North and South Korea, the US, and China have agreed in principle to declare a formal end to the Korean War, says the South’s President Moon Jae-in. But talks have yet to begin because of North Korea’s demands, he added.
The Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953, ended with an armistice and not a peace treaty. North and South Korea have technically been at war ever since – backed by China and the US respectively – and locked in a tense relationship.
Mr Moon, who is currently visiting Australia, was speaking at a joint press conference in Canberra along with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
In September Kim Yo-jong, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, signalled that her country could be open to talks, but only if the US dropped what she called a “hostile policy” against them.
North Korea consistently objects to the presence of US troops in South Korea; the joint military drills held every year between US and South Korea; as well as US-led sanctions against North Korea’s weapons programme. But the US has repeatedly said that North Korea must first abandon its nuclear weapons before any sanctions can be lifted.
On Monday, Mr Moon said that North Korea was continuing to make this demand as a pre-condition to discussions. “Because of that, we are not able to sit down for a discussion or negotiation on the declaration… we hope the talks will be initiated,” he said.
The South Korean leader has made engagement with the North a cornerstone of his presidency, and previously argued that a formal declaration to end the war would encourage the North to give up its nuclear weapons.
Trying to bring an end of war agreement to the table is Moon Jae-in’s last hope.
But he faces significant challenges. The United States appears to be is less enthusiastic about the idea. The Biden administration seems happy to talk about it and of course no-one wants a permanent state of war on the peninsula. But some believe an agreement would reward Kim Jong-un without getting any guarantees in return.
Those in favour say the agreement is a diplomatic gesture – a starting point to give North Korea security guarantees. Those who oppose it say Pyongyang could use it to demand the withdrawal of 28,500 US troops from South Korea and bring an end to the annual US-South Korea joint military exercises.
North Korean state media has also described the idea as “premature”.
Meanwhile, South Korean news agency Yonhap reported last week that top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi had pledged his country’s support for “the push for the end-of-war declaration”, citing South Korean diplomats in Beijing.
The war began with an incursion across the 38th parallel, the boundary between North and South Korea, by 75,000 troops from the Communist North in June 1950. American troops supporting the South joined the war in the following months and the North Koreans, supported by China and the USSR, were pushed back.
A bloody stalemate ensued and an armistice was signed between the US and North Korea in July 1953. Five million troops and civilians lost their lives in the conflict.