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[Lee Jae-min] To avoid new war, end old one first

Last Friday South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un met at the truce village of Panmunjeom for their first summit. At this crucial encounter, many things were put on the table as a prelude to the United States-North Korea summit meeting scheduled toward the middle of June possibly in Singapore. 

Most notably, the two Koreas’ leaders adopted a joint communique in which they promised to pursue official termination of the Korean War within the year followed by a peace treaty.

The brutal war ceased in July 1953 with the conclusion of the Armistice Agreement. This agreement still operates as a legal framework that regulates situations on the Korean Peninsula today. As the title itself indicates, the two Koreas are still legally at war: The Korean War has not been terminated yet (warfare has just been suspended).

This continuation of warfare has shaped the psyche of generations of people living in the two Koreas. It explains constant mobilization of people in the North against “imminent” invasion. It also explains why and how people in Seoul look so worry-free and even laid-back at the peak of military tension, to the bewilderment of some foreign watchers: Because war has been around here for almost seven decades, misplaced and dangerous complacency has set in. The unending war has also accounted for dormant yet live hostilities between the two Koreas. Because they are technically at war, a default has been hostile activities and venomous remarks.

Bearing this in mind, the April 27 joint communique for the two Koreas to pursue an official declaration of the termination of the Korean War and an ensuing peace treaty is a significant stride forward. Of course, there is a long way to go: An ultimate peace treaty requires agreement and sanction from the United States and China -- the two countries who are parties to the 1953 Armistice Agreement (US on behalf of 16 UN members and South Korea). Nobody can tell for sure at this time how these two countries will react to this development as the real diplomatic game has just started. Also, as they say, the devil lies in the details. But even then, last Friday’s communique nonetheless carries an immense symbolic weight: now that the two Koreas proclaim to outgrow history, it is finally time to talk about peace and the future.

In a best case scenario and assuming (at least for now) the good faith of the Pyongyang regime, the momentum of the inter-Korean summit will be able to prime the pump for a make-it-or-break-it sit-down between President Trump and North Korea’s Kim in several weeks’ time. If the momentum works the magic, the two leaders will be able to exchange views on a peace treaty, in exchange for the North’s complete verifiable irreversible dismantlement commitment. For its part, China will have little incentive to refuse such a deal once Washington and Pyongyang agree: Note that in a phone conversation with President Trump on March 9, Chinese President Xi already floated four-way talks to discuss a peace treaty.

Since a peace treaty is a core component of a package deal with North Korea to have it surrender its nuclear program and arsenal, this issue will come to the fore at the Trump-Kim summit in June. In the summit with Trump, North Korea will table a strongest possible demand for a guarantee for its regime’s long-term stability when it abolishes its nuclear program. For this, trust building is the most important prerequisite. And to that end, “termination” of the existing war is the first mark to clear. This is absolutely a necessary, though not a sufficient, condition for a new regime on the peninsula, through a peace treaty.

As of today, the Korean Peninsula is under the longest truce regime in the world. It is time to end it, and end it first. Ending it is the beginning of a new start. What seemed almost impossible just several months ago has come within reach -- yes, all of a sudden.

By Lee Jae-min

Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at Seoul National University. He can be reached at -- Ed.