On Friday, after becoming the first North Korean leader to step into South Korea, Kim Jong Un joined with South Korean President Moon Jae In in making an extraordinary announcement: The two leaders vowed to pursue the shared objective of a “nuclear-free Korean peninsula” and, by the end of this year, to finally proclaim an end to the Korean War.
The declaration established ambitious, if notably vague, parameters for Kim’s upcoming nuclear talks with Donald Trump, who had previously given his “blessing” to North and South Korea to discuss an official conclusion to the war,which was stopped but not formally ended by an armistice in 1953. But it also highlighted just how fast diplomatic efforts to address North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program are moving and just how much work those involved are setting out to accomplish in the coming months: no less than a peace treaty that has eluded North and South Korea for 65 years, and a definitive nuclear deal with North Korea that has escaped international negotiators for 25 years.
In the abstract, a peace deal to replace the armistice that halted the Korean War makes eminent sense. Why not draw to a close a conflict that has unnaturally divided Korea and perpetuated one of the most militarized and volatile stalemates on earth? When leaders of North Korean, Chinese, and U.S.-led United Nations forces signed the 1953 truce (South Korea abided by the armistice but refused to sign it), they agreed to hold another conference in three months to ensure “the peaceful settlement of the Korean question.” A resolution is a long time coming.But while North Korean, South Korean, Chinese, and American officials have occasionally proposed and explored a peace treaty over the decades, actually executing an agreement has proved prohibitively problematic. Given the signatories to the ceasefire, a treaty “would need to be formalized by the UN—if not the Security Council, at least the UN General Assembly” and ratified by North Korea, China, the United States, and most likely South Korea, said Bruce Klingner, a Korea expert at the Heritage Foundation. (In their joint declaration on Friday, the North and South Koreans committed, with a number of caveats, to “actively pursue trilateral meetings involving the two Koreas and the United States, or quadrilateral meetings involving the two Koreas, the United States and China with a view to declaring an end to the war and establishing a permanent and solid peace regime.”)