North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un watches as a new type of tactical guided short-range missile is launched at an undisclosed location in North Korea in July 2019. Photo: AFP / KCNA / KNS

SEOUL – Think the time is nigh for a declaration to formally end the Korean War? In that case, the timing is perfect to fire a submarine-launched ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan.

This at least would appear to be the thinking in Pyongyang. And that thinking is not as off-base as it may sound at first hearing. Indeed, the Kim regime is a past master at playing a complex diplomatic-strategic-economic power game that aims to leverage policy disconnects between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington.

Outgoing South Korean President Moon Jae-in is pushing a late-term plan to bring the 1950-53 Korean War to a formal end and talks to that end are expected to take place in Seoul this week with visiting envoys from Japan and the US.

Moon’s end-of-war plan, however, has gained minimal traction in a cynical Washington which seeks tangibles, not symbolisms.

Given this, impoverished North Korea – which may very well like to tap the prosperous South for economic aid – has excellent reasons to raise tensions and prod Washington to permit North-South engagement.

Here comes another one

North Korea test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLMB) from an east coast naval base into the Sea of Japan early Tuesday, South Korea’s military announced.  It was not immediately clear if the weapon, which traveled approximately 450 kilometers, was fired from an actual submarine or from an underwater test barge, the military said.

North Korea has not tested an intercontinental ballistic missile – the kind of weapon that could deliver a nuclear warhead to the US – since 2017. However, it has been ramping up less provocative launches.

Tuesday’s event was the eighth in a series of tests of arms including short-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and hypersonic missiles this year. SLMBs add yet another asset – and a mobile, survivable one – to the North’s already extensive missile armory.

What appears to be new North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles during a military parade in October 2020, marking the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Photo: AFP / KCNA

While none of these are likely to draw US fire and fury the way a nuclear or ICBM test would, they do make the world sit up and take notice of a state which otherwise has few diplomatic levers to pull.

Experts believe that North Korean missile tests have dual purposes: to test military engineering and to send political signals. In the latter sense, Tuesday’s timing looks especially stark.

On Monday in Washington, the leading nuclear envoys from South Korea, Japan and the US – respectively, Noh Kyu-duk, Takehiro Funakoshi and Sung Kim  – had held trilateral meetings to try and thrash out a seamless North Korea strategy.

The end-of-war declaration featured in those discussions, and Kim said that he will be traveling to Seoul for further talks on an end-of-war declaration later this week.

This suggests that Tuesday’s missile launch was no coincidence.  North Korea had previously test-fired missiles the day before a September 13 meeting between the three envoys.

The politics of war ending

Noh, the South Korean representative, may have a tough task ahead of him.

His boss, Moon, who has prioritized cross-DMZ engagement since taking office in 2017, ends his constitutionally mandated single term in office in May 2022. His aim of fostering inter-Korean amity during his term lies in tatters.

After promising early signs in 2018, a budding and unlikely bromance between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and then-US president Donald Trump evaporated after the failure of a 2019 summit in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Meetings between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un failed to reach an understanding between their countries. Photo: AFP / KCNA / KNS

With Seoul’s North Korea policy necessarily shackled to that of its powerful ally Washington, inter-Korean ties also turned chilly.

In what looks like a last-minute ploy to get rapprochement back on track, Moon, in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly on September 21 called for a formalized end to the Korean War. The conflict concluded with an armistice, rather than a peace treaty.

“He is thinking about his legacy, so the [presidential] Blue House is trying to achieve some milestones in the short time they have left,” said Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based lecturer in international relations at Troy University.

“Those who believe in this kind of document or declaration believe it would further Moon’s vision of a peaceful Korea in Northeast Asia, and eventual economic and political integration.”

However, US President Joe Biden, who also addressed the UN, asked for “tangible commitments” from North Korea. That illustrates the policy disconnect dividing the two capitals.

One capital, which is quite naturally primarily focused on peninsula issues, believes that signing an end to the war is a major symbolic legacy and one that the next Seoul administration will be duty-bound to follow up on. That follow-up process could lead to further confidence-building dialog and engagement.

The other capital has to juggle a far wider range of foreign policy conundrums and is focused less on fraternal symbolism. Instead, it wants substantive talks on the holy grail of denuclearization.

This is the gap Noh has to bridge.

Seen in this light, North Korea – which early this month restored cross-border telecommunications hotlines and which has also called Moon’s UN end-of-war proposal “admirable” – may have offered Noh a helping hand.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in wants a formal peace treaty with the North to be his legacy. Photo: /AFP

“We all know North Korea is not very interested in ending the Korean War, they are interested in ending the so-called US hostile policy – the end of joint military exercises, sanctions relief, and so on,” Choi Jin-wook, who heads South Korea’s Center for Strategic and Cultural Studies, told Asia Times.

“It is South Korea – not China or North Korea or the US – that wants an end to the war, but the key is held by the US, so North Korea wants to raise tensions with the US.”

If, in order to ameliorate those tensions, the US gives South Korea the go-ahead to reduce tensions by initiating an end-of-war dialogue, North Korea could feasibly earn some kind of economic aid from Seoul that Washington cannot give, Choi explained.

Why end the war?

On the face of it, an agreement to formally end a war that de facto ended in 1953 looks like low-hanging fruit just waiting to be plucked.

As an agreement would be mere paper recognition of current realities, it represents light diplomatic lifting and presents no significant risk to any of the major parties. And it could indeed be an easy win that could kick-start the critical trust-building process, thereby leading to more substantive discussions and interactions in the future.

Moreover, it would offer the doves in Kim’s circle valuable ammunition to fire at the hawks – ie that with the war formally ended, the time would be ripe to pivot from arms production to more remunerative economic activities.

As a hedge against naysayers, proponents argue that an end to the war would have no impact on the stabilizing presence of US troops in South Korea. Nor would it alter the terms of the Seoul-Washington mutual defense treaty.

Yet experts are wary. Pinkston noted a peace treaty would not over-ride the central goal of the North Korean polity – a goal that led to the North’s invasion of the South in 1950.

“From my perspective, a peace treaty would have to mean an abandonment and termination of the Korean Revolution, so we would need to see a written statement in Korean Worker Party by-laws, and announcements in state media,” he said. “The completion of the Korean Revolution means unifying the entire country under party rule.”

Pinkston called this end game Pyongyang’s “core issue,” suggesting that those who promote a peace treaty – liberal political players in South Korea, and activists and academics in the United States – respectively ignore, or are unaware of.

Absent action on this core issue, a peace treaty is just a fantasy, Pinkston insisted. “Anyone who says it is possible is disconnected to the North Korean mindset. It is inconsistent with the North Korean world view – it is absurd.”