Conflict Alerts # 465, 16 December 2021
In the news
On 13 December, South Korean President Moon Jae-in announced that the US, China, and North Korea have agreed in principle on declaring a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War. Moon made the remarks while addressing a joint press conference with the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Canberra, Australia. Moon said: “The US, China, and North Korea have all expressed their agreement in theory, in principle.” Moon commented: “However, because North Korea is demanding the fundamental withdrawal of the US’ hostile policy toward the North as a precondition, we have not been able to enter talks.” He assured that South Korea will work until the end to bring the parties to an agreement and “An end-of-war declaration is not the ultimate goal.”
Moon further added: “on top of signifying the end of the unstable armistice regime that has continued for nearly 70 years, it can serve as a momentum to restart talks between South, North and the US.”
Issues at large
First, the bilateral ties between North and South Korea. The Korean War ended in 1950-53 with an armistice and have been officially at war for 70 years. After the War, the first major contact between the two states after the war was in 1972- a short-lived dialogue between the two Koreas. In the 1990s, there were significant signs of rapprochement between North and South Korea which led to a pact of reconciliation and non-aggression in 1991. By the 21st century, the belief in the unification of the Korean peninsula surfaced. The relations starting deteriorating in 2007 and continued spirally downwards till 2011. In 2011, Kim Jong-Un came into power and accelerated the weapon development. In the two last decades tensions have risen multiple times reaching their highest points later simmering down.
Second, President Moon’s determination to the end-of-war declaration. The end-of-war declaration means different things to the parties involved. For South Korea, the declaration serves as Moon Jae-in’s last opportunity to make a significant change in the security tensions in the Korean peninsula and also make history before his term comes to an end. With respect to Seoul’s relation with the US vis-a via China, South Korea performs a balancing act between the US, its security ally, and
China, its economic partner. Moon has always been keen to act upon the end-of-war declaration with the US was due to repeated military provocations by Pyongyang.
Third, North Korea’s deadlock situation. In September 2021, Pyongyang rejected President Moon’s calls for an official declaration claiming it is a hostile policy by the US. For Pyongyang, the focus was on lifting the economic sanctions rather than ending the war. The efforts made are in order to de-escalate the ongoing arms race in the Korean peninsula taking gradual steps towards denuclearization. North Korea has been developing and testing nuclear and ballistic missile range which presents a threat to the region.
Fourth, the US-China tangent. Beijing and Washington are the two important variables in easing or escalating tensions in the Korean peninsula. China chose the finest option of playing indifferent and accepting Seoul’s proposition to the end-of-war declaration but having its own reservations. The US sees the end-of-war declaration as a path to denuclearize North Korea and seek South Korea as their natural ally. Thus, Washington is trying to narrow Seoul’s economic dependence on Beijing.
First, the end-of-war declaration has limited impact. With this new development, the US has to withdraw 28,500 troops from the Korean peninsula before Pyongyang has been denuclearized. There is no denying that countries including South Korea, North Korea, Japan, China, and US would be affected by the declaration but the impact would be rather marginalized.
Second, Moon’s political legacy. As Moon’s presidential term winds up in March 2022, he hopes to bring North Korea to the negotiating table before completing his term. However, the conflict ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty which is a challenge for South Korea.