Active conflict on the Korean Peninsula ended in an armistice agreement in 1953, dividing the peninsula along the new military demarcation line. The state of war however, remains. No formal peace treaty has ever been signed between the combatants. Whilst it might seem that a treaty is imminent given the recent detente on the peninsula, a formal peace settlement would require agreement from the DPRK, China, South Korea and the US-led UN coalition. Before any treaty can be signed, each party much agree on what it should contain. Both Koreas' have recently made their desire for a formalised end to the war well known throughout the international community, a step many see as a continuation of increased trust and a closer socio-political relationship blossoming in the region. For the US administration, this has long been seen as a key bargaining chip since without US agreement, no peace settlement can be made. However, an editorial run by Rodong Sinmun clearly outlines the view that the government in Pyongyang will not allow a peace treaty to be treated as a 'concession' from Washington. Has the United States just lost a key bargaining chip in it's efforts to denuclearise Korea?
A peace treaty has been on the cards since the dawn of the 21st century. The need for a formal end to hostilities has been mentioned in every major joint statement between North and South Korea since the first inter-korean summit in 2000, where both sides committed themselves to reunification of the country. A peace treaty was first mentioned by name in the 2007 joint declaration:
'The South and the North both recognize the need to end the current armistice regime and build a permanent peace regime. The South and the North have also agreed to work together to advance the matter of having the leaders of the three or four parties directly concerned to convene on the Peninsula and declare an end to the war.'
- Clause 4, Declaration on the Advancement of South-North Korean Relations, Peace and Prosperity October 4, 2007
The argument in favour of a formal peace regime makes perfect sense in the eyes of both Korean governments. The current atmosphere of detente is hindered by the undertone of war. Whilst widespread conflict has not been seen on the peninsula in the last 65 years, the fact that a state of war still exists between the nation states acts as a barrier to further cooperation and peace agreements. The longer the war continues, the more untrustworthy the opposing side will seem as bureaucracy will translate as an unwillingness to end hostilities. The topic was revisited in 2018, the Panmunjom declaration specified:
'In celebration of the 65th anniversary of the Korean Armistice Agreement in 2018, South and North Korea corporate closely with the US and China to establish a peace treaty on the Korean peninsula after ending the 1953 Korean War.'
- Clause 3.3, Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula
April 27, 2018
On the 2nd of October 2018, the Korean Central News Agency published an article entitled: Termination of War is not just Gift. The article opened decrying the US strategy of offering a formalised end to the Korean war in exchange for a catalogue of their nuclear arsenal and the closure of Yongbyon nuclear facility. Echoing the words of Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho at the United Nations, the editorial referenced the US administration resorting to sanctions to force Pyongyang to drop it's nuclear program and proclaimed that the ending of the Korean War 'can never be a bargaining chip for getting the DPRK denuclearized.'
The US administration has long been discussing the possibility of ending the Korean War, however it has in the past expressed that a formal treaty would only occur in response to concessions from Pyongyang. This editorial puts an end to that strategy, at least in the eyes of DPRK officials, and removes a key point of leverage from the US side. If the DPRK is unwilling to accept a formal peace treaty as a concession, the US will need to make fresh concessions to secure the closure of Yongbyon. The article even acknowledged the importance of Yongbyon to the national nuclear program, further elevating the importance of the site, and pushing for a major concessions from Washington. This article, from the KCNA, should ideally precede a change in the US administration's policy and shut down any attempts to press for denuclearisation in exchange for a peace deal. The US may have just lost a key playing card in it's ongoing nuclear negotiations.