As the Trump administration prepares for a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, how can it move negotiations past their current state of stagnation?
North Korea insists that a peace declaration must precede disarmament steps, but in October U.S. negotiators reverted to framing the end of the war as an “end state” that will follow the “final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea.”
While this hardline position is appealing to some in Washington, if neither side is willing to give an inch, another summit it is unlikely to break through the impasse.
Issuing a symbolic end of war declaration could help to move beyond the deadlock with North Korea and narrow the divide between U.S. and South Korean negotiating strategies, while preserving the legal structures that underlie the political and security relationships on the peninsula.
In August, Vox reported that during a private conversation in Singapore this past June, President Trump promised to issue a war ending declaration shortly after the meeting. If this is true, then continuing to hold out on a concession that Kim believes he has already been promised may threaten whatever progress is possible on disarmament.
If the United States does not move forward with a peace declaration, it will be perceived as an unreliable negotiating partner attempting to exact a price for concessions already promised. Declaring an end to the war may, in practice, be a necessary step in making progress on threat reduction on the peninsula or persuading North Korea to agree to limits on its nuclear arsenal.
This issue is also of great importance to the Moon Jae-in administration. The decision to withhold this concession would therefore also widen the divide between Washington and Seoul, further depleting alliance leverage.
WHAT AN END OF WAR DECLARATION INVOLVES
While an end of war declaration has received significant attention, uncertainty remains about exactly what it would involve and its implications.
As a result, other terms like “peace treaty” and “peace regime” are sometimes conflated with this concept. As Duyeon Kim has explained previously, for Seoul, these terms correspond to three distinct components of a process that would in theory lead to lasting peace on the peninsula.
Of these three components, an initial political declaration ending the Korean War represents the narrowest commitment—a symbolic confidence-building measure.
Unlike a formal peace treaty, a peace declaration would be non-binding under international law and would neither require ratification from the U.S. Senate nor modify any existing legal obligations. It would not replace the 1953 Armistice or have any direct impact on the legal status of the United Nations Command.
While a peace declaration by itself is unlikely to reform the U.S.-DPRK relationship or prompt Pyongyang to relinquish its nuclear arsenal, symbolic or “politically binding” measures like this can lay the groundwork for more substantial discussions on challenging security matters.
While the exact form such a statement would take and the provisions it would contain are not predetermined, an end of war declaration could be as simple as a statement declaring that hostilities between the United States and North Korea have ended. Considering that major hostilities of the Korean War ceased in 1953 with the signing of the Armistice, this would purely be a statement of fact.
More complicated formulations of an end of war declaration could incorporate security assurances or other commitments, but the United States and South Korea must closely coordinate their negotiating positions if additional provisions are under consideration in order for each government to avoid committing to something that the other does not.
IMPLICATIONS FOR THE ALLIANCE
One risk of issuing a peace declaration is that it could empower North Korea and certain constituencies in South Korea that call for the dissolution of UN Command (UNC) and the withdrawal of U.S. Forces Korea.
While an end of war declaration may generate political pressures to this effect, it will not impact the legal status of the military commands based in South Korea or the U.S.-ROK alliance.
An end of war declaration could be as simple as a statement declaring that hostilities between the United States and North Korea have ended
A set of legal agreements that date back to the Korean War and have been modified over time underpin the international political and military relationships between the United States, South Korea, and the states that contributed forces to fight against North Korea in the war.
The result is a structure of three interlocking military commands: UN Command (UNC), United States Forces in Korea (USFK), and the Combined Forces Command (CFC). Even though these forces are under the direction of a single US commander, their legal foundations are distinct.
As a legally non-binding agreement, a peace declaration on its own would only require changes to the UNC, USFK, or CFC if the United States and North Korea negotiated specific security guarantees to that effect.
In addition to replacing the Armistice, a legally binding peace treaty may be accompanied by UN action to reverse the resolutions that authorized states to intervene in the Korean War, thereby removing the legal justification for the United Nations Command. However, neither an end of war declaration nor a peace treaty would affect the legal underpinnings of the US-ROK alliance.
The U.S.-ROK Mutual Defense Treaty indicates that the alliance exists to deter “an armed attack in the Pacific area on either of the Parties in territories now under their administrative control,” and its legal authority would endure even if North Korea no longer posed any threat.
Reinforcing this position, Kim Eui-kyeom, President Moon’s spokesperson said, “U.S. troops stationed in South Korea are an issue regarding the alliance between South Korea and the United States. It has nothing to do with signing peace treaties.”
More complicated formulations of an end of war declaration could incorporate security assurances or other commitments
Issuing a peace declaration comes with risks, but these may be more manageable than the consequences of failing to do so. The United States and South Korea can mitigate the challenges that accompany declaring an end to the Korean War by coordinating their positions closely, and by consistently communicating the function of a declaration to North Korean negotiators and to their own domestic publics.
Ideally, a peace declaration would affirm that the Armistice and the obligations it generates will remain intact until a formal peace treaty is concluded.
Continuing to withhold this symbolic concession until North Korea relinquishes its nuclear weapons capability, an unlikely near-term outcome of negotiations, may risk what progress toward disarmament is possible.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Kevin Lim/THE STRAITS TIMES
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