[Herald Interview] ‘Declaring end to Korean War catalyst for NK denuclearization’

By Ock Hyun-ju
  • Published : Aug 2, 2018 - 18:18
  • Updated : Aug 2, 2018 - 19:24

Declaring a formal end to the Korean War now is the best option for the US to accelerate North Korea’s denuclearization process and avoid repeating the mistakes of its past administrations, according to a prominent North Korea expert.

The US would benefit from declaring an end to the 1950-53 Korean War -- a political statement that is not legally binding -- as the declaration could prompt bolder action by the North to denuclearize, said Kim Yeon-chul, head of the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification.

“The reason past attempts to denuclearize failed is because of deep-rooted distrust between North Korea and the US,” Kim said in an interview with The Korea Herald. Kim, who has long taught on North Korea and authored several books -- most recently, “Conversation of 70 years” -- took the helm of the institute in April. 

(Kim Yeon-chul, head of the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification, speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in southern Seoul on July 25. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

“When South Korea and the US forced North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and offered to give something in return afterward, talks always fell through,” he said.

This time, South Korea and the US should take a different approach in dealing with North Korea, he said.

“The way to secure momentum to propel North Korea’s denuclearization is building trust. To build trust, declaring an end to the Korean War could be the starting point.”

Declaring an end to the war within the year is one of the agreements the Koreas made at the April 27 inter-Korean summit.

South Korea has pushed for declaring an end to the war within the year to move forward the momentum of dialogue. North Korea has stepped up calls for the declaration, viewing it as the first step to build trust with the US, though some critics see it as a delaying tactic to gain more concessions from the US.

The US, on the other hand, appears to have backed away from the idea, given the lack of progress on the North’s denuclearization. It maintains an end to the war can be declared only after North Korea takes concrete steps to denuclearize -- such as providing a list of its nuclear facilities.

“All other measures to assure the North Korean regime’s security takes time and complex procedures,” he said, calling the declaration “intermediary” and “tentative” before the Koreas, the US and China reach an agreement on signing a peace treaty.

“It should be done in the early stages and in the most convenient way possible -- whether it is done among the Koreas and the US or whether China is also involved.”

The US and China are signatories to the armistice agreement, which has left the Koreas technically at war. The South Korean government has floated the idea of declaring an end to the war among the Koreas and the US, or including China as well.

The reason the US and North Korea cannot move forward on follow-up talks on pledges made at their historic Singapore summit in June is that they each want the other side to prove their sincerity about their commitment first, he said.

During the summit, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un committed to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and US President Donald Trump promised to provide a security guarantee. But they fell short of agreeing on when and how to do so, leaving the details to be worked out in follow-up talks.

But there has been no visible progress, further intensifying doubts over whether the North intends to abandon its nuclear program. Recent news reports suggested that Pyongyang continues to build intercontinental ballistic missiles, citing US intelligence officials.

“The pace of North Korea’s denuclearization will be decided in accordance with the level of their mutual trust. Once trust begins to be built in their relations, the negotiations will gain traction,” he said.

“They just need to enter the negotiation process as soon as possible,” he said, adding North Korea and the US are “wasting time.”

As Trump and Kim have built rapport to a certain extent, the next step would be holding working-level talks on various matters -- not just about North Korea’s denuclearization, he said.

“They should begin working-level talks on North Korea’s dismantling of nuclear weapons programs, normalization of relations and a peace regime simultaneously. When necessary, there could be another summit based on the progress at the working-level talks.”

South Korea’s role is more vital than ever to help them meet each other halfway, he said.

The presidential office is reportedly pushing to hold the third inter-Korean summit amid a lack of progress on follow-up to the US-North Korea summit.

“It is stupid to ask whether North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons program. We first need to enter the process and make diplomatic efforts to achieve the result,” he said.

“North Korea’s denuclearization is not a given. We should work to make it happen.”

By Ock Hyun-ju (