Why Declaring a Symbolic End to the Korean War? The Significance of Dual-Track Evolutionary Processes and the Importance of Contents and Participants

  • Xiaoke WangEmail author
Original Article


The issue of a declaration to end the Korean War, first proposed by the Roh Moo-hyun administration, was elevated to a crucial status by the Moon Jae-in administration. However, the ambiguous nature of the declaration in terms of international law gave it a space for different understanding and interpretation for the parties concerned, causing the USA to worry about North Korea’s stretched interpretation of the declaration. Therefore, the declaration has been given different political implications by North Korea, South Korea, and the USA, making the parties concerned almost impossible to reach a consensus. From the perspective of constructing a long-running peace mechanism on the Korean Peninsula, there are many limitations and hidden dangers in signing a declaration only in a symbolic manner. A valuable declaration should be signed and implemented in tandem with the process of creating a peace mechanism of the Korean Peninsula. I argue that the timing for the declaration should come when the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula proceeds from the stage of “freezing” to that of “dismantling.” The declaration should include key participants playing an active role in the process of denuclearization and three major elements: the end of the war, the direction of peace, and the principle of denuclearization.


Declaration to end the Korean War International law Denuclearization Peace mechanisms Roadmap 

1 Emergence and Evolution of the “Declaration to End the Korean War”

Since the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement in 1953, there has been no formal peace treaty to declare an official end to the Korean War. It is in this context that the issue of a “declaration to end the Korean War” or the “end-of-war declaration” (종전선언), favored by South Korea, was first raised in the Roh Moo-hyun administration. As early as November 2006, US President George W. Bush said in a speech during his visit to Singapore that if North Korea chooses a road to peace, the USA and other parties of the six-party talks will be prepared to provide security, economic assistance, and other benefits to the North Korean people (The White House 2006a). Two days later, on November 18, Bush said in Hanoi during the talks with President Roh Moo-hyun that “we want the North Korean leaders to hear if it gives up its weapons—nuclear weapons ambitions, that we would be willing to enter into security arrangements with the North Koreans, as well as move forward new economic incentives for the North Korean people” (The White House 2006b). The Korean media subsequently reported that “the declaration to end the Korean War should be based on North Korea’s abandonment of the nuclear weapons,” saying that the Korea–US summit discussed a plan to end the Korean War (Naver 2006). At the same time, the US media is more inclined to report that President Bush warned the North Korean government against aiding other nations, particularly in the Middle East, in their pursuit of nuclear weapons. The main topic on the minds of American officials was on how to put enough pressure on the regime in Pyongyang to get real results out of the next round of negotiations (Sanger and Cooper 2006).

On December 28, 2006, the newly appointed Unification Minister of the Roh Moo-hyun government, Lee Jae-joung, announced overall policy initiatives toward North Korea, saying that the entire policy could be summarized as “the North–South dialogue aimed at building a peace mechanism” and “Re-establishing the principle of humanitarian assistance.” “North Korea’s nuclear abandonment and the end of war declaration” are included in the content of the peace system on the Korean Peninsula (Lee 2006). Since then, Lee repeatedly used the expression the end-of-war declaration. Furthermore, he noted, “US President George Bush also said that issues of the Korean Peninsula which were related to Northeast Asia’s peace should be discussed including the end-of-war declaration” (Kim 2007). Since then, the issue of the end-of-war declaration has begun to be widely used by the South Korean media and political circles. Former President Kim Dae-jung also proposed the four-party summit involving China, the USA, DPRK, and the ROK and issued the “End-of-War Declaration on the Korean Peninsula” and the idea of signing a peace agreement (Yonhap 2007a). In July 2007, South Korea began to promote the summit meeting of the ROK and the DPRK. The issue of the end-of-war declaration was immediately added to the contents of the summit meeting.

On September 7, 2007, during the APEC meeting in Australia, President Roh Moo-hyun repeatedly asked President Bush about the issue of “ending the Korean War” in front of the reporter, claiming that the translation had dropped the content of the “Korean Peninsula Peace Mechanism and the end-of-war declaration” (Yonhap 2007b). Bush said, slightly displeased, “I can’t make it any clearer, Mr. President. We’re looking forward to the day when we can end the Korean war. That will happen when Kim Jong-il verifiably gets rid of his weapons programs and his weapons” (The White House 2007). Afterward, both South Korea and the USA said that the translation problem caused the awkward atmosphere. The South Korean side claimed that Bush said that if North Korea bans nuclear weapons, it can end the Korean War and a DPRK–US peace treaty can be concluded. When the oral interpretation was passed to Roh Moo-hyun, the term “Peace Treaty on Korean Peninsula” was replaced by a term with a more comprehensive meaning, the “Northeast Asian Peace System” (Hani 2007). Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the US National Security Council, said that President Bush clearly told Roh Moo-hyun at the outset that once North Korea fulfills its commitments, the USA will work on reaching a peace agreement. When asked about the mechanism for reaching a peace treaty, Johndroe said, “all parties should be involved” (Riechmann 2007).

Judging from the situation at the time, President Bush did raise the issue of a peace treaty (although the premise is that North Korea is denuclearized), which is a positive sign that the US–DPRK relations are developing in a positive direction. The so-called end-of-war declaration was mentioned as part of signing a peace treaty or building a peace mechanism. Shortly after the ROK–US summit meeting in Australia, South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-Soon also made it clear that “the end-of-war declaration cannot be made without the establishment of a peace mechanism on the Korean peninsula.” He believes that “if the end-of-war declaration is suddenly issued, even though the war is over, but it will enter a state of no peace, which will cause confusion (Yonhap 2007c).” However, the Roh Moo-hyun administration continued to advance “the end-of-war declaration” as an important issue and wrote the “end-of-war issue” into the “Declaration on the Advancement of South–North Korean Relations, Peace and Prosperity” after the October 4 summit. Article 4 of the Declaration states that the North and the South agree that the existing armistice system should be ended and a permanent peace mechanism should be established. At the same time, the two sides have agreed to work together to advance the matter of having the leaders of the three or four parties directly concerned to convene on the Peninsula and declare an end to the war (NCNK 2007).

However, the South Korean government has not reached an agreement on the issue of the end-of-war declaration. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs believes that without the relevant peace talks, the end of the Korean War cannot be declared. Cheong Wa Dae (Director of the National Security Office, Baek Jong-chun) believes that the end-of-war declaration is a symbolic “political declaration” between the countries concerned. As a turning point, it should be the beginning of the initiation of peace negotiations (CRI 2007). However, by the end of 2007, when Baek Jong-chun visited the USA, he re-named that “it is the basic position of the ROK government to discuss the issue of end-of-war declaration at a proper time during the stage of North Korea’s abandoning nuclear, that the nuclear de-functionalization is progressing smoothly (Yonhap 2007d).” The US Ambassador to South Korea, Alexander Vershbow’s assessment of the end-of-war declaration is, President Bush considered the end-of-war declaration as part of the discussion on the peace system, in order to achieve the realization of a complete denuclearization of North Korea, without 1 g of enriched uranium and nor nuclear weapons. However, Roh Moo-hyun administration made a creative interpretation of this, trying to advance it as another bright spot (Liang 2008). With the resignation of Roh Moo-hyun in 2008 and the subsequent deterioration of relations between South Korea and North Korea, the end-of-war declaration was gone.

At the beginning of 2018, with the easing of DPRK–ROK relations brought by the “Winter Olympics Diplomacy,” the third North–South summit was put on the agenda. Moon Jae-in, once a close comrade-in-arms of Roh Moo-hyun, once again included the issue of the end-of-war declaration in the agenda of the summit. On March 13, South Korean media reported that some officials revealed that if the North–South summit was successful, they would discuss the issue of the peace system including the DPRK nuclear issue and the end-of-war declaration (Jung and Lee 2018). As the North–South summit reached a stage of substantive advancement, President Moon Jae-in publicly stated that “the Korean Peninsula should end the armistice mechanism, issue the end-of-war declaration, and March towards the signing of a peace treaty (Yu et al. 2018).” On April 27, Panmunjom Declaration confirmed that the two countries agreed to actively pursue trilateral meetings involving the two Koreas and the USA, or quadrilateral meetings involving the two Koreas, the USA, and China with a view to declaring an end to the war and establishing a permanent and solid peace regime (MOU 2018). Since then, the ROK has been more active in pushing for the declaration and active consultation between the USA, the DPRK, and China. Rodong Sinmun, the official organ of the Workers’ Party of North Korea, published a comment on August 9 that the end-of-war declaration can end the military confrontation between the DPRK and the USA and is also conducive to building trust. The issue of the end-of-war declaration is a common understanding of the international community and a requirement of the times. On September 19, the Pyongyang Declaration was issued at the DPRK–ROK summit, announcing the cessation of military hostile relations between the North and the South. South Korea said that this means that the North and the South actually declare the end of the war. Subsequently, Moon Jae-in visited the USA and expressed that ROK, DPRK, and the USA have basically reached a consensus on the issue of the end-of-war declaration early, and this goal is possibly to be achieved during the year (Zwirz 2018).

2 The Legal and Political Significance of the “Declaration to End the Korean War”

From the perspective of development course of the end-of-war declaration issue, North Korea first proposed to sign a peace agreement, the Roh Moo-hyun administration separated the end-of-war declaration from the peace agreement, and the Moon Jae-in administration determined the end-of-war declaration as a symbolic political statement. The issue of the end-of-war declaration has never been as clear as the peace treaty which has political and legal attributes. It is a product of a compromise strategy that cannot be reached in the short term. Its political and legal significance is endowed by the parties concerned. The different interpretations have caused the illusion, which seems ready to come out at their call, but indeed they always supply people a blurred vision, just like seeing flowers through a mist.

In the perspective of the international law, the joint declaration issued by two or more countries, it generally refers to documents issued by these parties to explain their political platforms or their basic positions and attitudes on major political issues. The purpose is to spread through the news media to achieve broad international recognition or gain public sympathy and support. The declaration has different roles and properties due to different contents and purposes. The “common declaration” and “joint declaration” issued by the two countries, many countries, or in the name of an international conference have the nature of a treaty. The purpose is to achieve international recognition and play a supervisory role of mutual compliance. With regard to the treaty, the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1969, clearly stipulates, “Treaty means an international agreement concluded between States in written form and governed by international law, whether embodied in a single instrument or in two or more related instruments and whatever its particular designation.” “Every treaty in force is binding upon the parties to it and must be performed by them in good faith (UN 1969).” From the perspective of international practice, the form of the treaty includes conventions, peace agreements, exchanges of letters, joint declarations, charters, and so on. The “declaration” of a treaty nature is no longer a minority, such as the famous Cairo Declaration, the Potsdam Proclamation, and the Paris Naval War Declaration. However, there are also a large number of joint statements and joint declarations that do not clearly define the rights and obligations of the participating countries, and they are not binding and do not, in fact, constitute a treaty. For example, the China–Japan Joint Statement issued in September 1972 is not official, the contents of which were clearly stated in the legal documents—the China–Japan Treaty of Peace and Friendship signed in 1978 by the two countries. An important difference between a treaty and a declaration is that a treaty basically requires the review and approval of the legislature of the state, while the declaration and the statement generally do not need it.

Therefore, the joint declaration issued after several summit meetings between the DPRK and ROK is more inclined to the type that does not constitute a treaty. However, the end-of-war declaration is different from previous joint declarations. It involves a major issue of ending the largest regional war after World War II, rather than the principled consensus reached between the DPRK and the ROK. China, the USA, and the “Armed forces for U.N.” are involved. The two major countries—China and the USA have the responsibilities and obligations of which the small and middle countries do not have for international law and international politics. Once they become parties to the declaration, they will shoulder more international obligation. Moreover, the ambiguity between the declaration and the treaty, and the declaration's partial attribute of international law, which all make the great power more cautious on this issue. Considering the history of the US–DPRK relations and the deep distrust between each other, if the two countries do not reach agreement on the understanding of the effectiveness of the declaration from the perspective of international law, they will objectively have the possibility of “creative” interpretation of the declaration, thus making the party with more obligations become cautious. The reason why this kind of worry exists is that different parties have different understandings of the political significance of the end-of-war declaration.

From the perspective of North Korea, the end-of-war declaration is an alternative to its long-term appeal for peace treaties. On January 10, 1972, when Kim Il-Sung met with a Japanese reporter, he first proposed that, “if the US imperialist aggressor forces withdraw troops from South Korea, North Korea and South Korea will conclude a peace treaty, and North Korea and South Korea will substantially reduce their troops (Clauser and Goldman 2016, 213).” In March 1974, the Supreme People’ s Assembly of the DPRK sent a letter to the US Congress to openly invite the USA to participate in the negotiation of a peace treaty (KCNA 1975, 265). Kim Il-Sung also raised the idea of reaching a peace agreement with President Carter, but did not receive any response. Since then, North Korea has always insisted that the peace treaty is a necessary means to achieve security on the peninsula. After the nuclear crisis broke out, North Korea also explicitly raised the issue of “replacement of the armistice agreement with a new peace treaty (Cumings 2016, 202).” In 2010, when the nuclear crisis of North Korean eased, the DPRK Foreign Ministry also issued a statement recommending a dialogue with relevant parties on the replacement of the Korean Armistice Agreement with a peace treaty. From 2012 to 2016, Pyongyang issued at least five official statements explicitly reaffirming the need to conclude a peace treaty. After Trump took office, Kim Jong-un had more reasons to believe that his maverick style made the US–DPRK negotiations no longer so far away.

In seeking to conclude a peace treaty with the USA, North Korea’s demands have never been met. Therefore, after Roh Moo-hyun creatively explained the end-of-war declaration in 2007 and promoted it as the highlight of the North–South summit, North Korea began to confront the issue of “end-of-war” and followed South Korean to use the term as well. In particular, after Moon Jae-in restated the issue of the end-of-war declaration in 2018, the DPRK began to accept this concept, which was defined as which “proposed by the U.S. first during the Bush II administration more than one decade ago,” and was written into “the April 10th North and South Joint Declaration” (KCNA 2018). From the perspective of North Korea, the announcement of the termination of the war is the primary task for ending the war on the Korean Peninsula and building a mutual trust between the DPRK and the USA (Xinhua 2018). North Korea proposes that “the end-of-war declaration should be announced early.” First, it is “the first official certification to ease the tension on the Korean Peninsula and promote the announced security system.” Secondly, it is the “primary element of building a trust relationship between the DPRK and the United States.” It is also a “historical issue that ends the confrontational state of the Korean Peninsula for nearly 70 years.” In summary, it is the first measure that the USA must take to ensure the security of the DPRK regime in the process of the DPRK–US relationship shifting from confrontation to peaceful coexistence (Lee et al. 2018). In addition, the issue of the end-of-war declaration is naturally conducive to its political propaganda both inside and outside. It can not only be interpreted as Kim Jong-un’s initiative to adjust foreign policy, which leads to the end of the war, but can also be interpreted as North Korea possibly achieving peace through possessing nuclear powers.

From the perspective of South Korea, the end-of-war declaration is an important way to participate in the construction of the peace mechanism on the Korean Peninsula and to strive for the initiative and the speaking right. As early as April 16, 1996, South Korea and the USA jointly proposed the “four-party talks” (China, the USA, the North Korea, and South Korea), as a response to North Korea’s signing a peace treaty with the USA and a unilateral abolition of the armistice agreement, and also for “a discussion on the new peace mechanism, which was established on the Korean Peninsula to replace the armistice agreement signed at Panmunjom on July 27, 1953, in order to achieve permanent peace on the peninsula” (Yu 2009, 209). Since then, the four-party talks have developed into a six-party talks on Korean Peninsula nuclear issue. South Korea has begun to join the negotiations on the nuclear issue and the construction of the peace mechanism as a participant. Prior to this, North Korea regarded the USA as the main negotiating object. Since South Korea has not signed the Korean Armistice Agreement, it is rather embarrassing that South Korea takes part in the negotiation of replacing the armistice mechanism with the peace mechanism from the perspective of international law. From the four-party talks to the six-party talks, South Korea’s identity has gradually gained international recognition. On the surface, the issue of the end-of-war declaration is proposed by President Bush. The Roh Moo-hyun administration had actually operated and promoted it, which has made South Korea become an indispensable party in the establishment of the peace mechanism on the Korean Peninsula, and has increased the initiative and voice of South Korea.

At the same time, when the peace treaty has been long unable to proceed into the negotiation stage, the rendering and promotion of the end-of-war declaration is an important means for the leftist party of South Korea to achieve phased outcome and increase domestic support. At the end of the Roh Moo-hyun administration, the issue of the end-of-war declaration was hurriedly raised, but there was still confusion about its issue after or before the peace talks. The Moon Jae-in administration has clarified the end-of-war declaration as a first phase of peace treaty. Its purpose is to promote the establishment of a permanent peace mechanism on the Korean Peninsula. But as Moon Jae-in’s word, it is “a symbolic measure” and does not have any legal or institutional effects. It is only a “political declaration (Yonhap 2018a).” Judging from the policy direction of Moon’s government, Seoul regards the end-of-war declaration as a catalyst for improving the DPRK–US relations and the denuclearization process. It even tends to believe that ending the long-standing hostile relationship between Washington and Pyongyang is the key prerequisites for the North Korea’s denuclearization, and the Korean War can be ended with a declaration, which can be a stepping stone for North Korea’s complete denuclearization. Moon Jae-in has also emphasized that the “Declaration to End the Korean War” is only a “political declaration” that does not have legal or institutional effects to persuade the USA. However, even the symbolic declaration can bring a great domestic reputation to the government. In various opinion polls after the South–North summit in April 2018, the supporting rate of President Moon’s rose by about 10 percentage points. However, in the following months, due to the economic downturn and the continued decline in the employment rate, Moon’s support rate continued to decline, falling to the lowest point since he took office as the president. However, after the Pyongyang summit in September, its supporting rate rose rapidly and returned to more than 60% (Mai 2018). The ruling Democratic Party has also been far ahead of the opposition party with a supporting rate of exceeding more than 40%.

From the perspective of the USA, the declaration to end the Korean War in certain degree means the USA’s substantive recognition of the North Korean regime and its compromise on the nuclear issue. In the legal sense, the USA has not recognized the legitimacy of the North Korean regime since 1948. Although the USA and the DPRK have negotiated on bilateral and multilateral occasions since the conclusion of the 1994 nuclear Framework Agreement, their legal symbolic significance has not been declared as formal as the end-of-war declaration. In the context of North Korea’s substantial possession of nuclear weapon, the declaration of the end-of-war represents the recognition of North Korea’s nuclear status in a certain sense. Therefore, the US government advocates that it is only after the implementation of “effective denuclearization measures” in North Korea that it is possible to talk about the end-of-war declaration. Moreover, the USA must be worried that the effect of the declaration may surpass the original political declaration of ending the Korean War and be promoted by North Korea as a “non-aggression” declaration. In addition, given the long-term mistrust of the DPRK and the USA, Washington is not certain that North Korea’s denuclearization will be substantially promoted after the end-of-war declaration, but it can be expected that the issue of the end-of-war declaration will weaken the implementation of sanctions and the credibility of military options. Therefore, the USA has every reason to believe that the issue of the end-of-war declaration is a major concession with enormous risks, which reduces the leverage required to force Pyongyang to embark on a denuclearization path. If Pyongyang refuses to denuclearize without more concessions, the USA will not suffer the decline of prestige, but also limit the choice of policy tools.

The issue of the end-of-war declaration may also bring unpredictable consequences to the US military situation on the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia, making the USA be concerned that this move will become the lead for changing the geopolitical pattern of Northeast Asia. On October 5, 2018, Wayne Eyre, deputy commander of the “United Nations Command” stationed in South Korea, said in a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, even if the declaration had no legal basis, people will begin to question emotionally the purpose of deploying the United Nations Command and the garrison on the ground. “I am afraid that it will be out of control. The outside world will question why the US military is stationed on the Korean peninsula (Eyre 2018).” In fact, the Moon Jae-in administration is also considering the end-of-war declaration as the starting point for ending the Cold War pattern on the Korean Peninsula and building a new regional security architecture. Moon Chung-in, a special adviser to Moon Jae-in’s diplomacy and national security, believes that changing the traditional South Korea–US alliance and entering the multilateral security cooperation mechanism will help maintain peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia. South Korea’s leftists advocate independent defense and hope to improve two Koreas’ relations and then establish a new multilateral security system in Northeast Asia instead of forming alliances with the USA or China. But the USA has been seeking to strengthen and integrate its alliance system in Northeast Asia for the past 20 years to meet China’s challenges. The disparity in Seoul and Washington’s long-term strategic visions for Northeast Asia raises questions of whether “such a political declaration could accelerate pressure—from China, North Korea, and possibly even the South Korean public—for material downgrades to the alliance (Lee and Nezam 2018).”

3 Possible Deficiencies and Problems of the “Declaration to End the Korean War”

Judging from the ambiguity of the effectiveness of its international law and the huge differences among the three parties—DPRK, ROK, and the USA in their expectations, before the parties fully reach a consensus, the hasty signing of the declaration to end the Korean War inevitably has its inherent limitations. Moon Jae-in administration is eager to reach this goal in a short period of time, which has increased the possibility that the text of the declaration will become formalistic. South Korea’s vague attitude toward the participation of “three parties or four parties” has made hidden dangers prematurely in the path to peace. To build a peace mechanism on the Korean Peninsula, it is necessary to have more than just an end-of-war declaration with only political symbolism, but rather a declaration with definition of the rights and obligations of the parties, and with the evolutionary function as an international law itself.

3.1 The Different Expectations of the Parties Concerned have Caused the Inherent Deficiency of the Declaration

Judging from the expectations of the DPRK, ROK, and the USA, they generally pay more attention to the political significance of the end-of-war declaration rather than the legal significance. North Korea is more concerned about obtaining the symbolic recognition of the USA over its dominant system and the status of a nuclear-armed state through the declaration, thereby enhancing its position in the denuclearization negotiations. South Korea is more concerned about the process of building the peace mechanism on the Korean Peninsula by issuing an end-of-war declaration, and gaining unprecedented prestige for the ruling leftist party and Moon’s government. The USA believes that the issue of end-of-war declaration can only be explored when substantial progress is made in denuclearization, and it is highly worried that North Korea and South Korea will over-interpret the declaration, thereby limiting its policy choices to deal with the North Korean nuclear issue and eroding its presence in Northeast Asian security architecture. These differences have caused the “dystocia” of the declaration. Although Trump is not as concerned about maintaining a garrison in South Korea as the former US president, he does not care to withdraw from his dissatisfied international treaties at any time, and his attitude toward the North Korean regime is more flexible. This provided an opportunity for South Korea to persuade the USA to issue the declaration, and it also increased the possibility of realization. However, this does not completely change the differences existing in the expectations of the USA and the DPRK toward the declaration. Trump has the power to decide to issue the end-of-war declaration, but he cannot influence the deep doubts on North Korea from the US Congress and military, and it is difficult to influence their power to implement the policy toward the DPRK. This makes the process of changing the controversial declaration to the peace mechanism more difficult.

3.2 The Eagerness of Moon Jae-in Administration Makes the Declaration Formality

Moon Jae-in administration showed a high degree of enthusiasm on the issue of the “Declaration to End the Korean War” and actively promoted the DPRK and the USA to reach a compromise on this issue. Moon Jae-in clearly stated that he hopes to issue a declaration in 2018 to officially end the war with North Korea. Moreover, the rapid warming of two Koreas’ relations has gradually caused a gap between the USA and South Korea’s policies toward North Korea. After the summit meeting between the DPRK and ROK in Pyongyang in September, a series of agreements were reached between the two countries. Among them, the agreement documents in the military field include not only the no-fly zone in the airspace near the military demarcation line, but also the provisions that substantially restrict the US–Korean military exercises (Su 2018). South Korea’s move inevitably attracted the USA’s attention. The demarcation of the no-fly zone will limit the USFK’s military investigations against North Korea and the related air–ground cooperative operations with ROK. Subsequently, South Korea took a bigger step in its policy toward the DPRK. Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said that North Korea is not required to provide a list of nuclear facilities and nuclear weapons. As long as North Korea dismantles the Yongbyon nuclear facilities, in return, the declaration of ending war will be signed (Kim and Lee 2018). Although the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff has repeatedly denied that there is a disagreement with the USFK and the United Nations Command in the ROK–DPRK military agreement (Yonhap 2018b, c), the other two parties’ reactions on this issue are cold, and the reason why there is no public opposition is actually to avoid raising the anti-American sentiment of the Korean people (United Morning Post 2018). A number of media also reported that the US Secretary of State Pompeo was very dissatisfied with South Korea’s rapid advancement of reconciliation and the signing of a military agreement with North Korea. Trump also directly called, “They won’t do it without our approval. They do nothing without our approval (Brunnstrom and Lee 2018).” In the eyes of the USA, South Korea is pushing ahead with the principle of almost losing its principle, despite the fact that North Korea’s nuclear abandonment has not made substantial progress. Despite this, Moon Jae-in is still tough to say that he will sign the end-of-war declaration as soon as possible. In this situation, even if the goal can be achieved, the form of the declaration outweighs the content. In terms of content, the USA and the DPRK will each propose reservation clauses, which will hinder the evolution to the peace agreement.

3.3 The Issue of the Participants in the Declaration Buried Hidden Dangers in the Construction of the Peace Mechanism

Another major limitation of the end-of-war declaration issue promoted by South Korea now is about the participants. As early as the “October 4 Declaration” in 2007, the ROK and the DPRK have proposed a vague expression of “three parties or four parties.” “April 27 Panmunjom Declaration” of 2018 once again proposed “three or four parties.” In the eyes of South Korea, the three parties certainly refer to South Korea, North Korea, and the USA, not to China, North Korea, and the USA that signed the Armistice Agreement. The explanation given by the Moon Jae-in administration in this regard is that the declaration is a political declaration to end the war and dispel hostile relations. China and South Korea, China and the USA have already established diplomatic relations, and there is no need to become a subject. At the same time, the peace treaty means the establishment of legal and institutional guarantees, which must be signed by the four parties including China. The idea of proposing the three parties began in the period of Roh Moo-hyun and has a deep-rooted precaution to China. At the same time, considering the current situation of China–US relations, there may also be concerns about the contradiction between China and the USA on the issue of end of war. But in any case, the three-party formulation makes the end-of-war declaration unable to inherit the legality of the Korean Armistice Agreement, and it is difficult to evolve into a peace treaty negotiation including four parties.

A veritable “Declaration to End the Korean War” should not be confined to the “political declaration.” This not only greatly reduces the substantive significance of the declaration itself, but also leaves room for arbitrarily interpreting by the countries with different original intentions, which has buried hidden dangers for the development of the situation. Objectively speaking, North Korea has made positive moves on the issue of denuclearization and should be encouraged. But what North Korea is doing now is nuclear freezing, not eliminating. Therefore, not only the worries of the USA are understandable, but the international community should also give a rational understanding. The overly positive proposition of South Korea cannot but cause the outside world to question its attitude toward the denuclearization of North Korea. That is, South Korea’s top priority is not to denuclearize but to prevent war. Will South Korea think that, “even if North Korea retains nuclear weapons, there will be no problem in the future as long as the peninsula is unified?” Therefore, an end-of-war declaration that is difficult to reach consensus and has many defects is not the only option to encourage North Korea. Some measures such as lifting sanctions and providing economic assistance should be considered.

4 The Role Orientation and Key Element of the “Declaration to End the Korean War”

The ambiguity of the end-of-war declaration in the sense of international law and the differences among parties in the interpretation of its political significance might make it nothing but a document for the transition from the armistice agreement to the peace treaty. And, on the other hand, the declaration’s awkward role positioning has also emerged. In order to sign the declaration as soon as possible, Moon Jae-in administration has deliberately shaped it into an insignificant symbolic document, which actually weakens the role that the declaration should play. In the long run, it is not conducive to the construction of the peace mechanism on the Korean Peninsula. In the context of the easing of the situation on the Korean Peninsula, active but steady policy promotion seems to be necessary. A reasonable and effective end-of-war declaration should return to its original starting point and should be seen as part of the peace mechanism on the Korean Peninsula. The peace mechanism on the Korean Peninsula and the denuclearization of North Korea should be a “dual-track” relationship. The end-of-war declaration is an important link in this approach, with important political symbolic significance and legal normative significance.

About the time of declaration’s publication, as part of the process of constructing peace mechanism, the declaration should correspond to the link of denuclearization process on the Korean Peninsula. If the denuclearization process of the Korean Peninsula is divided into three phases of freezing, dismantling, and disarmament (destruction), the declaration should be published at least at the end of the freezing phase (see Table 1). As of November 2018, North Korea only continued to freeze nuclear tests and missile tests, symbolically dismantling nuclear test sites and rocket engine test sites. The production of North Korea’s nuclear plants and uranium mines has not completely stopped (38 North 2018). This moment is not the right time to announce the end-of-war declaration. As mentioned above, the incentives for North Korea can be humanitarian assistance, easing sanctions, not a declaration to end the war, at least not now. North Korea’s reluctance to submit a nuclear checklist is due to deep-rooted mistrust to the USA (Kim and Ahn 2018). And the USA has been reluctant to “encourage” North Korea on sanctions. Without taking measures such as freezing nuclear production, conducting nuclear declarations, and accepting nuclear inspections, it is difficult to show that North Korea has made more substantial progress on the road to denuclearization. Therefore, the USA and the DPRK should take measures to build more trust and take further step on the road of nuclear freeze and relaxation of sanctions, thus creating conditions for the publication of the end-of-war declaration.
Table 1

The roadmap of the dual track on the Korean Peninsula (cf. Raza 2018; Halperin et al. 2018)

Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula

Construction of the peace mechanism on the Korean Peninsula

Phase 1 Freeze

Suspension of nuclear test and missile launch test

Partially stopped the US–ROK joint military exercise, and the retained military exercises clearly did not include nuclear attacks and decapitation attacks

Continued cessation of nuclear and missile tests

Reaffirming non-hostile intentions and denuclearization will, exploring specific roadmap plans

Freeze all nuclear production facilities

Partially lifted oil sanctions, provided necessary energy assistance, and discussed options to provide long-term energy assistance to North Korea

Declare nuclear facilities and materials to the IAEA

Provide additional energy and humanitarian assistance, further relax sanctions, and reopen Kaesong Industrial Complex

Return to the NPT, allowing the IAEA to take surveillance measures on nuclear facilities

Completely stop military exercises against North Korea, strengthen military confidence measures, further lift sanctions, and promote multi-party economic cooperation with the DPRK

Announced full acceptance of IAEA verification

The parties concerned issued the “Declaration to End the Korea War”

Phase 2 Dismantle

The six-party talks resumed and negotiations on a comprehensive nuclear issue began

China, the USA, the DPRK, and the ROK negotiate the peace treaty

The IAEA’s verification has been smoothly advanced and completed gradually

Take measures to comprehensively assure North Korea’s energy supply (providing light water reactors, providing heavy oil, integrating power grids, etc.)

Experts from China, the USA, and Russia enter North Korea to assist IAEA in the dismantling of nuclear production facilities

Fully launch the economic cooperation plan with the DPRK

North Korea declares the number of nuclear warheads

US–North Korea, Japan–North Korea initiated negotiations on normalization of relations

North Korea declares the number of medium- and long-range ballistic missiles

Supervise and guarantee the construction of North Korean light water reactors and commit to comprehensive economic assistance to North Korea

North Korea promises to abandon medium- and long-range missile R&D plan

South Korea promises to suspend all medium-range missile testing and production, and the USA promises not to deploy strategic weapons on the Korean Peninsula

The six-party talks set up a framework for the security mechanism on the Korean Peninsula, DPRK and ROK re-signed a non-nuclear agreement

The six-party talks set up a framework for the security mechanism on the Korean Peninsula, DPRK and ROK re-signed a non-nuclear agreement

Phase 3 Disarm

Transporting North Korean nuclear materials to third countries

Implementing retraining of North Korean nuclear and missile technology talents

North Korea accepts inspections of its nuclear warheads by China, the USA, and Russia

North Korea and South Korea sign nuclear-weapon-free zone treaty under the framework of the six-party talks

Define steps, timetables, verification procedures and implementers for the eliminating of nuclear weapons

Signing the US–DPRK, ROK–DPRK non-aggression treaty or common security agreement

Start eliminating North Korean nuclear weapons

USFK withdraw “THAAD” from ROK, carry out reduction and functional conversion

North Korea destroys medium- and long-range ballistic missiles

Fully lift the sanctions against the DPRK, allow DPRK to import conventional arms, and ROK reciprocally destroy medium-range ballistic missiles

North Korea completely eliminates the nuclear weapons

Signing the Korean Peninsula Peace Treaty, the US–DPRK/Japan–DPRK Treaty for Peace and Friendship, at the Summit of the Heads of State of the six-party talks

The Korean Peninsula Denuclearization Agreement is registered with the United Nations

The Korean Peninsula Peace Treaty is registered in the United Nations

On the issue of participants, the four-party solution including China, the USA, South Korea, and North Korea is a more reasonable option. From the perspective of international law, as a party to the Korean Armistice Agreement, China has the right and obligation to participate in any international negotiations to replace this agreement. A declaration of exclusion from China is a lack of self-consistent logic for a transition to a peace treaty that is inseparable from China’s participation. It is also unrealistic. The distrust between the USA and the DPRK has determined that North Korea will not accept the conditions for dialogue and contracting with the USA and South Korea alone. South Korea also has to worry that China’s exclusion will lead to China’s inaction on the North Korea’s denuclearization. The USA also needs a country with great influence on North Korea to contribute to the denuclearization process and the construction of peace mechanisms. In addition, from a technical perspective, non-nuclear states are not allowed to participate in the process of demolition and destruction of nuclear facilities and nuclear weapons (IPNDV 2018). As one of the few countries in the world with expertise in nuclear disarmament, China’s active participation in the denuclearization process in North Korea will undoubtedly speed up the process. Therefore, any attempt to exclude China is unwise, whether for legal, political, or technical reasons. Of course, China and the USA should also reach a tacit agreement and consciously do not spread the contradictions between the two countries to the issue of the Korean Peninsula, including the end-of-war declaration, to alleviate the doubts of the DPRK and the ROK on the disputes involving great powers and the idea of using great power.

About the content, in addition to declaring the end of the Korean War, the declaration should clearly include the code of conduct that all parties should follow, and promise to continue action in the next stage. Which will serve as a link between “nuclear freeze” to “nuclear dismantle,” and play a positive role in shifting peace mechanism issue from “willingness declaration” to “comprehensive framework consultation.” The ultimate goal of the construction of the peace mechanism on the Korean Peninsula is to form an institution that “clear arrangement negotiated by actors for restricting actors’ behavior.” The meaning of the “Declaration to End the Korean War” is to clarify the direction of the above-mentioned goals and the basic principles to be followed on the basis of announcing the end of the war. Therefore, the “Declaration to End the Korean War” should include three aspects: First, the end of the Korean War. Second, the direction of the peace mechanism after the end of the war is set. Third, make an announcement on the basic principles of the denuclearization process on the Korean Peninsula. The end of the Korean War means that the past truce mechanism is no longer applicable, and it is necessary to start consultations on the new peacekeeping mechanism. Otherwise, the end of the war is an empty talk. Therefore, it is indispensable to include the content of “the parties involved in the negotiation procedure for the peace treaty” in the declaration. According to the roadmap envisaged in Table 1, after the publication of the end-of-war declaration, the issue of denuclearization should enter the stage of dismantling nuclear facilities. The prerequisite for ensuring its smooth implementation is that the USA and the DPRK reach a consensus on the basic principles of phased, reciprocal, and synchronization. And, it needs a multilateral institution (the platform for the six-party talks remains a priority) to coordinate specific processes and discuss a comprehensive framework at any time. Therefore, it is very necessary for the “Declaration to End the Korean War” to clarify the principled consensus reached by all parties concerned on the issue of denuclearization and to set a timetable for the resumption of the six-party talks.

5 Conclusion

Since 2018, North Korea has clearly been committed to denuclearization. The Trump administration of the USA is also more flexible than previous governments. China–DPRK and ROK–DPRK relations are also in a relatively good state. However, all parties concerned should recognize that the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue is a long-term project, and any aggressive measures that attempt to make breakthroughs in the short term are systematically risky. All parties concerned must clearly grasp the boundaries of their respective policies and prevent the re-emergence of the “stag hunt game.” In particular, the insistence on the principle of denuclearization cannot be shaken, avoiding the goal of over-idealization and aggressive policies, which in turn leads to the reversal of the situation. As an important document in the process of building the peace mechanism on the Korean Peninsula, the “Declaration to End the Korean War” should not be in the form and eager to seek success, but should be carried out as a “dual-track” approach in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the construction of a peace mechanism. Therefore, it should have three elements of appropriate timing, reasonable participants, and meaningful content to prevent it from flowing into form and thus truly play its historical role.


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Copyright information

© Asiatic Research Institute 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Northeast Asian Studies CollegeJilin UniversityChangchunChina

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