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[Lee Jae-min] To make peace, declaring the war is over is an important first step

“We declare that the war is finally over and that interested parties will seek to establish a peace regime on the peninsula” or something along the line will be the gist of an official ‘declaration’ to terminate the Korean War. As encapsulated in the title, it is just a declaration -- a political, diplomatic statement without binding legal effect. Even if adopted, it itself does not change the present Armistice Agreement. So, it is an easy target. At least so it seemed. After the sluggish meetings in July, however, such a declaration is still an elusive target. With the first milestone left up in the air, US-North Korea negotiations are losing momentum.

Hopes are still alive that one can be announced during the UN General Assembly session in New York in September, or sometime in the fall, or at least by the end of the year. Under the circumstances, it seems critical to clear this milestone -- adopting a declaration to officially terminate the Korean War -- in due course.

A declaration does not solve the problem, nor does it guarantee peace. Nonetheless, under the unique situations of Korea, a declaration of that nature is absolutely essential to initiating a peace discussion seriously. More than anything else, its symbolic weight will be immense. They say what we have here on the peninsula is the longest armistice regime in modern history. Declaring “officially” to the world that the regime is coming to an end is a prerequisite first step to wrap up the old regime and explore a future one. Were it not for the closure of an old chapter, a new one could not be opened. That is why an official declaration to terminate the hostilities, even still maintaining the armistice regime during the pendency of the peace regime discussion, is important and critical. It is a way station between an armistice regime and a peace regime.

We feel that the euphoria in May and June is subsiding as US-North Korea negotiations and inter-Korean meetings are raising more questions and doubts. This is the moment when eagle eyes and sharp ears are needed to spot any loophole, caveat or trick. It is also true that an official declaration may well be taken advantage of by North Korea. That said, a declaration is still necessary if we are serious about giving peace a chance, because without it we cannot even start the discussion on peace. Perhaps we can view a declaration as the “starting point” of peace negotiations, which may or may not succeed.

It may be prudent to decouple the two: a declaration on the one hand and a peace treaty on the other. A peace treaty entails a more complex and complicated process: this is a legal framework to lay out rights and obligations for all the interested parties. Naturally, this is something that requires thorough calibration and careful preparation. If anything, it may take a lengthy process. In addition, it is still possible that, unfortunately, a declaration may fail to lead to a peace treaty. It is also possible that, again unfortunately, hostilities may re-emerge when the two sides lose patience during the prospective peace regime discussion. Nonetheless, it is worth a try.

A declaration of termination of war is a political statement to initiate that long process. No stones must be left unturned at this crucial moment. But at the same time, there does not seem to be a plausible reason to treat a declaration as a peace treaty or part of a peace regime, which is more complex and sensitive. Viewed from this perspective, a declaration of the termination of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula can be done relatively quickly, as long as there is agreement in principle and as long as there is a reliable (even if not full) level of trust.

This Friday marks the 65th anniversary of the Korean Armistice Agreement.

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