Editor's Note

The end-of-war declaration has been the talk of the town since President Moon Jae-in’s address at the UN General Assembly. As the declaration lacks precedent, it has stirred a lot of controversy regarding its form and content. In this commentary, Nam-Ju Lee, professor at Sungkonghoe University explains China’s potential role in the end-of-war declaration. Over the recent months, China has made it clear that consultation with China is necessary for the successful pursuit of the end-of-war declaration as it had been involved in the Korean War. While Professor Lee sees the end-of-war declaration will involve a quadrilateral declaration involving the two Koreas, the U.S., and China, its role seems unclear amid debate concerning whether the declaration will affect the presence of USFK and UNC forces on the Korean Peninsula.

The end-of-war declaration agreed upon by the leaders of the two Koreas on October 4, 2007 was devised to transform the hostile relationship that started with the onset of the Korean War into a relationship based on mutual respect and cooperation. The most important reason for this intermediate milestone was that it was difficult to build a “permanent peace regime” on the Korean Peninsula, which was also included in the Joint Statement of the Fourth Round of the Six-Party Talks on 19 September, 2005, within a short period of time. There are too many issues that are yet to be resolved in order to conclude a peace treaty that can replace the armistice agreement. If the status quo remains the same, an end-of-war declaration is a meaningful alternative for the establishment of peace on the Korean Peninsula; in fact, South and North Korea, as well as North Korea and the U.S., have had serious discussions about the declaration since 2018.


However, since the end-of-war declaration lacks precedent, there has been a lot of controversy about its form and content. Regarding its form, the number of declaring parties (three or four) has often been an issue. Regarding content, the main issue was the effect of the declaration; that is, whether it is merely a political declaration or is accompanied by change in the security structures of the Korean Peninsula. As the Moon Jae-in administration has recently been pushing for an end-of-war declaration once again, this controversy has also resurfaced.


It is difficult to answer why an end-of-war declaration is necessary if it has no substantive effect. If the declaration were to include changes in the security arrangement of the Korean Peninsula, it would be difficult to reach an agreement because the countries concerned have different positions on that matter. The Moon administration is currently avoiding these controversies to surface. It also expects that once related discussions and negotiations begin, the momentum to restart the peace process would revive. In this case, negotiations over the end-of-war declaration can be seen as a kind of 'platform.'


So, what role can China play in this process? First, this question is related to issues of the concerned parties. Beijing has expressed its strong dissatisfaction with the contents of the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, which included the goal to “... actively promote trilateral meetings involving the two sides and the U.S., or quadrilateral meetings involving the two sides, the U.S., and China to take place.” The October 4th Joint Declaration of 2007 only used the expression “the leaders of the three or four parties directly concerned” while the Panmunjom Declaration specified South Korea, North Korea, and the U.S. as the parties concerned in the end-of-war declaration; this made China uncomfortable. China has been claiming that it is qualified to participate in discussions and agreements related to the Korean War because it not only made great sacrifices in the Korean War, but it also was a party to the armistice agreement. Recently, Chinese Ambassador to South Korea, Xing Haiming, made it clear in an interview with South Korean media that communication and consultation with China are necessary for the successful pursuit of the end-of-war declaration.


Because of these circumstances, China may act as an obstacle to the pursuit of an end-of-war declaration. However, Beijing's position does not mean that China must be a party related to the declaration. In the meantime, China has expressed its position that it welcomes the end-of-war declaration and progress toward a more stable Korean Peninsula. In this case, Beijing cannot ignore the necessity of flexibility regarding the form of the end-of-war declaration. In other words, between easing uncertainty on the Korean Peninsula and securing its position as a party relevant to the Korean Peninsula issue, China may value the former more highly. This was the case with the Singapore and Hanoi summits in 2018, during which it was possible and important for Washington and Pyongyang to rapidly advance their relations and effect a practical outcome. China's role in the discussion could be sidelined if Beijing tried to prevent the formation of the declaration by putting ahead the issue of the parties concerned. At the 2018 China Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers' Meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, “I believe that everyone can announce a declaration ending the war if they do not want war to happen again. This [statement] is fully suited to trends in the development of the current era, and it accords with the wishes of [the] people in the individual countries, including South and North Korea. […] Turning the armistice agreement into a peace accord is another matter. The parties concerned should sit down to restart negotiations and to go through legal procedures.”


Under the current circumstances, an end-of-war declaration, if made, is more likely to involve a quadrilateral instead of a trilateral declaration. First of all, the current situation is not developing as urgently as it did in 2018. In addition, South Korea also considers China’s role as important in the process of promoting the resumption of inter-Korean dialogue, which could be triggered by the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics. North Korea, which is developing relations with China, will also try to reflect China's concerns in related discussions. It is different from the situation until 2017, when South Korea and China were involved in disputes over the deployment of THAAD and North Korea and China had been at odds regarding the North’s rapidly developing nuclear and missile capabilities. In other words, there is now more room for China to participate in discussions. Lastly, despite the ongoing U.S.-China strategic competition, the North Korean nuclear issue is being discussed as an area in which the two superpowers can cooperate. The U.S. has no reason to stop China's participation if the U.S. agrees to the declaration to end the war. In this way, the issue of the concerned parties is unlikely to act as a decisive obstacle to the promotion of the end-of-war declaration.


Then, the problem here is the content. Although President Moon has emphasized that it is a political declaration, the declaration will inevitably affect the countries concerned. In addition, the different evaluation of its effects makes it difficult for the countries to reach the declaration. The next administration also will face the same issue if it is to declare an end to war. Washington holds the position that the declaration should help promote denuclearization and should not affect U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang argues that an end to the war can be issued when the U.S. discards its hostile policy towards the regime. This demand entails not only the suspension of the ROK-U.S. joint military exercise, but also the dissolution of the United Nations Command (UNC). Beijing may expect an end-of-war declaration to have the effect of limiting the scope of U.S. military action. China's position that communication and consultation with Beijing is necessary to push forward the declaration seems to reflect this demand. In this regard, North Korea and China may actively cooperate in the coming years.


What needs to be done to narrow the gap? Above all, the key to this question lies in devising ways to bring North Korea back to dialogue. It is not easy to reconcile differences in opinion on military issues. However, North Korea's demand for U.S’ withdrawal of hostile policy is not only in the realm of military issues, but also political and economic aspects. Under the principle of balanced negotiation, it is necessary to create and propose a policy package that includes various contents. If North Korea agrees to this proposal, it will not be beyond the bounds of possibility to persuade China. If such attempts are not made, it will be difficult to declare an end to the war within the tenure of the Moon administration. In such case, the next administration will be left with the choice of whether to proceed with the declaration or to skip it and pursue substantive negotiations to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and build a peace regime. ■



Namju Lee is a professor at Sungkonghoe University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Peking University and was a visiting scholar at Harvard University. He currently serves as a member of various advisory committees such as the Presidential Commission on Policy Planning, a Policy Advisory Council to the Ministry of Unification, and the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Committee.



Typeset by Seung Yeon Lee Research Associate
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