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Explained: What does South Korea’s end of Korean War comment really mean

At a joint press conference with Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison this week, South Korea's President Moon Jae-in said North Korea and South Korea, the US and China had agreed to a formal end to the Korean War. What does his announcement mean?

Written by Neha Banka , Edited by Explained Desk | Kolkata |
Updated: December 15, 2021 7:32:17 am
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, poses with South Korean President Moon Jae-in for a photo inside the Peace House at the border village of Panmunjom in Demilitarized Zone, South Korea on April 27, 2018. (AP)

At a joint press conference with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Canberra earlier this week, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in said North Korea and South Korea, the US, and China had agreed in principle to declare a formal end to the Korean War. The Korean War lasted from 1950 to 1953 and the Armistice Agreement brought about a cessation of hostilities in July 1953. Both North and South Korea have technically remained at war since.

But does Moon’s announcement actually mean the end of this war?

What this is about

Since Moon Jae-in became president, engagement with North Korea has remained an important part of his foreign policy. In addition, he has also been a vocal proponent of ending hostilities and conflict with Pyongyang.

In September this year, Moon Jae-in addressed the UN General Assembly and repeated his call for a declaration to formally end the Korean War. “I once again urge the community of nations to mobilise its strengths for the end-of-war declaration on the Korean Peninsula,” Moon had said during that address. “I propose that three parties of the two Koreas and the U.S., or four parties of the two Koreas, the U.S. and China come together and declare that the War on the Korean Peninsula is over.”

During his tenure, Moon has argued that this declaration would encourage North Korea denuclearise. But the US has insisted that Pyongyang would need to give up its nuclear weapons for any progress to materialise.

At the UNGA, US President Joe Biden said, “We seek concrete progress toward an available plan with tangible commitments that would increase stability on the Peninsula and in the region, as well as improve the lives of the people in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” he said. But North Korea has ignored Washington D.C.’s calls for dialogue.

Miniature flags are displayed as South Korean President Moon Jae-in, left, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, witness a signing ceremony at Parliament House, in Canberra, Australia, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021.(AP)

North Korea’s response

Over the past few years, particularly during Donald Trump’s presidency, there has been unusual development in DPRK-US relations. In June 2018, DPRK leader Kim Jong Un met with Trump in Singapore for a historical summit, becoming the first North Korean leader to meet a sitting US president. That was followed by another summit in Hanoi months later. Both summits had little substance to them from a foreign policy perspective and were little more than photo opportunities for both leaders.

Despite the relative thaw in relations between North and South Korea since 2017, relations soured after North Korea objected to South Korean activists and defector groups began sending propaganda leaflets and material across the border in June 2020, according to a Reuters report.

In response, specifically following Seoul’s inability to prevent this from happening, North Korea blew up a joint liaison office with the South near the North’s border town of Kaesong. The office was demolished just hours after Pyongyang had renewed threats of military action at the Korean border.

Escalations continued with Pyongyang also carrying out a series of missile tests, including recent tests of what it had announced were hypersonic and long-range weapons, a BBC report said.

In September this year, DPRK leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, had said that Pyongyang was open to ending the war if certain conditions were met. In a response to Seoul’s calls to end the war, Kim had said Pyongyang was willing to resume talks if South Korea ended its “hostile policies”.

In a statement released by DPRK state media, Kim had said, “What needs to be dropped is the double-dealing attitudes, illogical prejudice, bad habits and hostile stand of justifying their own acts while faulting our just exercise of the right to self-defence… Only when such a precondition is met, would it be possible to sit face to face and declare the significant termination of war.”

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, center left, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, second right, witness a signing ceremony with South Korean Trade Minister Yeo Han-koo, second left, and Australian Energy Minister Angus Taylor at Parliament House, in Canberra, Australia, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021. (Lukas Coch/Pool Photo via AP)

A stumbling block has also been Pyongyang’s consistent objection to US-led sanctions against the DPRK. Another bone of contention has been the presence of US troops in South Korea that have been stationed in the country since the halt in hostilities 1953, as well as the joint military drills held every year between the US and South Korea.

At the press conference in Canberra, President Moon had stated that these demands by the DPRK were making it difficult to sit down for further discussions. In particular, the DPRK has focused on the lifting of the sanctions that has severely impacted the country, one that the US has been unwilling to modify, insisting that the DPRK abandon its nuclear weapons programme.

Moon Jae-in’s domestic challenges

It is important to see these developments from the perspective of domestic politics in South Korea. President Moon’s term is nearing its end, with him leaving office in May 2022. Analysts believe that for Moon and his many efforts to improve ties with Pyongyang, he has little to show for the five years spent on the endeavours.

There is also some indication that the Biden administration is not very keen on Moon’s plans because of the possibility of getting little in return from Pyongyang, a BBC report said, with the possibility of Washington having to give up a lot more in comparison—for instance, an easing of sanctions. There are also some political circles, including those in South Korea, who believe this would end the annual US-South Korea joint military exercises, an unwelcome prospect for many.

At this point, a bilateral declaration would benefit President Moon and his party, the Democratic Party of Korea, whose nominee for the March presidential election Lee Jae-myung, is running far behind his opponent Yoon Seok-youl of the conservative People Power Party, the main opposition party.

However, it is difficult to ascertain whether progress on this front would significantly benefit President Moon’s party. Analysts also believe that given the Biden administration’s lack of enthusiasm for Moon’s attempts to officially “declare” an end to the Korean War, it may also end up impacting the larger US-South Korea alliance.

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