This year’s thaw in inter-Korean relations and several rounds of high-level diplomacy have raised hopes of a breakthrough to bring a lasting peace to the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia.
President Moon Jae-in seized the opportunity of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February to initiate dialog with the North Korean leadership. The April summit with Kim Jong Un resulted in the Panmunjom Declaration, which included a commitment to “make joint efforts to alleviate the acute military tension and practically eliminate the danger of war on the Korean Peninsula.”
The two sides also “agreed to actively pursue trilateral meetings involving the two Koreas and the United States, or quadrilateral meetings involving the two Koreas, the United States and China with a view to declaring an end to the War.”
Furthermore, President Moon and Chairman Kim “confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.”
Moon’s initiative was instrumental in realizing the first ever U.S.-North Korea summit, which was held in Singapore in June. The summit joint statement declared that the United States and North Korea would “join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.”
Many western analysts have assumed that an “end to the war” would be necessary and sufficient for Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear arsenal
As U.S.-North Korea diplomacy stalled through the summer and Secretary of State Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang was abruptly cancelled in late August, President Moon seemingly resuscitated the peace process with his visit to Pyongyang in late September.
Now another high-level U.S.-North Korea meeting has been postponed, with Kim Yong Chol apparently failing to depart for a meeting with Secretary Pompeo in New York that was scheduled for 8 November.
Despite no North Korean commitments or promises to “denuclearize in exchange for an end to the war,” many western analysts have assumed that an “end to the war” would be necessary and sufficient for Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear arsenal.
Some analysts have speculated as to Kim Jong Un’s motivations for achieving an end-of-war declaration, while others have offered suggestions on how and when the Korean War should end.
President Moon has been urging the U.S. to end the Korean War so that a “peace regime” can be established. Recently, South Korea and the U.S. have established a bilateral working group to “achieve denuclearization and a peace regime,” which the Moon administration says are contingent upon an end-of-war declaration.
Now the Blue House is reportedly seeking multilateral discussions to realize the declaration by the end of the year, and possibly to coincide with a visit by Kim Jong Un to Seoul.
This “end-of-war” issue and its centrality to nuclear disarmament and sustainable peace in Korea have been debated at length, but one element missing from the discourse is a clear description of the conflict and the conditions required to terminate “it.”
The issue is complicated by the fact that there were five wars—not one. The Korean conflict included several participants with different perceptions and objectives.
They even have different names for the conflict, clearly reflecting their identities and roles, as well as objectives and expected conditions for “ending the war.”
The conflict occurred on the Korean peninsula, but some combatants came from far away. The experiences, memories, and narratives of the parties are similar in some respects, but they diverge in important ways.
The five wars in Korea are:
- The War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea
- The Fatherland Liberation War
- The Korean Revolution
- The Korean War (6.25 War)
- The Korean War (Police Action)
The War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea (抗美援朝戰爭) is what the People’s Republic of China (PRC) called the war. The PRC, established in October 1949, intervened to support its fraternal communist neighbor in October 1950, despite American assessments that it was much too weak to engage in such military adventurism.
One element missing from the discourse is a clear description of the conflict and the conditions required to terminate “it”
It was not the first time China had intervened in Korea to thwart the ambitions of foreign forces. In the 1590s, Ming China came to the aid of Korea to defeat Japanese invasions that nearly subjugated Korea. Four hundred years later, China went to war with Japan (1894-1895) as Tokyo tried to assert control of Korea. The War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea (1950-1953) is consistent with China’s strategic interest in preventing an offshore adversary or potential adversary from gaining a foothold on the Korean peninsula.
For China, the “end of war” is when the foreign adversary leaves or is expelled. No war was ever declared in the western legalistic sense, so no treaty or “end of war declaration” is necessary.
But the latent war could recommence under certain conditions. If the Armistice were to collapse and Korea were to return to war, Beijing would almost certainly intervene, and with much greater military capabilities than it had in October 1950. This posture has been made clear when senior Chinese officials in recent years have said that China “will not allow war or chaos on the Korean peninsula.”
The second war is “the Fatherland Liberation War” (祖國解放戰爭), which Pyongyang claims ended in victory for the Korean People’s Army under the leadership of Marshal Kim Il Sung.
But if “war is the continuation of politics by other means,” the victors impose their will on the subjugated, who have to endure what they must. It makes no sense for the DPRK to demand an “end of war declaration” when it also claims to have “won the conflict.”
But the DPRK under the ruling Korean Workers’ Party has been fighting another war: the Korean Revolution (朝鮮革命). According to the party and state narrative, the Korean Revolution is part of the continuous Marxian process of class struggle. The Revolution’s modern manifestation began in the 1860s with the encroachment of foreign powers, and the impending collapse of the Ching Dynasty and the East Asian world order.
North Korea marks the beginning of the modern revolution with the General Sherman incident in 1866. For North Korea, the Revolution has not ended, and it will not end until Korea is united under the rule of the Korean Workers’ Party. Pyongyang never mentions ending this war, but instead insists on “achieving the final victory” (最後의 勝利).
The fourth Korean war was what Seoul calls the Korean War (韓國戰爭) or the June 25th War (6.25 戰爭). From the South Korean perspective, an end to the Korean War would mean peaceful coexistence and a signed document declaring the end of the conflict.
This would be a political document to replace or supplement the Armistice—a ceasefire agreement signed by opposing military commanders.
Such an arrangement is possible and desirable from the perspective of a tolerant actor socialized in a pluralistic political system. Moving the rivalry from the realm of the military to politics would transform the relationship into something South Korean politicians are familiar with—if only Pyongyang and the Korean Workers’ Party were to abandon the dictatorship of the proletariat, democratic centralism and the ultimate objective of achieving the final victory and completing the revolution.
The North Korean objective in “ending this war” is to dismantle the institutions that form part of the U.S.-led security architecture in East Asia
The fifth Korean war is what analysts, pundits, policymakers and others abroad call the “Korean War.” This is the war that President Harry Truman termed a “police action.” Truman and his advisers wished to avoid escalation and World War III, which could have been a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. In some respects, this Korean War was a limited war, as was the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea.
Limited war was difficult to understand and accept for American strategists having terminated World War II with Japan’s unconditional surrender. From the perspective of the U.S. and the other sending states, the Korean War was conducted as part of the United Nations Security Council resolutions adopted in the summer of 1950 when the Soviet ambassador was boycotting due to the Security Council’s refusal to replace the Republic of China (ROC) with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as a permanent member of the Security Council.
In sum, the war was perceived to be an allied effort to contain communist expansion and to deter future aggression in East Asia and elsewhere. For the 16 sending states that fought with the Republic of Korea under the United Nations Command, the Cold War is over, and there is no need to recommence the conflict absent North Korean aggression against its neighbors in Northeast Asia.Of course, the North Korean objective in “ending this war” is to dismantle the institutions that form part of the U.S.-led security architecture in East Asia.
If four of the wars end, but the Korean revolution continues, there is a risk of U.S. withdrawal from the region, the termination of the multinational United Nations Command (UNC), the U.S.-ROK Combined Forces Command (CFC), and the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Korea.
This could lead to regional doubts about U.S. commitments, which already have been damaged by the Trump administration’s jingoism and foreign policy incoherence.
The erosion of U.S. extended deterrence could lead current allies to seek a range of capabilities, including nuclear weapons, that likely would trigger a destabilizing arms race.
For a stable and lasting peace on the Korean peninsula, all wars, including the Korean Revolution, must end.
If the other wars are terminated and the current security institutions dismantled, but the Korean Workers’ Party and the Korean People’s Army continue to fight the Revolution, the Korean peninsula could become unstable at any time.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Ministry of National Defense (MND)
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