South Korea’s president thinks a proclamation declaring formal end to the Korean war will help restart peace negotiations, but others fear it risks weakening the country’s relationship with the United States.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in was in the border town of Goseong on the day that North Korea tested its first missile of the year, to attend a groundbreaking ceremony for a rail line that is hoped to link the divided Korean peninsula one day.
Concerned that the January 5 test may further destabilize inter-Korean relations, Moon said his administration will not give up hope of resuming peace negotiations with their North Korean counterpart.
The South Korean president said that dialogue is the only way to “fundamentally overcome this situation.” “If both Koreas work together and build trust, peace would be achieved one day,” he added.
Moon has made extraordinary attempts to contact North Korean leader Kim Jong Un since assuming office five years ago. The two met three times in 2018, promising to conclude the Korean War — which ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty in 1953 – by the end of the year.
But that effort, along with talks to dismantle Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and relieve Pyongyang of harsh international sanctions, came to a halt the following year when a meeting between Kim and former US President Donald Trump in Hanoi fell through.
Since then, Kim has turned down offers from Trump’s successor to begin talks with no strings attached.
Moon, who is set to leave office in May, has ramped up efforts in recent months to revive the peace process, urging the US and China — both parties to the Korean War – for support in formally declaring the conflict ended
In his most recent address to the United Nations General Assembly, President Moon said that should all the major parties involved in the war “proclaim an end to the War, I believe we can make irreversible progress in denuclearisation and usher in an era of complete peace”.
The plan has the backing of the majority of South Koreans, although experts are divided on it. Some believe it would assist in breaking the diplomatic deadlock on the Korean Peninsula, while others believe it will jeopardize South Korea’s security, notably by jeopardizing the country’s defence alliance with the US.
Formal end to the Korean war is a “political, symbolic measure”
Supporters of an end-of-war proclamation argue that the only thing that has worked to alleviate tensions on the Korean peninsula so far has been dialogue.
The summits between the leaders of the US, South Korea, and North Korea in 2018 and 2019 resulted in Kim imposing a temporary ban on nuclear and long-range missile testings, the release of three Americans held in North Korean detention facility, the demining of portions of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the two Korean nations, and the reunion of separated families, according to Christine Ahn, executive director of the advocacy group Women Cross DMZ.
“It’s time to take the use of force off the table,” said Ahn who described the proposed declaration of formal end to the Korean war as a “political, symbolic measure” that can build confidence and create the momentum for a return to talks.
However, she believes the declaration would be more successful if it is supported by “fundamental shifts in US policy as well as commitments by all sides to reduce hostilities.” This might include measures such as sanctions relief, a reduction in military drills between the US and South Korea, and the relaxation of the US’s travel ban on North Korea to allow for family reunions.
The signing of an end-of-war declaration, according to Ahn, will allow diplomats to “get to work, pick up where negotiations left off since Hanoi, and begin the process of setting timetables for disarmament”.
Those who advocate against such a proclamation, she argues, have provided no acceptable alternatives.
“Simply insisting that North Korea give in to US demands to denuclearise, and believing that more pressure-based tactics will achieve these goals when there is no evidence to the contrary, is not a viable solution,” she said.
Last October, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said that Seoul and Washington “have somewhat different perspectives on the precise sequence or timing or conditions” of the proposed treaty, but the US has yet to affirm its level of support for Moon’s peace effort.
Although South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong declared on December 29 that Seoul and Washington “have effectively reached an agreement on its draft text,” Washington has spoken nothing about the plan since then.
China, too, has backed South Korea’s idea, according to the South Korean foreign ministry, which quoted a top Chinese official as stating that such a step “will contribute to promoting peace and stability on the Korean peninsula”.
Formal end to the Korean war is “baby step”
North Korea’s response, on the other hand, has been lukewarm thus far.
Last year, Kim Yo Jong, Kim’s influential sister, called the plan “interesting and admirable,” but she said the conditions were not perfect because of “hostile” policies, referring to economic sanctions and yearly US-South Korean military drills, which Pyongyang views as invasion rehearsals.
And Kim made no mention about anything related to the South Korean proposal in his New Year’s address this year.
North Korea expert Lee Sung-yoon of Tufts University’s Fletcher School says North Korea is just “feigning disinterest” since it has been pressing for a peace treaty since the 1970s, when the US signed a peace agreement to end the Vietnam War.
“North Korea has in mind the complete downgrading and withdrawal of US military support for South Korea in the long term. And the end of war declaration is a baby step, but a significant step headed in that direction,” he said.
The United States now has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea, and Moon’s government has stated that the end-of-war declaration will have no impact on the two countries’ relationship. It further states that the plan would not result in “a legal, structural change in the current armistice regime”, including in the status of the US-led UN Command (UNC), the multi-national military force entrusted with enforcing the agreement on armistice, and that helped repel the North Korean invasion in 1953.
However, Lee claims that a declaration of a formal end to the Korean war “would arguably render the UNC illegitimate and it would have to be dismantled,” while also raising concerns on the Korean Peninsula and in the United States about the necessity for American forces to be stationed in South Korea.
“The most attractive model for North Korea is the Paris Peace Accord of January 1973 that ended the Vietnam War and led to the US withdrawal from South Vietnam,” said Lee. “It was called a peace treaty, a peace accord, but there was war days later, and the North unified Vietnam, under a communist government in 1975.”
He added: “So all these pleasant-sounding, peaceful sounding agreements are only good if there is the will, on both sides or among all signatories to keep the peace. Sometimes it is a diplomatic canard, it is a ruse to achieve the exact opposite, gain control, and acquire territory by non-peaceful means.”
“A very long shot from the beginning”
Despite the merits and risks of the South Korean plan, its destiny remains unknown.
Moon’s single five-year term will end in less than five months, and the presidential election is shaping up to be a close battle.
The idea is supported by Moon’s party’s candidate, Lee Jae-myung, but his primary opponent, Yoon Seok-yul, has come out against it, claiming that a declaration of the formal end to the Korean war will weaken the UNC and undercut public support for US military presence in South Korea.
Moreover, despite Seoul’s assertions of US and Chinese backing for the proposed declaration, analysts believe there is little certainty on the international front.
According to Bong Young-shik, a research scholar at Seoul’s Yonsei University Institute for North Korean Studies, the US and North Korea expect distinct results from an end-of-war declaration.
“For the US, a joint declaration is acceptable if it is going to lead to meaningful and substantial progress with regards to North Korea’s denuclearisation. But this declaration is not really closely connected with making progress on that front,” he said.
“And for North Korea, agreeing upon a joint declaration must lead to some substantial benefits. What North Korea wants the most is sanctions relief. But that is not something that the South Korean government can decide. So, unless there are guaranteed benefits, the North Korean government will not find that proposal attractive.
“This has been a long shot, a very long shot from the beginning.”