In South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s address to the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in September, he called on the United States, North Korea, and China, alongside South Korea to take steps toward reaching an end-of-war declaration. By renewing his call for ending the Korean War, Moon hoped to reactivate the peace process and make “real progress” before the end of his term next year.
This is not the first time an end-of-war declaration has been brought to the table. South Korea and the U.S.-led U.N. forces are technically still at war with North Korea, since the 1950-1953 Korean War ended in an armistice agreement rather than a peace treaty. Attempts to officially declare the war’s end have been made several times, the most recent example being in 2018. During a frenzy of diplomatic negotiations between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, then-U.S. President Donald Trump, and South Korean President Moon, the concept of ending the war resurfaced. As a result, the parties initially agreed to declare an end to the Korean War by the end of 2018. However, due to the lack of practical commitments to the peace process and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, all parties lost enthusiasm for the plan, which came to a standstill along with virtually all talks. In the end, no declaration was ever drafted.
Moon’s renewed appeal comes at a time when negotiations are stalled and North Korea has shut down all borders in response to the pandemic. The difference between the 2018 attempt to declare the war’s end and Moon’s renewed push is that the declaration this time is intended to restart dialogue. The hope is that a symbolic and non-legally binding end-of-war declaration could boost confidence and be a beneficial and non-threatening means to encourage Pyongyang back to talks. It is also a more pressing political goal for Moon now, as it is his final attempt at resuming the denuclearization process on the Korean Peninsula before the end of his tenure in May 2022. However, as if lack of time wasn’t a problem enough, the chances for Washington and Pyongyang sitting down after the no-deal summit in Hanoi are slim.
The fundamental incompatibility inhibiting progress between Washington and Pyongyang remains. It is a problem of what should come first: practical action for denuclearization or reconciliation. Biden has proposed to hold diplomatic dialogues with North Korea without preconditions, “anywhere, anytime.” However, in the near term, he is not inclined to meet the regime’s primary demands, such as providing security guarantees and sanctions relief to the North, unless it takes action toward denuclearization first. Meanwhile, North Korea argues that if the U.S. really intended to solve problems through dialogue, it would refrain from any hostile actions that make Pyongyang feel threatened, and has asserted that it will not return to the negotiating table until Washington withdraws what it calls its “hostile policy.”
As Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong stated in September, “Only when such a precondition is met, would it be possible to sit face to face and declare the significant termination of war” – otherwise an end-of-war declaration would be “just a piece of paper.” In brief, the parties are locked in a who comes first dispute, and contrary to what the Moon administration seems to believe, a declaration with solely symbolic meaning in the present state of distrust between the parties will not be enough to entice Pyongyang back to talks. It is also doubtful that a declaration without practical impact would lead to any real change on the Korean Peninsula. As the U.S. and North Korea’s perceptions of what conditions and steps come next would clash, the countries would be right back where they started, and the blame game would continue.
However, just because the declaration should not be purely symbolic does not mean that it should be too detailed either. Presenting a more legally binding and formal declaration comes with its own negative implications and could also force the countries into a fumbling approach. Both the U.S. and North Korea have very different perceptions of the goals and conditions for the different steps to be taken. On Pyongyang’s part, in the short term, the goal would be to stop the South Korea-U.S. joint military exercise next March, which is a precondition for the Kim regime to return to the negotiation table.
Furthermore, it could move another step toward dismantling the U.S.-headed United Nations Command (UNC), which could weaken the legitimacy of U.S. military presence on the peninsula. It’s possible North Korea would then push for the withdrawal of the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. Pyongyang might also claim that Washington would need to honor the end-of-war declaration by giving up attempts to rein in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The risk of this negative spiraling may be what prevents Moon from taking on a more detailed and legally binding declaration.
So, what is the solution then? Amid the countries’ perception gaps and differences in approaches and demands, an end-of-war declaration should be proposed with a concession as an entry point. For example, the United States and South Korea could offer a halt of joint military exercises, and in response, Pyongyang could declare a moratorium of all missile tests as an initial step. Such a compromise may constitute a concrete action to narrow down the gaps and already solve two contentious issues: a cessation of the next joint military exercise may then be positively seen by North Korea as a partial lifting of the hostile policy, while a moratorium on all missile tests can convince the U.S. of Pyongyang’s serious intention for long-term denuclearization. Introducing the end-of-war declaration with different levels of reciprocity and sequencing of measures to find a middle ground between the U.S. and North Korea would therefore be much more beneficial and be a catalyst for further discussions on actions for peace process and denuclearization during the negotiation process.
In other words, the declaration should be more than a symbol. To achieve a real result while avoiding the declaration becoming either entirely symbolic or overly regularized, it should be approached from a middle ground perspective. The negotiation for the end-of-war declaration should be combined with practical steps for the peace process and denuclearization efforts.