This is the first installment in a series of articles to mark the 60th anniversary of the armistice agreement that ended the 1950-53 Korean War. ― Ed.
For the past 60 years, the armistice agreement has served as a regime to ward off another major aggression. But the failure to formally end the 1950-53 conflict has left the two Koreas at neither peace nor war.
The unique state of armistice veering between military tension and peaceful cooperation across the heavily-fortified border can come to an end when the two Koreas and other parties agree to a permanent peace regime.
But the task remains elusive amid North Korea’s nuclear adventurism and differences among concerned parties including the U.S. and China over how to address it.
“The armistice regime has contributed to staving off a second Korean War. But the 60th anniversary is not something to boast of loudly as the two Koreas have failed to reach an agreement for an enduring peace, with Pyongyang incessantly trying to nullify the armistice and fomenting inter-Korean distrust,” said Kim Yeoul-soo, a security professor at Sungshin Women’s University.
The armistice, with its enforcement organizations and mutual rules and principles to prevent hostilities, has served as a key mechanism to help manage border crises, defuse military tension and prevent the recurrence of another all-out war.
But some argue the armistice is already in tatters, as Pyongyang has violated it numerous times and withdrawn communist representatives from the Military Armistice Commission and Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission ― the two major entities that observe the agreement.
In breach of the armistice, the reclusive state has attempted to infiltrate into the South more than 1,950 times and conducted at least 990 other provocations since it was signed. The shelling of Yeonpyeongdo Island in 2010, which killed two civilians and two marines, underscored its brazen disregard of the agreement.
Pyongyang’s long-range rocket launch in December, its third atomic test in February and menacing war threats from March through April underlined a precarious peace and the pressing need for a more effective, permanent institution to ensure stability.
U.N. Commander Mark W. Clark, North Korea’s Supreme Commander Kim Il-sung and Peng Dehuai, the commander of the Chinese People’s Volunteers, inked the armistice on July 27, 1953 after two years of grueling negotiations over the demilitarized zone, military demarcation line, prisoners of war and other truce-related issues.
The armistice came as neither side was achieving a clear victory with both grinding the other down during the first major Cold War conflict.
“Kim Il-Sung was more reluctant to stop fighting, but the U.S. threatened to use nuclear weapons against the North if an armistice was not achieved, and that pushed North Korea and China into agreeing to stop the fighting,” said Bruce Bennett, senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation.
The agreement has so far been maintained despite unceasing North Korean provocations. This is because neither side wants to face the catastrophic results of another Korean War.
“In practice, North Korea has carried out many attacks and other provocations against the South that were acts of war which the South and the U.S. could have used to justify declaring war on the North. But neither the South nor the U.S. have wanted a second Korean War,” said Bennett.
“The Armistice is now a unique arrangement because the ROK (Republic of Korea) and the U.S. have not wanted to pay the price of defeating North Korea in war, and the North has feared that it would lose a second Korean War, especially against the U.S.-ROK conventional superiority that has existed for the last several decades,” he added.
The armistice was a “temporary” cessation of hostilities. The three parties recommended a higher-level political meeting be held three months later to resolve Korea-related issues including the withdrawal of foreign troops from the peninsula.
The political gathering took place from April through June in 1954 in Geneva, Switzerland with the participation of foreign ministers from 19 countries ― the two Koreas, China, the former Soviet Union and 15 UNC member states. But it failed to permanently end the war amid disputes over the UNC role, its activities and other issues.
Although it was meant to be only provisional, the armistice has become entrenched as a regime to prevent another full-blown war.
With the U.S.-led UNC backed by the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command that offers a strong deterrent against escalation by the North, the armistice has survived a series of violations by Pyongyang, which has long sought to nullify the agreement while seeking a peace treaty with Washington.
N.K. attempts at nullifying armistice
Since the 1990s, Pyongyang has made explicit attempts at making the armistice null and void.
The North has faced deeper international isolation with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, bungled economic policies and flooding, which led to one of its worst famines. During this time, South Korea also strived to build a stronger independent military, which has apparently unnerved an increasingly cornered Pyongyang.
“From the 1990s, the North withdrew from the MAC and NNSC that oversee the armistice. When facing the new millennium, it sought to nullify the Northern Limit Line, a de facto border in the West Sea. Now, it steps up verbal threats to nullify the armistice document,” said Kim of Sungshin Women’s University.
In 1991, the North boycotted its participation in a plenary session of the Military Armistice Commission, an organization that oversees the implementation of the armistice and handles violations, in protest of a South Korean two-star general having been appointed as the UNC representative at the commission.
In April 1994, the North withdrew its representatives from the MAC, paralyzing the crucial bilateral communication channel. It then set up the North’s Korean People’s Army mission at the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjeom about a month later.
Pyongyang also forced Czech and Polish representatives on the communist side out of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission in 1993 and 1995, respectively. The NNSC reports to the MAC on its investigations of military-related affairs in two Koreas.
With the absence of the communication channels for crisis management, the UNC and the North began a general-level dialogue in 1998. The talks were forged after Pyongyang disregarded regular armistice procedures and sought direct high-level military talks with the U.S.
The North has also called for the dissolution of the UNC, the core body to keep the armistice. Most recently in March, Pyongyang’s Supreme Command said it would scrap the armistice and stop its Panmunjeom mission’s activities.
Conflict over armistice parties
A major bone of contention over the armistice is who are its signatories. Pyongyang has long sought to engage in armistice-related talks directly with Washington, arguing South Korea was not part of the three parties that inked it.
Seoul’s position is that it is a legitimate, principal party that is bound by the agreement, given that U.N. Commander Mark W. Clark signed the agreement on behalf of South Korea and other U.N. allies in the war.
While U.S.-led U.N. forces were under a unitary chain of command, Chinese and North Korean troops did not have a single commander who represented them ― the reason why the communist side had two commanders sign it.
Seoul has long proven itself as a direct party to the armistice.
South Korean troops have played a central role in observing and implementing the agreement in border areas. A two-star South Korean general has led the U.N. Military Armistice Commission since 1991.
As a key party to it, it participated in a political meeting over a durable peace in 1954. It also was a key party of the four-way forum ― involving the two Koreas, the U.S. and China ― over a peace mechanism and tension reduction from 1997 to 1999.
Tough road to peace regime
All parties to the armistice have explored ways to build a peace system on the peninsula. But their efforts have failed. Differences over how to negotiate a deal and what conditions Pyongyang should meet to initiate peace talks have derailed those efforts.
The North has sought a peace treaty to replace the armistice in a move that Seoul and Washington suspect is intended to pressure the U.S. to withdraw its forces from the peninsula, remove its promise of nuclear protection for the South and stop the allied military drills targeting the North.
Washington and Seoul have consistently urged Pyongyang to take meaningful steps toward denuclearization before any negotiations on a peace treaty and improved relations.
But Pyongyang insists a peace treaty should be inked before its denuclearization. It argues it would continue to maintain its “nuclear deterrent” to protect itself from what it calls the hostile U.S. policy toward it and outside nuclear threats. It also says denuclearization should come not just in the North but in the entire peninsula, apparently suggesting that the U.S. remove its nuclear protection for the South.
After three nuclear tests, Pyongyang now claims to be a nuclear-armed state, and demands it and the U.S. hold talks over nuclear arms reduction rather than peninsular denuclearization.
“What Pyongyang wants is beyond just signing the peace treaty with the U.S. It wants the pullout of the U.S. troops here so that it can threaten the South ― as it pleases ― with its nuclear arsenal, and then, it can push for a reunification according to its terms,” said Kim of Sungshin Women’s University.
“The armistice is to ensure the minimum level of peace, but the North has threatened to scrap even the armistice. Having said this, would a peace treaty with the North be helpful to ensure peace here?”
Concerned parties to the armistice have discussed the issue of building a peace system many times ― at the Geneva meeting in 1954, inter-Korean high-level talks in 1992, four-party talks involving the two Koreas, the U.S. and China from 1991 through 1996 and six-party talks including Russia and Japan and the second inter-Korean summit in 2007.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org