Following his return to South Korea after a third summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, President Moon Jae-in told reporters he would like to see all countries that participated in the Korean War sign a formal peace treaty by the end of this year.
Technically, the two Koreas, the United States, and China all remain at war, which began on the peninsula in June 1950 when North Korea invaded the South. An armistice — a cease-fire agreement — was signed in July 1953. To officially end it, all four countries would need to sign a treaty.
In speaking to reporters, Moon was hopeful that would happen, and soon, after three days’ worth of talks with Kim that reportedly brought about progress on dismantling the North’s nuclear program.
“Chairman Kim expressed his wish to finish complete denuclearization at an early date and focus on economic development,” Moon told reporters, according to South Korean news agency Yonhap. The report noted further that Moon “seeks to declare a formal end to the Korean War before the year’s end, and that he will bring up the issue when he meets [President Donald] Trump in New York next week.”
Moon is currently scheduled to go to New York for a United Nations General Assembly event next week, where he will likely meet with Trump on Monday to talk about his summit with Kim.
“Among what we discussed, there are items that we did not include in the joint declaration,” Moon noted. “I plan to deliver such messages in detail to the U.S. side should I visit the United States and hold a summit again with President Trump in the future.”
Reports have said that Kim has been seeking a second summit with Trump.
Moon repeated earlier claims that Kim is prepared to dismantle the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Facility, where at least one nuclear reactor is known to be housed along with centrifuges needed to for enriching uranium, but only if the U.S. also agrees to some concessions.
Analysis: What would a formal end to the Korean War do for all parties involved?
For South Korea, the daily threat of conflict would be removed, and Moon would likely go down as the greatest South Korean president in the modern era.
For Kim, a formal end to the Korean War would eliminate a major threat to his regime; war, if it came and he lost, would mean not just the end of the Kim dynasty but, most likely, North Korea.
For China, a reduced threat of nuclear war on its doorstep would be a boost to its own national security. Not only would the disturbing threat of U.S. and South Korean troops near its border be eliminated, but Beijing would no longer be as concerned about having to deal with massive amounts of North Korean refugees streaming into the country to escape advancing allied forces.
For the United States, it would likely mean a drastic reduction in the presence of U.S. forces on a hair-trigger alert status, though the Trump administration would probably try to negotiate an ongoing, albeit reduced, American military presence in South Korea for the foreseeable future.
But should the U.S. be willing to enter into a formal treaty at this point? Not really.
According to public sources anyway, we still don’t know where all of North Korea’s nuclear facilities are located and we have no real idea of the number of nuclear warheads Pyongyang has produced. And we know they can produce them because they’ve conducted underground tests with increasingly larger warheads.
Kim would be more than willing to sign a formal treaty without having to show all of his nuclear cards, so to speak, but it’s doubtful that President Trump would do so without a full accounting of the North’s nuclear possessions and capabilities. After all, that’s what this is all about for the United States and its allies: Complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
What, then, is likely to happen?
It’s more likely that the parties will sign a ‘declaration’ that the war ‘should’ be over, along with a commitment at some future date to formally end it once further concessions are made by the U.S., South Korea, and North Korea. China wouldn’t necessarily be a part of this declaration but Beijing might sign on just for the PR benefit.
Such a declaration might include a further reduction of U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises, a partial reduction in the number of U.S. forces stationed in South Korea (because the South Korean military is plenty capable), a loosening of travel restrictions, and other concessions. It won’t include full disclosure of Kim’s nuclear inventory, however.
For those who say this isn’t enough or that signing such a declaration isn’t really progress, we have to consider the gravity of such a document in its proper context. After decades of distrust, occasional conflict, and a tripwire mentality on the peninsula, the fact that leaders from the U.S., South Korea, and North Korea are even meeting face to face to take baby steps is real progress.
As UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said this week in response to North-South relations, “baby steps” are a good thing and were expected.
“It is baby steps. It’s not going to happen overnight, we knew that,” she said.
“You’re seeing Kim now socialize with the region. That needed to happen,” Haley added. “Kim felt suffocated and the president, when he felt suffocated the president opened that door to him to say there’s a different life for North Koreans if you want it.”