By Mark Tokola
Toward the end of his September 23 (virtual) speech to the United Nations General Assembly, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said, “I believe (peace) begins with declaring an end to the war, an act that can affirm mutual commitments to peace. I hope that the UN and the international community can provide support so that we can advance into an era of reconciliation and prosperity through the end-of-war declaration.”
To the general public, this would seem like common sense, didn’t the Korean War end in 1953? Why not say so? Some commentators in Washington and Seoul, however, sat up when they read President Moon’s statement because some took it as a unilateral call to end the Korean War Armistice, which remains in effect and provides the basis for the still-useful United Nations Command (UNC), UNC-rear basing operations in Japan, and arguably the presence of U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula. The latter are based on a separate U.S.-ROK Mutual Defense Treaty, not the Armistice, but an end to the Armistice could lead to political pressure for a withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Furthermore, an end-or-war declaration would seem like a reward to Kim Jong-un when he has done nothing recently to deserve one. North Korea has cut off communications with South Korea, failed to participate in cooperation called for in the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, kept up its missile development, and, to add insult to injury, in June 2020 blew up the Joint Liaison Office that had been built in Kaesong as a symbol of rapprochement.
But, negative reaction to President Moon’s statement seems more a reflection of skittishness about the state of U.S.-ROK relations than to what he actually said. It was nothing new. The Panmunjom Declaration of September 2018 already made the point, and more directly. “The two sides agreed to declare the end of war this year that marks the 65th anniversary of the Armistice Agreement and actively promote the holding of meetings…with a view to replacing the Armistice Agreement with a peace agreement…” The Panmunjom Declaration says that the United States and perhaps China, would need to be involved in such talks. President Moon in his UNGA speech sounded like he was reminding North Korea of a prior commitment rather than calling for anything new.
President Moon’s call for peace also came in the context of a long line of peace declarations dating back to the 1992 Joint Declaration between South and North Korea in which they declared that they no longer had hostile intent towards one another. The United States, too, in the Agreed Framework of 1994 provided assurances of peace to North Korea. Declaring peace on the Korean Peninsula seems like an important thing to do, that’s why it’s been done repeatedly over the years.
That is not to say that there is not an important underlying issue in an end of war declaration. Historically, armistices are followed by peace agreements intended to deal with the underlying causes of the conflict. The Korean War Armistice Agreement calls for a high-level international conference to deal with “the Korea question.” That was tried unsuccessfully in Geneva in 1954, and when North Korea is ready to do so, international diplomacy should be tried again. The “Korea question” is not whether Kim Jong-un should have nuclear weapons, it is that neither Korea is reconciled to a permanent division of the Peninsula. The future of the Peninsula is an issue for the Korean people, but settlement will require international support, exactly as Moon Jae-in said in his UNGA speech. The Armistice is not an obstacle to peace talks, it is the basis for peace talks.
Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.
Image from versello’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.