President Moon Jae-in (Yonhap)
President Moon Jae-in hopes to declare the end of the Korean War during his term, but such a declaration without corresponding denuclearization does not guarantee peace on the Korean Peninsula and time is too short to untangle complicated interests of all involved parties, experts say.
Moon revived the issue, which had remained dormant since the failed 2019 US-North Korea summit -- at the United Nations in September. Since then, Seoul and Washington have discussed the issue, and are reportedly close to completing the declaration’s text.
However, the matter remains far from simple, as the North demands the US first end its “hostile policy against North Korea,” which the US is unlikely to accept.
When Moon first brought up the issue, Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, agreed it would be a good idea, but said the hostile US policy against North Korea and unfair double standards must be withdrawn first -- presumably relieving sanctions or suspending joint military training.
The proposal also faces opposition in the South, as well as the US.
Ban Ki-moon, former secretary-general of the United Nations, said Tuesday the declaration would weaken security posture on the Korean Peninsula and give Pyongyang an excuse to claim the dissolution of the United Nations Command and the withdrawal of US forces from Korea. He said denuclearization should come first.
“Real peace is more important than a formal declaration of war or a peace agreement,” said Shin Beom-chul, director of the Center for Diplomacy and Security at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.
In order to do that, North Korea should start the denuclearization process, conduct practical exchanges with the South and build trust. In the process, the North’s security concerns should be resolved step by step, he said.
“As these negotiations (for real peace) proceed, an end-of-war declaration is needed in the process. But there is no guarantee for such a peace process right now,” he said.
The US is also in a difficult position to participate in the discussion actively.
If the declaration is made, it will inevitably bring about changes in the current US armistice system and the status of the UN Command that supervises it.
Asked about the end-of-war declaration, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a press briefing on Oct. 27, “We (South Korea and the US) may have a somewhat different perspective on the exact order, timing and conditions of each action.”
The gap in Seoul and Washington’s view was apparent in the meeting between First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun and US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in Washington on Oct. 16. While Korea’s Foreign Ministry said the peace process and communications on the Korean Peninsula, including the declaration of the end of the war, is being conducted thoroughly, the US counterpart did not mention the declaration. Instead, it said the two discussed a joint promise for the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
“Biden is being criticized in the US for his foreign policy and is hitting the lowest approval ratings of his presidency in the low 40 percent range,” said Park Won-gon, a professor in the department of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University.
He added that Kim Jong-un is “probably the most unpopular person in America,” and that it would not be easy for Biden to hold a meeting with Kim. The China variable
China’s willingness to intervene is another variable.
China has been unhappy about being excluded in the discussion between the US and South Korea over the peace talks and it has expressed dissatisfaction to South Korea in various ways against the issue, Park said.
Chinese Ambassador to Korea Xing Haiming said in a local media interview last month, “China is a signatory to the armistice agreement. That’s why it’s right to discuss anything with China.”
Seoul’s national security adviser Suh Hoon, meanwhile, was set to meet with Beijing’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi on Thursday to talk about South Korea-China relations and Korean Peninsula issues. He could ask for China’s cooperation in drawing the North back to the negotiation table. They are expected to discuss ways to declare the end of the war in the wake of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Ahead of Suh and Yang’s meeting, China and North Korea met to coordinate related issues.
China’s cooperation is needed to draw favorable responses from North Korea to the end-of-war declaration. However, the possibility of the US boycotting the Beijing Olympics has complicated matters for Moon Jae-in.
Since Biden mentioned a potential “diplomatic boycott” of the Beijing Winter Olympics on Nov. 18, the UK and Australia have hinted at joining. European Union countries, Japan, Canada and New Zealand are also involved in the discussion.
The US is likely to openly demand the participation of its allies in the call for a diplomatic boycott, citing democracy and human rights.
Cheong Wa Dae has not made an official statement about a boycott.
“When most Western countries boycott, it is hard for Korea not to follow it. Otherwise, there will be consequences that Korea should encounter,” Shin said.
Some experts, including Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, however, believe the talks on the end-of-war declaration should proceed whether it occurs during Moon’s tenure or not.
“North Korea sympathizes with the push for an end-of-war declaration. And, the push for the declaration could catalyze denuclearization,” Yang said.
“The discussion is symbolic and if Moon’s administration fails to do it, the next government can push for it. It is meaningful that Korea leads the end of the war.”
Key presidential candidates are sharply divided on the North Korea policy.
Lee Jae-myung, presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, said the declaration of the end of the war itself should not be prevented for any political reason. He said, “The state of war on the Korean Peninsula must be ended quickly for any reason.”
The main opposition People Power Party’s presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol has opposed the declaration, saying if a political declaration with only the end of the war is made separate from denuclearization, the consequences would be severe.
“If the end of the war is declared first, the UNC is likely to be neutralized and the rear base of the UN office in Japan is also likely to be neutralized,” he said. “It is highly likely to give the international community the wrong signal.”