South Korean President Moon Jae-in is coming close to making an end-of-war declaration, bringing a formal end to the Korean War of 1950-53. Such a statement seems unlikely to achieve anything substantive, however, and the United States has been reluctant to go along with Moon’s plan. The issue will be discussed at the 2021 United Nations Peacekeeping Ministerial, to be held December 7-8 in Seoul, with foreign and defense ministers from more than 100 countries participating.
The Armistice Agreement between North Korea, China, and the United States was signed on July 17, 1953, after three years of terrible sacrifice and huge civilian causalities. The U.S. represented 22 nations who had contributed military or medical personnel to the United Nations forces, which supported South Korea in resisting a preemptive attack by North Korea on June 26, 1950.
Since 1953, the Korean Peninsula has remained technically in a state of war, although both North and South Korea simultaneously became United Nations members in 1992. There have been frequent provocations from North Korea, on land, near the demilitarized zone (DMZ), and at sea, near the Northern Limit Line (NLL). There is also a vigorous ongoing arms race between the two Koreas, encompassing submarines, various ballistic missiles, and even a discussion of nuclear escalation.
On September 22, 2021, in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Moon reiterated his view that an end-of-war declaration was necessary, laying out his hopes that it would bring North Korea back to the negotiating table to discuss denuclearization and the normalization of its relations with the United States. Moon’s 2018 National Security Strategy referred to the establishment of a permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula, and he believes strongly that an end-of-war declaration has a useful role to play in achieving this.
In recent weeks there have been several occasions when South Korea and the U.S., and sometimes also Japan, have met to discuss the context of the announcement, the details of the wording, and the expected ramifications of the declaration.
South Korea has endured significant harms and troubles from North Korea, with the sinking of the Cheonan and the bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 still fresh in many memories, and the 2020 demolition of the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong a more recent offense. Some portion of the South Korean public will surely criticize Moon for appeasing North Korea through an end-of-war declaration, but he is due to retire next May and sees the declaration as an important part of his presidential legacy.
There are many questions outstanding, however, if we are to make the best of Moon’s determination to make his end-of-war declaration. For example, who else will be directly involved in affirming it? Which areas of the Korean Peninsula should it cover – just the DMZ and the NLL? Then what about the airspace? And would such a declaration also include cyberspace, disinformation warfare, and/or psychological warfare? Moreover, if the war is truly finished, then what is the status of the United Nations Command? Should it be disbanded? North Korea will surely argue that with the end of the war, United States Forces Korea (USFK) should be withdrawn from the Korean Peninsula.
Clearly an end-of-war declaration can mean different things to different parties, so let us consider the perspectives of South Korea and its U.S. ally, then of China and its ally North Korea.
For South Korea, the declaration is the last opportunity for Moon to etch his name into the history books. He knows that in the present circumstances it would be essentially a matter of political theater, with North Korea clearly setting the terms for relations between the two Koreas, since its nuclear weapons cannot be ignored. But Moon still sees some value in such a declaration, even if it must be unilateral. He is hoping to at least restrain to some extent the arms race on the Korean Peninsula, before it undermines the future prospects for South Korean prosperity, or worse, results in desperate all-out war.
In the context of the escalating China-U.S. strategic competition, the situation on the Korean Peninsula may soon come to resemble that of Taiwan. U.S. power in the region is in relative decline, and China threatens to replace the United States as the local hegemon. South Korea’s balancing act is becoming ever more precarious, and the country may ultimately be forced to choose a side, and could then be involved in a proxy war.
The United States
For the United States an end-of-war declaration is seen mostly as a way to persuade North Korea to discuss Korean Peninsula issues directly with the U.S. Washington has stated its willingness to meet any delegation from North Korea at any time, in any place, without any preconditions (though this last is disingenuous, since the U.S. in practice would require North Korea to express its continuing commitment to denuclearization as agreed at the 2019 summit between then-U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore).
If an end-of-war declaration leads to an easing of military tension on the Korean Peninsula, then it is not inconceivable that South Korea might participate more fully in U.S.-led multilateral efforts to contain China, such as the Quad and AUKUS. In time, these security structures may become something like an Asian NATO, targeting authoritarian China, much as NATO stands against authoritarian Russia. Given South Korea’s growing international influence, and since the country has modeled its political and economical structures upon the U.S., Washington now sees South Korea as a natural ally whose importance is increasing. The United States is therefore doing what it can to reduce South Korea’s (and its own) economic dependence on China, for example by integrating supply chains more closely, most notably for semiconductor production.
Washington has previously expressed doubts about the usefulness of an end-of-war declaration, referring to disagreements with Seoul over the appropriate “sequence, timing, and conditions” of such a move. This was followed by a period of silence on the issue. It was therefore striking when Lee Hyuk-soo, the South Korean ambassador to the U.S., recently commented that South Korea and the United States are actively discussing the possibility. Indeed, the Korean press has reported that the contents of the declaration have been agreed, with the intention of minimizing the impact upon the United Nations Command (UNC) and USFK.
It seems that the United States is willing to accede to Moon’s insistence upon an end-of-war declaration, seeing an opportunity to devolve more responsibility onto South Korea to deal with the North Korean problem, whether this be military provocations, nuclear and ballistic missile tests, or the so-called “super-large” artillery gun. At the same time, the U.S. hopes to align South Korean foreign policy more closer with its own in its struggle to contain China.
For China, doing nothing is the best option. Beijing welcomes the friendly noises that Moon has been making recently to attract Chinese support for his end-of-war declaration. China Daily, a state-run newspaper, gave an unprecedentedly positive assessment of Moon’s address to the U.N. General Assembly, even while North Korea criticized the U.S. for what it saw as double standards on sanctions relief.
It has been suggested that South Korea might use the Beijing Winter Olympic Games in February 2022 to announce the end-of-war declaration, since the North Korean leader is expected to attend. This would cause difficulties for China, however, which is already concerned about the politicization of the games. An ongoing controversy about the suppression of a female Chinese tennis star who has accused a very senior government official of rape reinvigorated calls for the U.S. and allied countries to consider a diplomatic boycott over human rights concerns. Of course, from the Chinese perspective, the games are entirely political, but it has to be the “right” politics.
In any case, there are other issues that may impinge upon the games, especially the widespread criticism of China’s repression of the Hong Kong democracy movement, its human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and President Xi Jinping’s rampant personality cult. Xi is still stinging from the blatantly unreasonable accusations that China deliberately created, or at least was negligently responsible for, the COVID-19 pandemic, and he wants to use the Beijing Winter Olympic Games to turn the page, by substituting a more benign international image for China. All in all, Xi does not need controversial inter-Korean issues disrupting the smooth running of the Games.
Moreover, China has its own agenda regarding a formal end to the Korean War. It wants to repatriate the remains of Chinese soldiers who died in the war, and would like to search the DMZ for this purpose. Since China prevented South Korea from signing the Armistice Agreement, Moon’s end-of-war declaration could be easily portrayed as unilateral, even as irrelevant, but it would also be a good opportunity for China to raise many related issues. They will argue for the withdrawal of USFK, the dissolution of the UNC, and the redeployment of THAAD outside of Korea, and against a closer trilateral security cooperation between Japan, South Korea, and the U.S., since North Korea will supposedly be less of a threat. Some Chinese commentators are talking about killing four ducks with one stone.
Lastly, for North Korea, Moon’s end-of-war declaration is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it would welcome the prospect of sanctions relief, and the possible withdrawal of USFK and the dissolution of the UNC; indeed, North Korean media have said that the declaration is an admirable idea. On the other hand, the Kim regime is utterly dependent upon the struggle against external enemies, so that their disappearance would require a complete overhaul of the way in which the Kim family has maintained absolute power for seven decades. For North Korea to truly accept that the Korean War is ended would require establishing new security arrangements with South Korea, and also with the U.S. and Japan, in which context North Korea’s current emphasis on nuclear weapons and missiles would be unhelpful, even to North Korea’s own interests.
North Korean acceptance would entail many policy changes. Absent a credible threat of U.S.-led hostilities, Pyongyang could afford to de-escalate the ongoing arms race and could even get real about a gradual pathway toward denuclearization. The efforts that have so far been devoted to the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction could be redirected into providing sufficient food and energy for the North Korean people.
Alas, these happy outcomes seem unlikely while Kim Jong Un is in charge, though some commentators believe that Kim’s power is now in decline due to internal crises triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and food supply challenges. Certainly Kim will be hoping for humanitarian assistance from South Korea, and support from international NGOs, whenever he reopens his borders.
North Korea continues to refuse to participate in bilateral talks with the United States, even as the U.S., with the assistance of several other countries, steps up the tracking of illegal ship-to-ship transfers between North Korea and China in the East China Sea. What North Korea wants is an easing of sanctions without having to give ground on denuclearization. Although the Kim family regime has a long history of extracting concessions for worthless promises, the domestic situation in North Korea is dire, and the attention of China, its only friend, is elsewhere at present: on the disruption of its supply-chain, the collapse of its energy supply system, and problems in its labor market.
North Korea will therefore very likely reject Moon’s end-of-war declaration as a half-baked initiative, coming at an inappropriate time, when the necessary conditions for North Korea to accept an end to the Korean War have not been established.
Choi Jong-kun, South Korea’s vice foreign minister, visited Washington on November 17 to discuss the contents of the end-of-war declaration, attending a trilateral meeting with the United States and Japan. Unfortunately Mori Takeo, the Japanese vice foreign minister, declined to take part in the joint press conference because a Korean official had recently visited the disputed Liancourt Islets (known as Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan). Speculation in the South Korean press saw the episode as a deliberate attempt by the Moon administration to exclude Japan from the end-of-war declaration process.
The fact is that several countries will be impacted by an end-of-war declaration, and the extent of the impact is poorly understood but likely to be quite limited. The declaration is essentially a personal indulgence by Moon in advance of his retirement next May, and whoever becomes the next president will face the same challenges, with or without such a declaration. North Korea will reject it; the U.S. will attempt to take advantage of it, at South Korea’s expense; China will respond in moderate terms, to encourage South Korean voters to be pro-China. Both the U.S. and China would prefer South Korea’s next president to be untrammeled by any hangovers from Moon’s term, and we may expect the end-of-war declaration to be quietly marginalized.