Editor’s Note: As the world commemorates the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, the Center for the National Interest’s Korean Studies team decided to ask dozens of the world’s top experts a simple question: Do you believe that the Korean War will finally come to an end before its next major anniversary in 2025? The below piece is an answer to that question. Please click here to see even more perspectives on this important topic.
If I look back from this year, the seventieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, I see an interminable conflict, but if I look ahead to its next major anniversary, five years from now, I see the best prospects for its closure so far this century. Indeed, I see prospects of any grade for the first time this century.
If in 1984, five years before the end of that four-decade-long Cold War between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, a person had been asked whether it would all end within five years, then they would have been considered a fool to say that they knew it would. If a person had misinterpreted the “it would all end” in that question to be referring to a potential nuclear annihilation of human civilization or end to the conflict by that means, then they might even have been considered less of a fool than if they had truly been forecasting with such certainty that it would end anything like how it did. And yet in 1989, the Eastern Bloc began to crumble, the Berlin Wall was torn down, and the leaders of both states recognized at their Malta Summit that the Cold War had come to a close.
If a person had been more nuanced in their answer, reckoning that certain factors led them to believe there was a significant probability—higher than the baseline of preceding decades if not necessarily over 50 percent—that the Cold War would end within that period, then that person still may have been a minority opinion but not an outright foolish one nor mere expression of hope. I believe that within these next five years leading up to the Korean War’s seventy-fifth anniversary in 2025, there is such a significant probability. And though I can’t be certain the war will formally come to a close within that period, I certainly believe it can. So what are the “certain factors” underlying my belief?
Foremost among them—and the critical one for that five-year rather than, say, a five-decade time frame—is the willingness of President Donald Trump to develop a meaningful personal relationship with the leader of North Korea’s regime. It is that willingness to develop a meaningful personal relationship with North Korea’s leader, in contrast to the aversion which saw prior presidents prefer interfacing with the regime at the institutional level, which has halted war-risking acts by North Korea since 2017, which led to the historic first meeting between any leaders of the two states, and which produced what I would consider to be the most historic first step by any American, historic in this instance since it was the President of the United States, since that of Neil Armstrong onto the moon on the behalf of humanity. Without that willingness on the part of the U.S. president to develop a meaningful personal relationship with the leader of North Korea’s regime, I would argue that a peaceful end to the war within the next five years has an insignificant probability of occurring.
While this characteristic of Donald Trump’s personality may be necessary to end the war within that time frame, however, it is not in itself sufficient for reaching that milestone. Blocking the path is the question of whether North Korea relinquishes its nuclear weapons capability, and, as a subset, whether the United States needs North Korea to do so before being willing to ink the war’s end. Under the present circumstances, North Korea is unwilling to relinquish its nuclear weapons capability. If the United States were willing to be taken advantage of in order to secure an end to the war, then it would trade away sanctions relief for the mere promise of this, or otherwise for steps towards this which were merely reversible; such a deal would be wholly antithetical to Trump’s personality under any conceivable circumstance. North Korea will leverage its nuclear weapons capability as a bargaining chip in any negotiations on ending the war, and will not relinquish it unless and until the needs which it addresses are addressed by other means. So beyond its utility as a bargaining chip, what needs does that nuclear weapons capability address? Fundamentally, North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability serves to guard the security of its regime. More specifically, it serves to guard two aspects: existence and independence.
Though it does serve to guard the regime’s existence by providing a deterrent to external attempts at regime change by force, it also paradoxically incentives external agents to instigate regime change. And while a sufficient conventional defense capability to this end perhaps wouldn’t be sustainable over the coming decades absent possession of a nuclear deterrent, perhaps it would even if sanctions were sustained and even in a regional environment of increased hostilities between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. Perhaps more difficult to replace than the nuclear weapons capability’s role in guarding regime existence, however, is its role in guarding regime independence. If France at the beginning of the Cold War, sandwiched between the United States and the Soviet Union, despite its alignment with the United States nonetheless felt it critical to its independence that it develop and maintain its own nuclear weapons capability, then take a moment to consider how North Korea, sandwiched between the People’s Republic of China and United States, despite its alignment with the PRC might regard its nuclear weapons capability as critical to preserving the independence of its regime.
I would not expect there to be progress on an end to the Korean War until there was some notion of what alternative solutions to these dual needs North Korea may be willing to accept, as well as how the United States and South Korea may be willing to institutionalize them. That being said, it’s my sincere hope that in 2025 we won’t just be commemorating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the war’s commencement but celebrating the anniversary of its conclusion as well.
Steph Umbert is Director of Membership at the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) and a Summer Research Associate for Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest (CFTNI). Steph studied International Security Policy, International Conflict Resolution, and East Asian Studies at Columbia University's School of International & Public Affairs (SIPA) as well as both Economics and Political Science at the University of Miami (UM) and George Washington University (GW). The opinions expressed here are not representative of any organization, of any group, or of any other individual.