South Korean President Moon Jae-in urged four major countries – the United States, North Korea, and China alongside his own South Korea – to tackle Korean Peninsula issues by taking steps to declare to end the Korean War in his address at the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday.
Amid the stalled negotiations and dialogues between Washington and Pyongyang, Seoul’s top peace-maker, who was hailed as a mediator for his dedication to supporting and encouraging the summit between the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea in 2018, once again urged involved countries to make “real progress” in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
“Last year, I proposed a declaration to ending the War on the Korean Peninsula. More than anything, an end-of-war declaration will mark a pivotal point of departure in creating a new order of ‘reconciliation and cooperation’ on the Korean Peninsula,” Moon said in his address.
The outgoing president, whose term will end in May 2022, has been desperate to embed a permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula by enticing multilateral cooperation on his “peace first” initiatives. When Washington and Pyongyang failed to reach an agreement in 2019 at their summit meeting in Hanoi, Seoul also lost its momentum to engage in inter-Korean cooperation and dialogue with Pyongyang on topics like possible humanitarian aid or a reunion of separated family members. Pyongyang cut off the communication channels, even literally blowing up the joint liaison office in June 2020.
“Today, I once again urge the community of nations to mobilize its strengths for the end-of-war declaration on the Korean Peninsula and propose that three parties of the two Koreas and the U.S., or four parties of the two Koreas, the U.S. and China come together and declare that the War on the Korean Peninsula is over,” Moon said.
U.S. President Joe Biden also made a speech on Tuesday in his debut at the U.N. General Assembly as a leader of the strongest country in the world. However, Biden did not touch in detail on North Korea in his remarks, instead using theoretical rhetoric reflecting a principled and old-school style of diplomacy.
“We seek serious and sustained diplomacy to pursue the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Biden said in his address. “We seek concrete progress toward an available plan with tangible commitments that would increase stability on the Peninsula and in the region, as well as improve the lives of the people in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” the official name for North Korea.
South Korea did not get a specific mention, although Biden spoke of the United States’ alliances in general as “essential and central to America’s enduring security and prosperity.”
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said on Wednesday in a press briefing that Washington is “open to a discussion about an end of war declaration.” However, he also added that Washington is also committed to diplomacy and dialogue with North Korea to achieve denuclearization, hinting that progress on the nuclear issues will be a precondition for any end of war declaration.
Despite the arms race on the Korean Peninsula that has been kicked off by the two Koreas’ military activities – Seoul’s underwater submarine-launched missile test and the North’s cruise and ballistic missile launches – it is believed that the Biden’s attention has been focused on other issues. Between the stunning fall of Afghanistan back to the Taliban and the dramatic fall-out from the submarine deal with Australia, North Korea seems to have taken a backseat in U.S. foreign policy.
Moon renewed his call for “the declaration to end the Korean War” in hopes of finding a silver bullet to renew the stalled negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea, and for encouraging related parties to be more active on the issue. However, seeking an end of war declaration is not a new initiative, as the leaders of the two Koreas already agreed to cooperate to that end in 2018.
Moon highly values the agreements reached between the two Koreas, but his efforts toward the declaration to end the Korean War have not been highly supported by the two superpowers of China and the United States – or even by the North.
“It is wishful thinking to say that an end-of-war declaration would, more than anything else, lead to reconciliation and cooperation on the Korean Peninsula,” said Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, in an interview with The Diplomat. “Moon’s genuine motivation is realizing ‘irreversible peace,’ but his renewed call to symbolically end the Korean War is likely to ring hollow in Pyongyang.”
A formal end to hostilities might give North Korea more sway in its demand to be officially recognized as a nuclear state. However, Pyongyang has not taken Moon’s efforts seriously so far, as it does not consider the South to be a legitimate interlocutor on this issue. It was the United States that signed the armistice in 1953, along with China and North Korea.
Likewise, the Biden administration also has no special interest in declaring the end of the Korean War, or more generally in making concessions to move toward denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. In essence, a “game of chicken” has begun between South Korea and the United States on one side, and China and North Korea on the other. Each side is hoping the other will move first.
“The Biden administration has clearly deprioritized North Korea and its nuclear and missile program,” said Mason Richey, professor of International and Area Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, in an interview with The Diplomat.
Richey said that the U.S. approach seems to be to make the same offer to North Korea as it has for years: North Korea engages in a serious, sustained, verifiable, irreversible effort at complete denuclearization in exchange for U.S. support in lifting sanctions and provision of other incentives, including eventual diplomatic normalization.
However, North Korea has rejected the United States’ “inflexible” approach for decades and consistently demands that the U.S. make concessions first.
“Each side seems to think it can wait out the other, whose position will soften and crumble. As least as far as the U.S. goes, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably ‘strategic patience,’” Richey said.
Foreign Ministers from the United States, South Korea, and Japan gathered in New York on Wednesday to discuss trilateral cooperation on North Korea issues. Kim Song, the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, is expected to take the stage at the U.N. General Assembly on September 27, when he will likely belittle the United States’ hostile acts to justify Pyongyang’s quest to strengthen its nuclear capabilities and test new advanced missiles.