The Korea Herald


Ending the Korean War: Risky gambit, with little chance of payoff

Premature declaration would have adverse security ramifications for alliance strength, UNC status  

By Ji Da-gyum

Published : Dec. 21, 2021 - 17:47

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There is a divergence of opinion on the utility of an end-of-war declaration as a means to reboot nuclear diplomacy with North Korea in Washington, but the majority sees more risk than opportunity. (Yonhap-123rf) There is a divergence of opinion on the utility of an end-of-war declaration as a means to reboot nuclear diplomacy with North Korea in Washington, but the majority sees more risk than opportunity. (Yonhap-123rf)
Will an end-of-war declaration bring us one step closer to a peaceful and nuclear-free Korean Peninsula?

In Washington, there is a divergence of opinion on the utility of an end-of-war declaration as a means to reboot nuclear diplomacy with North Korea. 

But the majority sees more risk than opportunity, with adverse ramifications for the security of the Korean Peninsula, the South Korea-US alliance, American deterrence and the status of the United Nations Command.

There is also concern that a symbolic and nonbinding end-of-war declaration would legitimize North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons.

Proponents, on the other hand, underscore that a declaration is the right way to widen the window of opportunity for diplomacy with North Korea and build confidence in the diplomatic solution to North Korean threats. 

Particularly, an end-of-war declaration is a risk worth taking in view of the failures in previous risk-averse policies on North Korea, which have counted on deterrence, isolation, and pressure.

Security ramifications
Adverse consequences for South Korea-US alliance

US-based experts say that an end-of-war declaration would not guarantee that Pyongyang would reduce existential and direct military threats against the South and make progress toward denuclearization. But declaring an end to the Korean War would create a false sense of security.

“A simple, nonbinding declaration would also do nothing to address the real threat to peace, which is the North Korean threat to the South,” said Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

“While the declaration would not have legal ramifications, it would create the false impression of a reduction of the threat to peace.”

A nonbinding declaration would provide a pretext for North Korea to undermine the rationale for the status of the United Nations Command and the Combined Forces Command, as well as the stationing of the US Forces Korea.

Pyongyang would ratchet up its rhetoric to withdraw US forces in Korea, terminate joint military exercises and the US extended deterrence guarantee, and abolish the 1953 South Korea-US Mutual Defense Treaty that legitimizes the stationing of the USFK.

“It would be used by North Korea, China and some in South Korea to advocate for reductions of the South Korean and US force postures and deterrence capabilities while not addressing the North Korean military forces,” Klingner said.

US experts also warned that Beijing would use the declaration as a means to undermine the South Korea-US alliance.

“China sees this action as a way to drive a wedge in the ROK-US alliance and create conditions favorable to North Korea,” said David Maxwell, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a retired US Army Special Forces colonel. 

Endangering UNC status, armistice
In particular, North Korea could ramp up its argument for the disbandment of the UNC, whose major mission is to implement UN Security Council Resolution 84 by enforcing the 1953 Armistice Agreement and to provide international legitimacy to the associated activities and presence.

The UNC was established pursuant to UN Security Council Resolutions 82, 83 and 84 in July 1950, following the UN’s recognition of North Korean aggression against South Korea. The resolutions authorized the use of force in Korea, activated the UNC and designated the US as the leader of the UNC.

Roh Jeong-ho, director of the Center for Korean Legal Studies at Columbia Law School, said an end-of-war declaration would essentially enable North Korea to open up an argument that the UNC “no longer has a basis for continuing” by the terms of the resolutions.

“Simply declaring an end to the war through an end-of-war declaration has no legal effect at all. But it raises the possibilities of being challenged by North Korea on the status of the United Nations Command and the Armistice Agreement.”

Roh underscored that a sudden end-of-war declaration would create an environment conducive for Pyongyang to make arguments that could “put the actual legal basis for the United Nations Command at jeopardy.”

There are also concerns that an end-of-war declaration would lead to calls for rescinding relevant UNSC resolutions, which are the legal foundations for the UNC establishment.

More importantly, former USFK Commander Gen. Robert Abrams previously warned that the abolition of the UNC would lead to dissolving the Korean Armistice Agreement, which has served as the only internationally recognized legal instrument for preventing the resumption of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula for 68 years.

“I think that is not risk. I think that’s a gamble, and we ought to proceed very carefully,” Gen. Abrams said at an event hosted by the Korea Society. 

Legitimizing North Korea’s nuclear weapons
A premature end-of-war declaration would also legitimize North Korea’s status as a de facto nuclear weapons state, taking a step back from complete denuclearization.

“Not only will an end-of-war declaration not revive nuclear-related negotiations, it will almost certainly confirm the permanence of North Korea's nuclear arsenal and the irreversibility of Pyongyang’s status as a de facto nuclear power,” Evans Revere, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told The Korea Herald.

“Declaring ‘peace’ or the ‘end of war’ with a nuclear-armed North Korea would essentially accept the regime’s status as a nuclear power and remove any incentive for the DPRK to give up its nuclear weapons,” Revere, who also served as acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, added, referring to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the formal name for North Korea.

Echoing the view, director Roh at Columbia Law School pointed to the pitfalls of the sequence of seeking denuclearization progress after declaring an end to the Korean War.

Roh explained the Korean Peninsula is at an “inflection point,” in which Pyongyang’s enhanced missile and nuclear capabilities have changed the nature of conflicts.

“The nature of the Korean War which started as a conventional war should now be viewed as a potential nuclear weapons war,” Roh said.

“Denuclearization has to be part and parcel of an end-of-war declaration. It is not denuclearization after an end-of-war declaration.”

The risk and dangers of an end-of-war declaration-first approach also emanate from Pyongyang’s pursuit of military and nuclear power buildup with a long-term strategic plan.

What are the opportunities?
Proponents, on the other hand, say that an end-of-war declaration is the right way to resuscitate nuclear negotiations and widen the window of opportunity for diplomacy.

“There are several risks in an end-of-war declaration, but opportunities outweigh the cost,” Jessica Lee, a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute, told The Korea Herald.

The declaration could serve as the impetus to restore confidence in a diplomatic solution, especially by affirming the “US commitment to a diplomatic solution to North Korea’s growing nuclear weapons program.”

“An end-of-war declaration is not a panacea, but it could go a ways in building confidence in the diplomatic process after many years of failed promises by both sides,” Lee said.

Furthermore, Lee said a declaration to end the Korean War could also lead to a “more normal, and functional relationship” between the US and North Korea. 

The fence-mending would enable Washington to have a better understanding of Pyongyang’s motives and calculus after years of absence in dialogue, eventually reducing the possibility of miscalculation.

Frank Aum, a senior expert on Northeast Asia at the US Institute of Peace, pointed to the upside and utility of an end-of-war declaration as a noncoercive, peaceful and proactive means to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table and revive nuclear negotiations without undermining “significant US and ROK national security interests.” The Republic of Korea is the formal name for South Korea.

“A declaration could help jump-start diplomacy with North Korea, improve US-ROK relations, and even advance US denuclearization goals,” Aum told The Korea Herald.

Aum also pointed out that Washington could branch out into a risk-taking approach in light of the “failed track record of other previous risk-averse policies” toward North Korea, which were pursued with an emphasis on deterrence, isolation, strategic patience and pressure.

“An end-of-war declaration could be a risk worth taking,” Aum said. 

This is the first of a three-part series shedding light on Washington’s view of an end-of-war declaration. In the next part, The Korea Herald will examine the US’ preferred sequence, timing and conditions for declaring an end to the Korean War. Twelve US-based experts participated in on-the-record interviews.

By Ji Da-gyum (