nothing better than to sign a peace treaty with the U.S. and China, relegating the South to subsidiary status befitting North Korea's view that only one government should rule all Korea, that is, a government led by Mr. Kim and his inner circle.
The North Korean concept of a peace treaty, moreover, is not just a document stating the war is long over, so let's declare permanent peace.
No, the reason North Korea wants this treaty is to dismantle the entire structure behind which South Korea has risen as a great economic power from the ashes of a war that left the South among the world's poorest countries, poorer even than the North.
With the treaty would come provisions disbanding the U.N. Command while reducing U.S. military strength to a marginal advisory role at best. We may assume the treaty would not include provisions for a vast reduction in North Korea's 1.1 million-man military establishment, much less pull most of them away from positions close to the demilitarized zone.
America may be falling for North Korea's stratagem. President Bush has held out the possibility of a treaty after the North "verifies" dismantlement of its nuclear program.
Those interested in a peace treaty, though, should see it as a gimmick that runs the risk of undoing the prolonged peace under which South Korea thrives while North Korea, for all its weapons of mass destruction, remains mired by its own policies of massive self-destruction.
Mr. Kirk is a freelance correspondent based in Seoul.