By Donald Kirk
Time is running out for President Moon Jae-In. He has barely more than half a year to leave a legacy in Korean and world history as the leader responsible for bringing permanent peace at last to Korea, North and South.
He would like nothing better than to step down next May, at the end of his five-year term, with his name inscribed on a declaration co-signed by North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un and President Joe Biden or at least by their negotiators declaring a formal end to the Korean War.
There was an air of desperation in the manner in which Moon advanced the notion of an end-of-war declaration in his speech last month at the United Nations General Assembly. It was as though he were grasping at thin air, looking for any old argument though it’s now pretty plain such a declaration would be worse than useless. In his anxiety to sound convincing, Moon presented the same shallow, meaningless arguments that we’ve been hearing for years.
What else is there be to say about his dream the North Koreans would agree to sign any piece of paper that did not significantly compromise the defense of the South and its historic alliance with the U.S.? It’s difficult to know what Moon was thinking when he said the end-of-war agreement would “mark a pivotal point of departure in creating a new order of ‘reconciliation and cooperation on the Korean Peninsula.” And who would believe his claim that Korean War enemies, simply by proclaiming “an end to the war,” could then “make irreversible progress in denuclearization and usher in an era of complete peace.”
Moon, of course, did not bother to explain how the act of signing such a document would bring about anything. Rather, he was uttering fine words in order to appeal to those who insist that denuclearization remains the ultimate goal. Do Moon and his advisers really think the North Koreans, having gone along with the end-of-war agreement, would then be in the least willing to talk about getting rid of their nukes?
It was up to Kim Jong-Un’s talkative younger sister, Kim Yo-Jong, to make clear the futility of any peace declaration. While an end-of-war declaration was “an admirable idea,” she said, it would be “necessary to discard such double and illogical pressure and bad habit and hostile attitude” by “slandering our just exercise of right of self-defense.” In other words, no matter what happened, North Korea would stick to its nukes and the missiles with which to send them to distant targets.
Probably the most disturbing aspect of this exchange is that neither Moon nor anyone in his administration seems to have seen through the rhetoric. The universal response from Moon’s people has been to perceive the possibility that fresh talks may actually work. As the clock ticks down on Moon’s presidency, the sense is that North and South Korean negotiators may actually sit down and begin hammering out a statement.
Moon at the UN was deliberately vague, however, as to the depth and extent of the talks. He proposed only that “the two Koreas and the U.S., or four parties of the two Koreas, the U.S. and China come together and declare that the War on the Korean Peninsula is over.” This remark would appear carefully crafted to fool or mislead people into thinking that signing the agreement would be a simple matter, non-controversial and easy for all parties to approve. Moon in his heart would surely know better.
The fact that Moon seemed uncertain as to China’s participation in the talks adds to the complications. Considering that China had rescued North Korea from defeat in the Korean War, Chinese support for any end-of-war agreement would appear absolutely necessary.
China along with North Korea and the U.S. signed the original Korean War truce at Panmunjom in July 1953 while South Korea’s President Syngman Rhee wanted no part of it. Rhee did tell the Americans he would honor the truce but absolutely refused to dignify talks that would sanctify division of the Korean peninsula.
Moon has not had a word to say about the durability of the Korean War truce. He would never agree that it’s been one of the most effective end-of-war agreements in history. The two Koreas have not gone to war since then, and South Korea, shielded by the American alliance, has grown into one of the world’s richest, most productive nations.
Moreover, South Korea has evolved as a democracy in which dissent and political opposition are possible despite repression of the media by Moon’s government. It was in the name of democracy that millions took to the streets in 2016, waging the “Candlelight Revolution” that led to fall of the conservative Park Geun-Hye and Moon’s rise as her elected successor
Basically, it’s to advance and solidify his own power and that of his liberal party that Moon advocates an end-of-war agreement. He knows very well the Korean War is long over, and he also should know that the North Koreans will exploit talks for a deal as they have all the other talks over the years. The last thing the North would want is an agreement that actually accomplished any purpose other than weakening the will of the South Koreans and their American ally to stand up against Kim Jong-Un’s blatant desire to reach a deal on nobody’s terms but his own.
The next step after an end-of-war agreement would be a “peace treaty” calling for withdrawal of all foreign troops and bases. North Korea, while loudly demanding the Americans make sweeping concessions, would not agree on reducing its own forces, pulling back thousands of artillery pieces trained on the South and cancelling its nuclear program.
The Chinese would always be there, just above North Korea, ready to send in troops as in 1950. Without the backup of U.S. forces and bases, the South would be in greater danger than at any time since the Korean War.