South Korea isn't likely to sign a peace treaty — nor should it

The administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in is doing everything possible to achieve the goal of getting signatures on a piece of paper affirming that the Korean War is over at last.

The problem with this quest for an end-of-war agreement is that it will only heighten tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The war really did end in July 1953 with the signing of the armistice at Panmunjom, but the truce was never replaced by a peace treaty as envisioned. In a real sense the truce has been a great end-of-war agreement — durable, long lasting and still in place.

It’s easy, of course, for advocates and foes of a treaty to argue that the Korean War is not over.  Opposing armies face each other on either side of the Demilitarized Zone established by the truce, the North-South line remains closed to normal commercial traffic, and North Korea threatens foes near and far with nuclear weaponry.

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Moon and his ministers and advisers are imploring all sides in the Korean War to sign this piece of paper. North Korea is not going to go along with any such agreement, however, unless the U.S. renounces sanctions imposed as a result of its nuclear and missile tests, and the North is also going to insist on an end to joint military exercises staged by U.S. and South Korean troops.

At the same time, North Korea is not doing away with its nuclear program while developing missiles capable of carrying warheads to targets as close as South Korea and Japan and as far as the U.S. In short, there is absolutely no point in an end-of-war agreement that provides no guarantees of anything while stripping South Korea of essential defenses. Ultimately, North Korea would want a “peace treaty” that calls for dissolution of the United Nations Command and withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea.

It’s difficult to know why Moon is so anxious to achieve a deal that obviously will destroy the historic alliance between the U.S. and the Republic of Korea. North Korea would be the sole beneficiary, and it’s easy to imagine the North building up its forces for potential attacks on the South on its way to placing all of Korea under its own dynastic rule, ostensibly communist but really a kingdom dominated by dictator Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnNorth Korea sparks US condemnation with latest missile launch Overnight Defense & National Security — US delivers written response to Russia North Korea fires two more missiles amid tensions in region MORE.

In all the talk about an end-of-war declaration and then a peace treaty, we should recall that South Korea did not go along with the truce. The South Korean president, Syngman Rhee, refused to sanctify anything that he believed would lead to permanent division of the Korean peninsula between North and South. Instead, the agreement was signed by Lt. Gen. William Harrison Jr. for the United Nations Command, Gen. Nam Il, the North Korean commander, and Gen. Peng The-huai, who led the Chinese “People’s Volunteer Army” that saved the North Koreans from total defeat after the Americans and South Koreans had driven them from Pyongyang.

China has been slow to express full support for an end-of-war declaration but now is tentatively putting on a show of endorsing it. Or at least that’s the impression that a senior South Korean aide wanted to give after meeting Yang Jiechi, a member of the politburo of the Chinese Communist Party in Tianjin, the huge Chinese industrial port city east of Beijing. Suh Hoon, director of national security at the Blue House, quoted Yang as saying the end-of-war declaration would “contribute to promoting peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.”

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Curiously, however, Yang himself was not reported to have made any such statement. China may see the agreement as a way to undermine the U.S.-ROK alliance but clearly is only lukewarm about it.

Then there’s the question of who would be expected to sign an end-of-war agreement. Would the paper need the signatures of military commanders? Or might President BidenJoe BidenCourt nixes offshore drilling leases auctioned by Biden administration Laquan McDonald's family pushes for federal charges against officer ahead of early release Biden speaks with Ukrainian president amid Russian threat MORE, China’s President Xi Jinping, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and President Moon all join hands, on paper, in declaring at last the Korean War is over?

That prospect is totally ridiculous. Much as Moon would love to see the U.S., Chinese and North Korean leaders all signing the document, that’s not going to happen. So, would there be a ceremony at the truce village of Panmunjom, and would the generals or maybe the U.S. secretary of State and the foreign ministers from China and the two Koreas sit down and put their names on the deal?

It's difficult to imagine anything like that happening, either. For one thing, the North Koreans aren’t even talking to the South Koreans and the Americans. Moon can go on pressing for something, anything, but he should accept the reality that this deal is too absurd, too deeply flawed, to be taken seriously.

Under South Korea’s 1987 democracy constitution, Moon cannot run for a second five-year term. It will be interesting to see how he and his aides go on pursuing their fantasy of peace until the election on March 9 of Moon’s successor. Voters have a choice between the liberal Lee Jae-myung — like Moon, an advocate of compromise with the North — and the conservative Yoon Suk-yeol, who calls for denuclearization as a condition for any deal. 

Basically, it would be a good idea if all sides would accept the sad truth. No one’s gotten anywhere in what would be a sellout of South Korean democracy to North Korean dictatorship.

Donald Kirk has been a journalist for more than 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflict in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and Chicago Tribune. He currently is a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea. He is the author of several books about Asian affairs.