Editor's Note

The Biden administration and the Kim Jong Un regime have been at odds in regards to diplomacy with North Korea – negotiations have been stalled and prospects for dialogue have been bleak. In September 2021, President Moon proposed an end-of-war declaration during the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly and has requested U.S. cooperation on this matter. However, Hyun-wook Kim, Professor and Director-General at Korea National Diplomatic Academy, states that the U.S. is opposed to the declaration and remains hesitant to join. Not only does the U.S. insist that such a declaration should be made after the implementation of denuclearization measures, but the U.S. is also wary that the U.S.-ROK alliance may weaken following the declaration.

When it comes to diplomacy with North Korea, the Biden administration takes a calibrated practical approach and holds the position that dialogue should begin without any preconditions. On the other hand, North Korea argues working-level negotiations are to be held under the premise that the U.S. end its hostile policies towards the North. Since the two sides have been at odds, the possibility of a U.S.-DPRK summit has increasingly dwindled. Against this backdrop, the proposal that South Korea came up with was an end of war declaration. This signals a return to when the Singapore Summit was held — in Singapore, the U.S. and North Korea reached two behind-the-scene agreements: the suspension of the U.S.-ROK joint military exercise and a declaration to end the war. The two countries agreed on the establishment of new U.S.-DPRK relations as well as the importance of an end of war declaration. The U.S.-ROK joint statement, released following the summit in May this year, included the Panmunjom Declaration, which contains an end of war declaration. The U.S. also approved declaring an end to the war with North Korea.


An end of war declaration from the perspective of South Korea is merely a political statement that has no influence on the United States Forces Korea (USFK) or the United Nations Command (UNC). The U.S. also agreed in principle. South Korea asked the U.S. to join in issuing an end to the war as an “entrance” to denuclearization for the resumption of stalled U.S.-DPRK dialogue. In other words, this means that a formal end of war declaration would potentially lead North Korea, which demanded the withdrawal of hostile policies, to accept it. This scenario would pave the way for working-level talks between Washington and Pyongyang, leading to negotiations on all relevant issues.


However, North Korea began to set conditions for an end of war declaration. It demanded three things as substantial measures: the suspension of the joint military exercise, the lifting of sanctions affecting the livelihood of North Koreans, and the approval of mineral exports and oil imports. North Korea does not seem willing to resume working-level negotiations. In fact, holding working-level talks with the U.S. is a difficult and hard choice for North Korea as the U.S. would demand a phased denuclearization and the North would have to accept the implementation of verification measures required by the U.S. as the first phase of denuclearization – a nuclear freeze. Considering that the Iran Nuclear Deal persisted for one year and a half, Chairman Kim Jong Un, who anticipated a grand deal from the summit meetings with President Trump, intends to earn something before the negotiation and has no expectations for working-level talks.


As Pyongyang has provided certain conditions, Washington has made it clear that it opposes the declaration. Jake Sullivan, the National Security Advisor at the White House, expressed doubts on the timing, sequence, and conditions. First, South Korea argues that a declaration to end the war is a gateway towards denuclearization, but the U.S. insists that such a declaration should be made after the implementation of denuclearization measures. The U.S. does not trust North Korea to denuclearize once an end to the war has been declared. In other words, the U.S. is uncertain whether the declaration will have a positive impact on denuclearization. The declaration may open the path to denuclearization meeting South Korea’s anticipations, but the U.S. objects to the proposal if it is only designed to bring North Korea to the negotiation table. The U.S. further believes that the contribution will not contribute to the goal of denuclearization.


North Korea claims that the war will come to an end when unfair double standards and hostile policies are abolished. The U.S. believes that North Korea intends to call for mutual armament between North Korea and the U.S. by emphasizing the withdrawal of the hostile policy as a practical measure for the declaration and ultimately have its nuclear possession recognized.


Second, the U.S. is wary of the possibility of the U.S.-ROK alliance to weaken. The U.S. views the suspension of the joint military exercise as per North Korea's suggestion as a starting point of the deterioration of the U.S.-ROK alliance. If an end to the war is to be declared, the North will continue to demand the U.S. to discard hostile policies towards North Korea; this will lead to the suspension of the joint military exercise, put a halt to the advancement of strategic assets on the Korean Peninsula, and ultimately result in the reduction or absence of the USFK. Washington is concerned about repeated military provocations by North Korea and believes that the regime’s tests of new strategic weapons have neutralized the defense system of U.S. allies such as South Korea and Japan. From Washington’s viewpoint, conditions for an end of war declaration are not in place. The U.S. therefore believes that an end of war declaration would jeopardize the status of the USFK and leave North Korea’s military expansion unchecked. In other words, the declaration would undermine the U.S.’ deterrence capabilities.


As the U.S. intends to strengthen the U.S.-ROK alliance as a means to contain China, the strengthening of the U.S.-ROK alliance has become increasingly important. The pursuit of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy has been based on various minilateral engagements such as the Quad, the AUKUS, and trilateral cooperation among the U.S., South Korea, and Japan. The U.S.-ROK alliance is a critical foundation that underpins these mechanisms. Besides, U.S. military power, which is built upon its allies, will be particularly important for possible military confrontations with China in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait and for military deterrence against China. One cannot exclude the possibility of the U.S. deployment of medium-range missiles in military bases in its allies to keep China in check. This is why Washington cannot give up on the U.S.-ROK alliance.


Third, the UNC still performs its role as a force provider for the U.S. An end of war declaration would threaten the position of the UNC. It has the legal status as an administrative organization of the United Nations, which is responsible for the compliance and implementation of the Armistice Agreement. If an official end to war is issued, there is no reason for the UNC to exist. China has called for the UNC and its supporting bases to pull out if a declaration to end the war were to be made. Undeniably, the U.S. is expected to take legal measures to maintain the military power of the UNC. However, military support from the 17 countries that have dispatched their representatives to the UNC to oversee the ceasefire on the Korean Peninsula will be suspended, which would heavily impact the U.S.


Lastly, an end of war declaration could trigger conflict between Washington and Seoul. North Korea is well aware that the adoption of the proposal would be impossible given that the U.S. stance against the proposal remains clear. Given that the South Korean government desires to improve inter-Korean relations, the North has given the South the task of persuading the U.S. North Korea knows that there will be discord between South Korea and the U.S. if South Korea fails to persuade the U.S. ■



Hyun-Wook Kim is currently Professor and Director-General at Korea National Diplomatic Academy. His research areas include US-ROK alliance, US-DPRK relations and Northeast Asian security. He was an advisory member for the National Security Council and the Ministry of Unification, and is now a standing member for the National Unification Advisory Council. He is also a senior advisor for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and is also an honorary research fellow at the Korean Naval Academy. He was a visiting scholar at UC San Diego in 2014 and at George Washington University in 2020-21. He has finished his Ph.D. and M.A. in political science from Brown University, and worked at the University of Southern California as a postdoctoral fellow. He received his B.A. in political science from Yonsei University. He can be reached at hwkim08@mofa.go.kr.



Typeset by Seung Yeon Lee | Research Associate
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