As Washington wages a new battle over how to end the Iraq war, it's eyeing the Korean War as a model. Officially, that war never ended, even 57 years after hostilities. US troops remain there. What kind of model is that?
Oddly enough, that "model" appears to be moving quickly away from the status of no-war-but-no-peace on the Korean Peninsula. The idea of maintaining a permanent American force in South Korea doesn't seem as permanent as it once did. Korea may have another type of lesson for the Iraq war.
Recent events have given hope to some US diplomats that ending North Korea's nuclear program might lead to an end of the 1953 armistice along the 38th Parallel and a signing of a permanent peace treaty.
That sort of wishful thinking first cropped up in 1991, soon after the end of the cold war, which left North Korea without Soviet aid. But those hopes were dashed after North Korea was caught hiding its nuclear program. Last October, it finally exploded a crude nuclear device, which embarrassed its only ally, China. Diplomacy then quickened, with Chinese officials directly pushing North Korea to change its ways soon in order to keep stability in Northeast Asia.
In February, the regime of Kim Jong Il agreed to dismantle its nuclear reactor and reveal information of its nuclear capability in return for economic aid, such as oil and rice. On June 22, a high-level US official visited the capital, Pyongyang. And this Saturday, a delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency will arrive to oversee the shutdown of the five-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon. These rapid developments may indicate a fundamental shift by Mr. Kim, who was quoted as seeing "signs of easing on the Korean Peninsula."
South Korean leaders even talk of a new "peace regime" in which the two economies are more and more integrated, leading possibly to an eventual political reunification.
But that hope is a great way off. North Korea must still take the next steps of revealing information about its nuclear program and destroying whatever exists of its nuclear arsenal. (Dispute remains over whether the October test actually showed weapons capability.)
Without those steps, the North has no hope of a US troop withdrawal. And it must also make amends with Japan for kidnapping a few of its citizens in decades past.
Verifying the location of the North's nuclear hardware will not be easy. But China is hoping that Kim has finally made the great leap toward opening his country to the world, and will adopt a market economy and end its impoverished status – much like Libya has done by ending its nuclear program.
If so, the world can expect a process of tit-for-tat diplomacy in coming months to establish trust between the US and North Korea, as well as between the two Koreas. On June 30, for instance, South Korea shipped the first part of a promised 400,000 tons of rice to its northern neighbor.
A critical step will be removal of the UN sanctions on North Korea, imposed last fall after the nuclear test. China now favors that, but the US must hold out until it sees real progress on nuclear disarmament.
Is there a model here for Iraq? Yes, in that Iran, as China did with Pyongyang, can push a reluctant Baghdad regime to reform. But that assumes China really can ensure North Korea disarms.