This picture taken on July 26, 2020, and released by the Korean Central News Agency shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (center, top) attending a ceremony to confer commemorative pistols to officers of the DPRK armed forces on the occasion of the 67th anniversary of the Korean War ceasefire, at the headquarters of the Party Central Committee in Pyongyang. Photo: AFP / KCNA Via KNS

The idea of an “end of war” declaration for the Korean Peninsula has received a lot of attention lately. The notion is that it would jump-start diplomacy with North Korea. The fact that the Korean War never ended, according to proponents, is an impediment to engagement with Pyongyang. Isn’t it time to declare the war over?

There has, however, already been a definitive end-of-war declaration, subscribed to by all the belligerents. They signed an armistice agreement on July 27, 1953, putting an end to the Korean War.

Armistices traditionally are the way wars end. An armistice ended the Napoleonic Wars and an armistice ended World War I. An armistice is an agreement by military commanders to cease hostilities. Armistices are then followed by peace talks to deal with the root causes of the conflict.

The armistice ending the Napoleonic Wars was followed by the Congress of Vienna. The armistice ending World War I was followed by the Versailles Treaty. Why is the armistice situation on the Korean Peninsula unresolved?

It is not well known that an international diplomatic conference was indeed held to follow up on the Korean Armistice. A diplomatic conference took place in Geneva from April to June 1954, bringing together the United States, South Korea, the United Nations Command countries, the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.

The conference generally succeeded in resolving the issues of withdrawal of foreign forces from Korea, elections to be held throughout the peninsula, and the creation of a constituent assembly to pave the way for a unified government.

The Geneva talks broke down over the issue of international supervision of the implementation of the agreement. The Western allies insisted on United Nations supervision, the USSR, China and North Korea on neutral nations’ supervision.

Because talks never resumed, the Korean Peninsula remains today in a state of armistice, not a state of war.

The question, therefore, is not whether there should be an end-of-war declaration, but whether there should be an end-of-armistice declaration.

The text of the Korean Armistice is not an obstacle to diplomacy. Article IV of the Armistice calls for political negotiations to achieve a peaceful settlement. It is worth noting that Article IV was included at the initiative of China and North Korea.

There are four differing arguments for declaring an end to the Korean Armistice.

Armistice violated

Such violations demonstrate that the Korean Peninsula is in a de facto state of war rather than a state of armistice.

After the 2010 sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, among other incidents, it could be concluded that hostilities had resumed.

North Korea has often declared that it is no longer bound by the Armistice because of hostile acts by South Korea and the United States, but afterward invoked Armistice provisions, indicating that it still considers it in force.

Both sides have repeatedly broken the Armistice provisions prohibiting the introduction of new weapons on to the peninsula. The Armistice could be termed a failure and no longer in force.

Armistice has been a success

The parties to the Armistice could conclude that the status quo amounts to the peaceful settlement called for by the document. Discussions with North Korea over particular issues could continue, but there would be no need for an international agreement on a peace regime.

An impediment to this resolution of the Armistice is that the constitutions of both North and South Korea call for unification. Declaring that the Korea question has been resolved would seem to require a permanent acceptance of the division of the peninsula.

International involvement not required

Negotiations for a peaceful settlement on the Korean Peninsula no longer require the international involvement called for by the Armistice.

The obligation in the Armistice to conduct political negotiations applies to the signatories of the Armistice: the United States, China, North Korea, and the United Nations Command countries, including South Korea. A declaration could be made by the signatories saying that they now believe that negotiations for a peaceful settlement should be left to North Korea and South Korea alone.

North Korea has implicitly rejected this approach by arguing that its belligerence is a reaction to the United States’ “hostile policies.” The UN General Assembly has also stated that North Korea’s behavior is a matter of international, not only inter-Korean, concern.

Resume talks

The most direct way to end the Armistice would be to resume and conclude the negotiations called for by the Armistice. The Geneva talks could be resumed after a seven-decade lull, or the parties to the Armistice could reconfigure the negotiations any way they would choose.

Article IV is loosely worded. Any resumption of negotiations and any settlement agreed by the parties would end the Armistice.

The best, perhaps only, way to achieve a sustainable peace on the Koran Peninsula is through negotiations led by North and South Korea but with the involvement of countries whose support will be necessary to implement a negotiated outcome. A meaningful close to the Korean War, and the Armistice that ended it, should be through negotiations rather than by declarations unsupported by genuine, common understanding.

The Armistice provides an open door to negotiations. The only basis to repudiate the Armistice at this point would be if the status quo were deemed acceptable and a peaceful settlement unnecessary. That is a possible but pessimistic conclusion. Reaffirming and completing the Armistice is the way to achieve a sustainable peaceful settlement of the Korean question.

Mark Tokola

Mark Tokola is vice-president of the Korea Economic Institute of America in Washington, DC. He retired from the US Foreign Service in 2014 after a 38-year career. He served as director of the Iraq Transition Assistance Office in Baghdad from 2007-2008. Tokola received the US State Department’s Superior Honor Award for his work on implementing the Dayton Peace Accords while serving as political counselor in Sarajevo from 1997-1999.