What an End to the 71-Year Korean War Would Mean
(Bloomberg) -- The Cold War may have ended, but one of its greatest conflicts still lives on -- at least on paper. There has been no formal treaty ending the 1950-53 Korean War, meaning North Korea and its ally China have technically been at war with U.S.-led forces and South Korea for more than seven decades. While the two Koreas have again revived calls for a peace deal, well-entrenched political forces could keep prospects of a resolution at bay.
1. Why is the Korean War still not over?
The parties involved in talks to end the war -- North Korea and China on one side and the U.S.-led United Nations Forces on the other -- were never able to reach a peace treaty. What was signed in 1953 was only an armistice agreement, or truce, and only among three of the four parties. South Korea held out, looking to keep the fighting going in the hope that the entire peninsula could fall under its government’s control. That’s why Seoul today has little power on its own to change the status of the armistice. The border between North and South Korea has remained one of the world’s most militarized divides, with more than a million troops in total deployed nearby.
2. What is preventing a peace deal now?
The armistice was a military deal and a peace treaty would be a political agreement, which is hard to reach when North Korea and the U.S. don’t formally recognize each other. The thinking in the U.S. has long been that a peace deal and diplomatic recognition would be a reward coming after North Korea takes apart its nuclear arms program. But if a peace treaty were reached, it would strengthen North Korea’s persistent calls to remove the some 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea. If a peace deal doesn’t put a verifiable and complete end to Pyongyang’s atomic arms program, Japan and South Korea could seek their own nuclear weapons, setting off a regional arms race.
3. What would be needed for a peace deal?
The U.S. and China would need to drive any agreement, putting aside their political tensions to find solutions for issues that have festered for decades, such as finally setting nautical borders that U.S.-led forces unilaterally drew in 1953. A peace deal is risky for Kim Jong Un’s regime in North Korea, which has long blamed U.S. sanctions for the poor state of the country’s economy and its hefty domestic spending on its military to prevent an American invasion. If Pyongyang and Washington were at peace, Kim’s propaganda machine would need to overhaul its messaging and find new reasons to deflect blame for fiscal problems caused by years of government mismanagement.
4. How did the issue resurface?
South Korean President Moon Jae-in at a UN General Assembly meeting in September 2021 reiterated a call for the U.S. and China to formally end the Korean War. Moon’s single five-year term finishes in May and he has been pushing for some sort of peace deal before leaving that would support his key policy pledge of reconciliation. Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of the North Korean leader, in late September, told Seoul that Pyongyang would consider taking part in another inter-Korean summit and declaring an end to the war if Seoul would adopt a less hostile policy. Her messages, however, may be more about trying to win concessions from Moon than actually trying to reach a peace deal.
5. What have they done before this?
At the first summit between the leaders of the divided peninsula in 2000, then President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il -- the father of the current leader -- agreed on a peace declaration that encouraged cooperation. At the second inter-Korean summit in 2007 with Kim Jong Il and then-President Roh Moo-hyun, the leaders reached a series of agreements, including a call to replace the armistice with a permanent peace deal.
The Reference Shelf
- A QuickTake explainer on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
- Seven decades of separation left the two Koreas worlds apart.
- Will Kim give up his nukes? History says no.
- A Bloomberg infographic from 2017 considers the range of North Korea’s missile threat.
- North Korea’s 10 deadliest provocations from the Korean War to 2015.
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