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.
The Korean War ended sixty-seven years ago on July 27, 1953. So, what does it mean by asking whether the Korean War will come to an end? The Korean War is actually over, but two Koreas are still technically at war. In fact, they have been in a state of war for the last seventy years. Of course, as of June 2020, no battles are taking place on the Korean Peninsula, so if we say that the Korean War still continues, then this is not in line with the actual situation on the Korean Peninsula. The Korean War was suspended in late July 1953 but there is still an uncomfortable reality that the war has not ended yet because there has been no declaration of the end to the war. It is because parties to the Korean War signed an armistice treaty to stop the war at the time, not a peace treaty that ended the war. Since then, efforts have been made to end the war on the Korean Peninsula.
Interestingly, North Korea has insisted on signing a peace treaty with the United States since the early 1970s. Of course, it is intended to create a favorable security environment for North Korea by removing the U.S. military involvement on the Korean Peninsula. The Bush administration once considered a peace treaty with North Korea in the mid-2000s. According to Philip Zelikow, who drafted a new North Korea policy at the time, the Bush administration was seeking multiple diplomatic measures on North Korea, including “getting at the unresolved issues of the Korean war.” This means that the United States planned for the relevant parties to “move to a peace process that can try to bring a final end to the Korean War.” The 2018 inter-Korean summit specifically mentioned the end of the Korean War and the discussion of a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. In “Panmunjeom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula,” two Koreas “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, turning the armistice into a peace treaty, and establishing a permanent and solid peace regime” during 2018 that marks the sixty-fifth anniversary of the armistice.
However, two Koreas failed to declare an end to the Korean War and are not likely to agree to the declaration in the near future. The declaration to the Korean War is the first and foremost stage in the long procedure of establishing the peace treaty on the Korean Peninsula. Achieving a peace regime means putting such a state of war to an end and creating a new security order. The problem is that the declaration to the end of the war and the peace regime are closely linked to the denuclearization process of North Korea. As is evident in the U.S.-North Korea summits in Singapore and Hanoi, there is a dilemma between denuclearization and peace treaty on the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. and South Korea believe that the complete denuclearization of North Korea is a priority for peace on the Korean Peninsula, while North Korea has argued that the U.S. should abandon its hostile policy toward North Korea and guarantee its regime by concluding a peace treaty before the complete denuclearization of North Korea. So, which one should go first? It is inevitable that the negotiations on denuclearization and peace regime should go simultaneously. The declaration to the end of the Korean War is a part of establishing the peace regime and it is directly linked to the denuclearization negotiations. This is why it is difficult to end the Korean War.
On the other hand, the declaration of the Korean War is half completed if we think from a different perspective. Among the major parties that fought in the war, the United States and China established diplomatic normalization in 1979, and South Korea and China in 1992, which means the Korean War came to an end among them. North Korea is still technically at war only the United States and South Korea. So, it may be possible that the declarations on the bilateral level may lead to the multilateral one and complete the declarations to the end of the Korean War. Of course, the declarations may be reversed and the deterioration of U.S.-China relations may make things more complicated. It is not likely that the Korean War will not come to an end even before it turns seventy-five years old in 2025, but it is necessary to come up with a new approach to change the nature of the security environment and bring peace back to the Korean Peninsula.
Dr. Jihwan Hwang is Professor of International Relations at the University of Seoul, Korea. He is currently a member of the South Korean President’s Commission on Policy Planning.