South Korean President Moon Jae-in has announced that the United States, China, and North Korea have reached an agreement “in principle” on declaring an end to the Korean War. With the war having ended with a 1953 armistice, the two Koreas remain in a technical state of war, even though full-scale hostilities haven’t resumed since then.
Moon, who leaves office next May, has been keen to “institutionalize” progress in the area of inter-Korean peace since 2019. In 2007, when he served as chief of staff to former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, Moon saw firsthand the risks of inter-Korean rapprochement becoming subject to domestic political swings in South Korea.
Roh’s 2007 summit with Kim Jong Il, current North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s father, didn’t result in any long-term recalibration of the relationship between the two sides. Moon, recalling these lessons, has been keen to leave his mark for the long-haul on the inter-Korean equation; with the pandemic and international sanctions limiting more meaningful forms of economic rapprochement, the idea of an end of war declaration has found itself at the top of the agenda in the final months of his term.
What exactly an end of war declaration would say or do is the subject of considerable debate. Most importantly, an end of war is not the same thing as a legally binding peace treaty that would replace the so-called “armistice regime” that the Peninsula has endured since 1953 with a new “peace regime.”
This “peace regime” has been a longstanding South and North Korean aspiration; most recently, the Koreas articulated their intent to move toward this goal in the summit diplomacy of 2018. The U.S.-North Korea summit meeting between former President Donald J. Trump and Kim Jong Un in Singapore also included a pledge by both countries “to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.”
South Korea has been consulting for some months now with the Biden administration on the end of war declaration. The administration, understanding the Moon government’s high degree of emphasis on this outcome, has gone along, despite its misgivings. But the United States has had reservations about the utility of such a declaration.
While a declaration to end the Korean War would doubtless create the appearance of change, it’s unclear the extent to which this would be a truly costly signal by the United States and South Korea to fundamentally change the security situation on the Peninsula.
Some American commentators have resorted to a genre of hyperbolic criticism, implying that somehow such a declaration would precipitate a series of events that could lead to the end of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, but this appears premature. While legitimate questions about the alliance’s future could be raised in the context of a peace treaty, a declaration does not create similar problems.
Meanwhile, North Korea’s views on such a declaration are, unsurprisingly, are in the realist vein. North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Ri Thae-song, in September, noted that there was no guarantee that a “mere declaration of the termination of the war would lead to the withdrawal of the hostile policy toward the DPRK.” Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, reiterated this message later that month.
The “hostile policy” refers to an ambiguous, but expansive, set of U.S. military and other measures toward North Korea that Pyongyang has long deemed unacceptable. In essence, for North Korea, this is not purely an inter-Korean conversation, but one that must include consultations with the United States.
But, in general, North Korea has long supported such a step “in principle.” All of this raises questions about what exactly an end of war declaration might change. Both the perceived upsides and downsides of a declaration are modest; it would neither usher in the long-sought “peace regime” or meaningful enhance stability on the Peninsula. It would also not end the alliance or address perceived North Korean concerns about the U.S. “hostile policy.” Finally, the declaration is unlikely to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table with the United States.
For Washington, the notion of employing such a declaration—an irreversible measure, since it wouldn’t be credible for the United States or South Korea to un-declare the end of war—in the absence of a broader process of denuclearization talks with North Korea is uncomfortable. In this sense, the United States may share North Korea’s view that a declaration may be “premature.”
It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the primary value of such a declaration concerns Moon’s own legacy as a transformative figure in the inter-Korean relationship. Moon has no shortage of accomplishments in this era. Even while the benefits of a declaration appear diffuse, Moon should take pride in the September 2018 inter-Korean Comprehensive Military Agreement, which did have practical on-the-ground effects (despite subsequent North Korean violations).
When South Korean voters head to the polls next March, these issues are unlikely to guide their decisions. Moon’s successor, be it the progressive Lee Jae-myung or conservative Yoon Seok-youl, will chart their own course on inter-Korean affairs. While Lee can be expected to pick up much of Moon’s approach, Yoon has already charted a divergent course, for which he’s received criticism from Moon’s Democratic Party.
As a parting gesture from Moon toward North Korea, the end of war declaration could largely prove to be harmless. But Seoul and Washington will inevitably find themselves back at the negotiating table with Pyongyang in the coming years—perhaps after Kim has made sufficient progress in weapons development in the course of the 8th Party Congress military modernization agenda.
When that happens, it may be beneficial to retain the option to move forward with an end of war declaration as a starting point for confidence-building with North Korea.
Ankit Panda is the Stanton Senior Fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. An expert on the Asia-Pacific region, his research interests range from nuclear strategy, arms control, missile defense, nonproliferation, emerging technologies, and U.S. extended deterrence. He is the author of Kim Jong Un and the Bomb: Survival and Deterrence in North Korea (Hurst Publishers/Oxford University Press, 2020).
A widely published writer, Panda’s work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Diplomat, the Atlantic, the New Republic, the South China Morning Post, War on the Rocks, Politico, and the National Interest. Panda has also published in scholarly journals, including Survival, the Washington Quarterly, and India Review, and has contributed to the IISS Asia-Pacific Regional Security Assessment and Strategic Survey. He is editor-at-large at the Diplomat, where he hosts the Asia Geopolitics podcast, and a contributing editor at War on the Rocks.