Is South Korea close to officially ending the Korean War?

Analysts caution the idea may not be strategically sound or politically feasible.

Published : Dec 15, 2021 16:34 IST

The leaders of North and South Korea embraced at a summit in 2018.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said this week that the U.S., China and North Korea agreed in principle on declaring a formal end to the Korean War, replacing an armistice agreement that ended hostilities in 1953. However, analysts are not sure it will happen, or if such a step is advisable, given concerns over the security situation in northeast Asia.

Moon announced the agreement during a press conference on December 13 with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison following bilateral talks. The president said his government will work hard in the coming months to transform the armistice that has hung over the peninsula for nearly 70 years into a permanent peace treaty supported by all sides that took part in the conflict. Moon added that a declaration that finally ends the war will inject new energy into talks involving the U.S., South Korea and North Korea that have been stalled for more than two years.

The South Korean leader made a similar declaration in an address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September, calling on the belligerents to "come together and declare that the war on the Korean Peninsula is over." Doing so would allow the two Koreas "to make irreversible progress in denuclearization and usher in an era of complete peace," he said.

How realistic is Moon's plan?

However, Moon's upbeat tone comes amid repeated test launches of what Pyongyang has described as "advanced" new missiles and intelligence reports that North Korea continues to develop nuclear warheads at its Yongbyon atomic facility.

A recent editorial in South Korea's JoongAng Daily pointed out that the North has made no effort to do away with its nuclear weapons or even engage in negotiations with the U.S. or South Korea. It describes Moon's determination to sign an agreement formally ending the war as "totally detached from reality." "I think this is so important to Moon and his supporters because he sees it as unfinished business," said Duyeon Kim, an adjunct senior fellow specializing in security issues at the Center for a New American Security.

Moon served as chief of staff in the progressive administration of President Roh Moon-hyun between 2003 and 2008 and wanted Seoul at that time to push for an agreement to end the war. That initiative was only halted when senior diplomats and security advisers, and U.S. President George Bush, convinced Roh that it would be a mistake to grant the North a concession before Pyongyang gave up its nuclear weapons program, Kim told DW .

While completing his earlier ambition is one motivation, she said, Moon also wants to "leave a peace legacy for the history books before he has to step down in May of next year." "I do not think an end-of-war declaration with a nuclear-armed North Korea is beneficial to the region as it is premature," Kim said. "It carries significant political and security risks for Korea and the wider region as it creates a false sense of security and permits North Korea to make demands, such as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the peninsula and the abolition of the U.N. Command."

Security threats on the Korean Peninsula

Analysts have repeatedly expressed concern that abolishing an armistice that has been backed by the United Nations will permit Pyongyang and its key allies — primarily China and Russia — to increase their objections to a permanent U.S. and U.N. military presence on the 38th parallel, where the Demilitarized Zone divides the two Koreas. North Korea's aim, they say, would be to build a consensus for foreign troops to be withdrawn from the peninsula, dramatically reducing South Korea's ability to fend off any aggressive moves by the North and weakening the ability of the U.S. to defend its regional security partners, which include Japan and Taiwan.

Daniel Pinkston, a professor of international relations at the Seoul campus of Troy University, told DW that Moon has "lost sight of the security threat" and that the dangers of an end-of-war declaration far outweigh the possible benefits. "Moon is trying to achieve something for his own political legacy, even if it is largely symbolic and has little regard for the administrations that follow his and have to deal with the negative impacts of any agreement," he said.

"I think the idea is really dangerous as it would do nothing to improve security on the peninsula and the North could use it as another truncheon with which to beat its rivals," he added. "And let's remember that the North remains committed to fighting what it describes as its own revolution and taking complete control of the peninsula. That has not changed and the North has never renounced the use of force to achieve its aims."

Pinkston said he is also "deeply skeptical" about Beijing's expressions of support for the initiative, pointing out that China "would like nothing more than to see the U.S. having to leave the Korean Peninsula and having to pull back from the region." And despite Moon's insistence that Washington is supportive of his campaign to finally end the Korean War, the analysts are not convinced. "The U.S. would want significant or sufficient denuclearization before any real declaration ending the war," said Kim.

U.S. insists North Korea give up nukes

U.S. President Joe Biden is "very clear-eyed on this," said Kim. The U.S. "may have no reason to be opposed to the concept of an end-of-war declaration, but the key will be in the details, in the language used and the impact it will have," the expert said. "They will not oppose it on principle, but the details and the sequencing matter to the Biden administration, and that includes the North denuclearizing," she added.

Pinkston said that the Moon administration only has three months left to run and while the South Korean leader may be desperate to get his pet initiative over the line, there is no such urgency in Washington. "The U.S. has so many issues to deal with right now — domestic situations, the Ukraine, NATO — this is not even on their radar at the moment," he said. "It's not getting the attention it would need to be moved forward and time is almost up. I do not think it will happen."

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