After U.S. President Joe Biden took office in January, South Korean President Moon Jae-in expected Washington to actively re-engage on the North Korea issue, considering Biden’s long experience as a veteran politician who worked as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for more than a decade. After completing a review of North Korea policies, the White House assured that its approach for achieving the denuclearization of North Korea would be different from the ways pursued by the previous Obama and Trump administrations. Since then, Sung Kim, the U.S. special envoy on North Korea, has consistently conveyed the message that he is willing to meet his North Korean counterparts “anytime, anywhere, and without preconditions.”
However, North Korea has been adamant in refusing these overtures. As North Korea believes then-U.S. President Donald Trump humiliated its supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, at the Hanoi summit in 2019, it has been asking the United States to make concessions or remove the so-called “hostile” policy first if Washington wants to renew the bilateral nuclear talks.
Seoul has expected Washington to reach an agreement on the long-term denuclearization process of North Korea during the Hanoi summit, as Trump and Kim had already held their first summit meeting in Singapore and shared their views on the two main issues: dismantling North Korea’s nuclear complexes and suspending crippling economic sanctions. However, the two parties could not agree on the scope of these important issues during the Hanoi summit. The collapse of North Korea-U.S. diplomacy in turn sabotaged Moon’s efforts to advance inter-Korean relations.
With Moon’s term set to end in May 2022, this is his last chance to make a breakthrough. He reiterated his clear desire to serve as a peacemaker for the Korean Peninsula in his address at the National Assembly on Monday. In Moon’s eyes, a formal declaration of the end of the Korean War is the final card to play in order to create momentum not only to renew the dialogue between the two Koreas but also to entice Washington to provide detailed proposals and incentives to Pyongyang to make them return to the table for denuclearization negotiations.
However, Washington has different views on the timing and motivation of an end-of-war declaration.
“[W]e may have somewhat different perspectives on the precise sequence or timing or conditions for different steps,” said Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, in a press briefing on Tuesday. He was responding to a question about “how seriously the White House takes” the prospect of “the declaration to end the Korean War.”
He added, however, that the U.S. and South Korea “are fundamentally aligned on the core strategic initiative here and on the belief that only through diplomacy are we going to really, truly be able to effectively make progress and that diplomacy has to be effectively paired with deterrence.”
The Biden administration has never taken a diplomatic overture to North Korea off the table, but so far it has focused on other means to tackle the growing nuclear capabilities of the North.
Mason Richey, a professor of international and area studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, told The Diplomat that the United States is skeptical about the value of a formal declaration to end the Korean War.
“The Biden administration is apparently willing to at least entertain the idea of an end-of-war declaration, at which President Moon is aiming, but seems very skeptical about it,” Richey said.
U.S. foreign affairs officials responsible for the North Korea issue have regularly met with their South Korean counterparts, but there have been no new approaches made by Washington to induce Pyongyang to return to the table. Instead, the United States has continuously implied that the ball is in the North’s court.
“Notably the perception in Washington is that an end-of-war declaration should not come at the beginning of a process of negotiation over Peninsula issues (notably denuclearization), but rather should be one output of meaningful measures taken by Pyongyang to satisfy U.S. demands,” Richey said.
Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of the North Korean leader, earlier showed her interest in this proposal after Moon made his address at U.N. General Assembly. However, she emphasized that North Korea would not seriously deal with Moon’s proposal unless the United States made concessions and proved that it has “no hostile” intent toward her country – which has long been the North’s official precondition for renewing the negotiations. In other words, North Korea insists that the U.S. must make the first move.
Given the circumstances, Moon’s hands are tied as a mediator between the U.S. and North Korea. The outcomes of the failed Hanoi summit proved that Washington would not lift the crippling economic sanctions unless the North agrees with its approach, which is “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.” Pyongyang, meanwhile, demands sanctions relief – and now military concessions as well – before beginning any substantial dismantling of its nuclear program.
Despite deadlock on the nuclear issue, Seoul expects the related countries to consult over the end-of-war declaration before the end of Moon’s term. That issue, while not simple, would be less diplomatically complex than a full agreement on denuclearization.
South Koreans also support Moon’s proposal. According to the poll conducted by the National Unification Advisory Council last month, 67.8 percent supported a declaration to end the Korean War while 29.4 percent said it was not necessary. In addition, 54.2 percent of respondents in the same survey believed that it was unlikely that the U.S. and North Korea will renew their bilateral nuclear talks within this year.
However, as North Korea continues strengthening its nuclear and missile capabilities, South Koreans are showing less interest in “reunification” with the North. Only 44 percent said reunification with North Korea is necessary, according to a poll conducted by the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University in early this month. Another 29. 4 percent said reunification was unnecessary.
Some critics have questioned Moon’s proposal to formally declare an end to the Korean War, saying North Korea would demand the United States to withdraw its troops from the South’s soil as a follow-up measure. Moon said that the declaration by no means refers to the withdrawal of the U.S. troops, as only the United States and South Korea can make a decision on that issue. However, an end-of-war declaration could lead to the end of the United Nations Command in South Korea, which is tasked with “maintaining and enforcing the Armistice Agreement” currently in place.
“For me, I don’t think we need to officially end the Korean War before the end of Moon’s term as there is no urgent need to deal with this issue and no threat of North Korea in people’s daily lives,” Lee Jong-hak, a university student in Seoul, told The Diplomat. “Also, I personally think the U.S. does not want to end the Korean War to keep checking North Korea, China, and Russia in the region.”