After the historic Singapore Summit on June 12, North Korea’s lack of progress on denuclearization prompted U.S. President Donald J. Trump to pause the diplomatic process by cancelling Secretary Pompeo’s upcoming visit to Pyongyang. In order to overcome this stalemate, Seoul recently decided to send a second envoy to Pyongyang and prepare a third South Korea-North Korea Summit in September. It has become increasingly important for Seoul to mediate between Washington and Pyongyang to narrow the gap in their current stances and propose a palatable plan to sequence concessions. However, Seoul and Washington must first resolve growing discrepancies in their approaches to negotiations with North Korea. At the current juncture, an end-of-war declaration with Pyongyang has become a hot issue that requires greater attention.
The Moon administration wants to declare an end to the Korean War as a stepping stone to North Korea’s complete denuclearization. While Seoul believes ending the longstanding hostile relationship between Washington and Pyongyang to be a key prerequisite for North Korea’s denuclearization, Washington views an end-of-war declaration as premature considering insufficient progress on the denuclearization front. Pundits in Washington and conservatives in Seoul doubt that Kim Jong Un has made a strategic decision to relinquish his nuclear weapons and therefore an end-of-war declaration may play into Kim’s strategy of achieving de facto recognition as a nuclear state.
From Washington’s perspective, it is unknown whether material progress on denuclearization will flow from the political gesture of an end-of-war declaration, but it will assuredly weaken sanctions implementation and the credibility of military options. It represents a significant risk because it reduces leverage required to compel Pyongyang further down the road of denuclearization.
In the event of an end-of-war declaration, what if Pyongyang refuses to proceed on denuclearization without more concessions? If Seoul moves forward and inter-Korean cooperation outpaces denuclearization, an end-of-war declaration may set the stage for an unprecedented strategic break within the alliance.
Another underlying fear in the minds of U.S. policymakers is that an end-of-war declaration could trigger unforeseen consequences to the U.S. force posture on the peninsula and transform the geopolitical landscape in Northeast Asia. Over the past decade, the United States has sought to strengthen and integrate the pieces of its hub-and-spokes alliance system in response to Chinese challenges to the regional order. The disparity in Seoul and Washington’s long-term strategic visions for Northeast Asia raises questions of whether such a political declaration could accelerate pressure — from China, North Korea, and possibly even the South Korean public — for material downgrades to the alliance.
In Seoul, discourse on a multilateral security system in Northeast Asia has taken center stage again. It is notable that Moon Chung-in, a special adviser to Moon Jae-in for foreign affairs and national security, mentioned that in the long-term transforming the conventional South Korea-U.S. alliance system into a multilateral security cooperation regime would be helpful to maintain peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia. His remarks implied a connection between the security architecture in Northeast Asia and resolution of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Moon Chung-in’s remark represents a deep legacy of Jaju Gukbang — or self-reliant national defense — stretching back to the days of the Roh Moo-hyun administration and evident in the incumbent Moon administration. Liberals in South Korea would like to improve inter-Korean relations to then forge a new multilateral security system in Northeast Asia in lieu of bandwagoning with either the U.S. or China.
In light of the grand strategic thought emanating from the South Korean left, the Moon administration regards an end-of-war declaration with North Korea as a starting point to terminate the Cold War-inherited security structure in Northeast Asia. In this sense, an end-of-war declaration is not only an important driving force to sustain diplomatic momentum for denuclearization, but also critical to laying the foundation for a new security architecture in the region. In stark contrast, the U.S. seeks to maintain the hub-and-spokes system (though questionable under President Trump), and doubts an end-of-war declaration can provide the impetus for North Korea to disclose its nuclear assets and accept international inspections.
Despite this potential divergence of strategic interests in the long-term, at the current juncture Seoul and Washington can coordinate next steps on the common goal of North Korean denuclearization. Here are three policy suggestions to accomplish this.
First and foremost, Seoul and Washington should ensure that both are key players to resolving the North Korea’s nuclear problem. Public signals of discord have shaken the bedrock of longstanding trust between the two. For a constructive policy coordination process, all options must be on the table and vehemently discussed from both perspectives. It must be remembered that public demonstrations of disunity only make it easier for third parties to widen tactical rifts between Seoul and Washington.
Second, despite Washington’s growing skepticism of the diplomatic process, it must patiently avoid risks of upending diplomacy and remain aware that Kim’s economic clock is also ticking. While Pyongyang has thus far failed to take actions that demonstrate intent to denuclearize, the weight of sanctions continues to mount. Therefore, Seoul and Washington should be cautious of resuming joint military exercises that could erode support from the North Korean military to take further steps towards verification and dismantlement. A resumption of joint military exercises is viewed as a means of increasing diplomatic leverage over Pyongyang, but historical patterns suggest it bears the great risk of Pyongyang cutting off diplomatic channels and returning to its brinkmanship policy.
Third, South Korea and the U.S. should consider holding a trilateral foreign ministers’ meeting with North Korea. Seoul pushed for a trilateral summit in Singapore right after the Trump-Kim Summit, but it ultimately failed to materialize. The core discrepancy between Seoul and Washington is whether an end-of-war declaration can thrust North Korea towards denuclearization. Solely bilateral coordination between Seoul and Washington can never lead to a complete consensus, but a trilateral foreign ministers’ meeting could provide a breakthrough opportunity for Seoul and Washington to present a united front but also to reassure Pyongyang of a commitment to end the hostile relations of the past.
Seoul and Washington should explore the possibility of an end-of-war declaration as a stepping stone towards a formal peace treaty. A declaration is an effective way to get around the sequencing problem by creating a low-cost “third option” with effective political symbolism but few legal implications. Ultimately, an end-of-war declaration is not a peace treaty, and its significance is not preordained. Such a declaration could have unintended consequences, but if both Seoul and Washington jointly and clearly communicate its limited legal significance and its role in a process of further denuclearization, they can better utilize the benefits touted by Seoul and reduce the risks stressed by Washington.
Kyung Suk Lee ([email protected]) is a PhD student at the political science department of Texas A&M University. He is a former research associate at the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) and a former non-resident Korea Foundation fellow at Pacific Forum. Joshua Nezam ([email protected]) completed a David L. Boren National Security Fellowship in Seoul and a dual-MA International Affairs at Korea University and American University.