North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (L) meeting South Korea's President Moon Jae-in (R) and US President Donald Trump (C) on the south side of the Military Demarcation Line that divides North and South Korea, in the Joint Security Area (JSA) of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized zone (DMZ), June 30, 2019 (Photo by KCNA VIA KNS/KCNA VIA KNS/ AFP

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, speaking before the United Nations’ 75th General Assembly, called on the UN and international community to bring to an end the long and lingering Korean War.

While Moon’s plea to conclude a war that started in 1950 may appear sound and reasonable, there appears to be little appetite for it among the key combatants – Pyongyang and Washington.

Indeed, even if such a declaration were made, it promises to bring minimal tangible change on the troubled peninsula.

Still, the timing of Moon’s high-profile plea may reflect rising concerns in Seoul. As a result of US political processes and North Korean calculations, tensions – largely dormant on and around the Korean peninsula for three years – could reignite with a vengeance at the end of this year.

With Pyongyang-Washington negotiations frozen in stasis, North Korea, now besieged by Covid-19, has spent 2020 refraining from major provocations such as nuclear or long-range missile tests, restricting itself instead to tactical weapons tests.

The same held true in 2018 and 2019 as North Korea embarked upon a diplomatic offensive that saw leader Kim Jong Un engaging in a surprise bromance with US President Donald Trump.

Experts fear, however, that this quiet period may end once the winner of the US presidential election is announced in November.

China was North Korea's chief ally during the thee-year Korean War, but Russia's Stalin was a key player. Photo: US Army/Wikipedia Commons
China was North Korea’s chief ally during the three-year Korean War, but Russia’s Stalin was a key player. Photo: US Army/Wikipedia Commons

“This year marks the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War,” Moon, speaking in a pre-recorded video message, told the UN General Assembly early on Wednesday morning Seoul time. “The time has come to remove the tragedy lingering on the Korean Peninsula.”

Five years after the division of the peninsula by great power fiat in 1945, the Korean War started with North Korea’s invasion of the South in June 1950. The US and its allies swiftly committed troops to defend the South, then counter-invaded the North. That led to massive Chinese and semi-secret Soviet intervention on the North Korean side.

Combat ended with an armistice, but no peace treaty, in July 1953.

Since then, multiple incidents have flared up, from commando raids to assassinations, from naval clashes to artillery strikes. With tens of thousands of US troops still stationed in the South, full-scale fighting has never resumed, and North Korea went nuclear in 2006.

“The war must end, completely and for good,” the South Korean president continued.

In a possible sign of frustration at the failure of North Korea-US and intra-Korean dialogs to generate progress, he implored outside actors to step in. “I hope that the UN and the international community provide support so that we can advance into an era of reconciliation and prosperity through the end-of-war declaration,” Moon said.

And in apparent outreach to the US, which has led the imposition of UN Security Council sanctions upon North Korea to compel it to denuclearize, Moon said: “The end of war declaration will indeed open the door to complete denuclearization and permanent peace regime on the Korean peninsula.”

It was not the first time Moon had spoken about ending the war. He made the same call at the 73rd UN General Assembly in 2018.

South Korean Soldiers at the Joint Security Area facing the North Korean side of the border. Photo: iStock
South Korean soldiers at the Joint Security Area facing the North Korean side of the border. Photo: iStock

It synchs with his stalled policy of advocating cross-DMZ economic engagement and peace initiatives on and around the peninsula. After Moon’s government took power in 2017, it made inter-Korean relations a central policy platform, but has been deeply disappointed by a freeze in relations that has reversed earlier gains.  

In 2018, hopes soared. With Pyongyang sticking to a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests, North Korea made a last-minute decision to attend the Winter Olympics, held in the South. That kick-started cross-border diplomacy.

Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un held three chummy summits, the last in September 2018. Kim also met US President Donald Trump in an unprecedented summit in Singapore that year.

In 2019, following the failure of Kim and Trump to narrow their differences over North Korean denuclearization in a summit held in Hanoi, Vietnam, US ally Moon became a collateral victim of North Korea-US relations. 

In June 2020, North Korea dramatically blew up an inter-Korean liaison office – arguably the biggest tangible fruit of 2018’s diplomacy. North Korea has since ignored various South Korean engagement entreaties, from humanitarian aid to Covid-19 assistance.

Experts see potential pros and cons to an end-of-war declaration and subsequent peace treaty.

On the pro side, Pyongyang would have a piece of paper that might dampen its paranoia and compel it to pivot away from its decades-long prioritization of the military and refocus on the economy, though few expect the regime to disarm.

A general view of Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, reportedly one of the largest US military bases on foreign soil. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je

Moreover – and this seems to be a belief among Moon’s aides – the process of getting a declaration made and signing a peace treaty would create opportunities for a relationship reset and trust-building steps. That process could feasibly result in some UN sanctions being waived.

And it is not a terribly difficult task.

“It is a low bar to clear to move the diplomatic process forward,” said Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow at Seoul think tank the Asan Institute. “I think Moon is trying to bring the process back to the drawing board and realign everyone.”

On the con side, cynics expect it to grant added leverage to a long-standing North Korean aim, the removal of US troops from the peninsula.

And its impact looks minimal. Even if a peace treaty were signed, stamped and sealed, it would not necessarily change Korean affairs substantively. There would still be two competing states, run under two very different systems, and two large armies facing off against each other over the same old DMZ.

A key stumbling block is Washington. With North Korea having proved its nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capabilities, the US is now prioritizing its own national security interests over South Korea’s.  

“The problem is the Americans are not particularly interested in a symbolic declaration as they worry about real matters like ICBMs and nuclear warheads,” Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University, told Asia Times.

“Such a declaration would not change anything about ICBM or nuclear potential, so I don’t see why the US should change its attitude toward sanctions,” he said.

Kim Jong-un looks at a rocket warhead tip after a simulated test of atmospheric re-entry of a ballistic missile, at an unidentified location in this undated photo released March 15, 2016. Photo: Reuters/KCNA
Kim Jong-un looks at a rocket warhead tip after a simulated test of atmospheric re-entry of a ballistic missile, at an unidentified location in this undated photo released March 15, 2016. Photo: Reuters/KCNA

And in pragmatic Pyongyang, where North Korean watchers like Lankov believe there is little appetite for the kind of symbolic inter-Korean declarations beloved of South Korean engagers, interest appears minimal.

Former White House National Security Advisor John Bolton wrote in his recent memoir: “The North had told us they didn’t care about (the end-of-war declaration), seeing it as something Moon wanted.”

Despite fears among some Pyongyangologists that North Korea would launch a satellite or test a submarine-launched ballistic missile this year, so far the regime has stuck to a self-applied moratorium on ICBM and nuclear tests.

It has remained particularly quiet this year – possibly due to Covid-19, possibly to await the outcome of the US presidential election before deciding what card it should play next.

Its hibernation may end in November or January, as it signals its relevance to the next president and kick-starts a new or renewed process with the United States. And that kick-start could be kinetic.

“North Korea understands that the election in the US is a very important timing as they have to reset their relations,” said Go. “They understand if they don’t do anything then they lose an opportunity.”

So how does Pyongyang likely see the candidates?

“Trump is a threat and an opportunity … he is probably the only US president who is capable of authorizing a military strike against North Korea while completely ignoring a North Korean counterstrike on Seoul,” said Lankov.

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un at the start of their historic US-North Korea summit in Singapore on June 12. Photo: AFP/Saul Loeb
US President Donald Trump shakes hands with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un at the start of their historic US-North Korea summit in Singapore on June 12. Photo: AFP/Saul Loeb

“On the other hand, because he is so despising of US allies, he can give North Korea concessions no other president is likely to consider.”

The more conventional Biden, conversely, could trigger a bigger North Korean bang.

“If Biden is elected he is not likely to be a strong, aggressive or innovative president – he will likely continue Obama policy,” Lankov suggested, referring to so-called “strategic patience.”

“They will be less afraid of the consequences, so under Biden it is possible to see more ICBM or nuclear tests,” Lankov said.

However, given that North Korea has played its engagement card with both South Korea and the United States to no long-term effect, and with its economy heavily impacted by the closure of border trade with China, pressure on the leadership is mounting for a new strategy.

And there may be uncertainty about how to proceed at the very heart of the regime. Go opines that Kim was more invested in his dalliance with the US than was his sister and close aide, Kim Yo Jong, who has taken on higher-profile roles in both the Politbureau and state media this year.  

“The lack of action [in 2020] is explained as North Korea does not know what to do next,” Go suggested.