Divergent opinions between US and North Korea on declaring end to the Korean War

The declaration of the end of the Korean War has become a central issue in talks between the US and North Korea following US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s third trip to North Korea on July 6-7, 2018. According to a report by Japan’s Asahi Shimbun on July 20, North Korean United Front Work Department Head Kim Yong Chol told Secretary Pompeo that the US failure to declare an end to the Korean War would make it difficult for North Korea to make progress on denuclearization.

In a Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement released immediately after Secretary Pompeo left for Japan, North Korea criticized what it called the US attempt to “delay the already agreed upon declaration of the end of the Korean War through various conditions and pretexts.” The statement further declared that “America demanded denuclearization in unilateral and aggressive terms.” The failure to find a resolution to the issue means that further negotiations focused on implementing the agreements made during the US-North Korea summit will likely face difficulties.

Why is North Korea making the declaration to end the Korean War a central issue in the negotiations? It appears that the country is trying to move the focal point of negotiations from denuclearization to an agenda based on the United Nations Command and US-ROK joint military exercises, which provides more fertile ground for North Korean diplomatic maneuvering. By speedily finding a resolution to ending the Korean War, North Korean leaders could be trying to eliminate the confrontational relationship they have with the US to promote a major shift in bilateral relations in time for the 70th anniversary of the North Korean regime’s establishment on September 9, while also aiming to use the triumph as a way to further promote solidarity among the North Korean people.

This viewpoint, however, overlooks the China factor. That North Korea is making the declaration ending the Korean War an issue during US-DPRK (DPRK is abbreviation for North Korea’s official name) negotiations is likely a result of strong pressure from China, which is exerting influence on the country through improved Sino-DPRK relations.

The China Factor

The US put the declaration of the end of the Korean War, which was mentioned in the Panmunjom Declaration, as an agenda item during the US-North Korea summit. President Donald Trump mentioned that he would discuss the issue with Kim Jong Un during the Singapore Summit while meeting with United Front Work Department Head Kim Yong Chol in Washington on June 2, 2018. The joint statement released by the US and DPRK (abbreviation for th after the Singapore summit, however, did not make any direct comment on this issue. According to sources, Trump proposed that the two Koreas and the US declare an end to the Korean War, but Kim Jong Un was not willing to make any such declaration without input from China. Subsequently, there was no agreement on the declaration.

Following Pompeo’s third visit to North Korea, a North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement was released, stating, “The speedy declaration of the end of the Korean War is the first step to lowering tensions on the Korean Peninsula and constructing a strong system of peace, while also a priority for building trust between the two countries.” In the statement, North Korea made it clear that the four parties of North and South Korea, the US and China – not just the two Koreas and the US – should be part of the declaration.

In a rare move, China held three summits with North Korea over a period of three months and quickly restored its relations with the North. China also promised North Korea that it would guarantee the security of the North Korean regime if it denuclearizes along with economic support, while also providing a plane for Kim Jong Un to fly to the US-DPRK summit in Singapore. It is reasonable to think, as a result, that China is attempting to intervene in the process of US-DPRK negotiations.

China was one of the signatories of the 1953 Armistice Agreement and has argued that it must participate in any declaration of the end of the Korean War. However, the country has not exercised its authority under the Armistice Agreement since it removed its troops from North Korea in 1958, and furthermore removed its officials from the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) in 1994 per a North Korean request.

Nonetheless, China claims that only a declaration made with its participation can be legally and institutionally justifiable because it was a signatory of the Armistice Agreement along with North Korea and the US, and because the Armistice Agreement has not been invalidated nor has it been replaced by another agreement. China thus intends to maintain a voice in the reorganization of the security order on the Korean Peninsula and in broader Northeast Asia by participating in any declaration ending the Korean War. With North Korea demanding that China be included in such a declaration, however, the US appears concerned that China’s participation in the denuclearization process could delay or distort the process.

The South Korean Response

It is important that China’s involvement in ongoing US-DPRK negotiations does not complicate the momentum created by the inter-Korean and US-DPRK summits toward denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula. South Korea should, on the one hand, hold high-level meetings with the Chinese to persuade them that North Korea should shut down its long-range missile engine testing site and accept reporting and verification requirements on its nuclear weapons program. In parallel, South Korea could persuade the US to accept a declaration ending the Korean War that includes China.

If the US or North Korea are resistant to measures friendly to the other side, South Korea should consider trying to persuade North Korea to accept the participation of China in the declaration in exchange for speedily accepting reporting and verification requirements on its nuclear program. If either North Korea or the US think that time is on their side, it will lead to a delay in denuclearization and the implementation of a roadmap for peace. Considering that the domestic politics of both countries will be unclear following North Korea’s 70th anniversary of its founding and the US midterm elections on November 8, time is decidedly on no one’s side. Both countries appear unready to make the first move due to concerns of worsening their own negotiating position. South Korea’s role in the “driver’s seat” of affairs on the Korean Peninsula has never been more important.

*Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.