“Initially all the parties showed a positive response” to the South Korean government’s proposal for an end-of-war declaration, Moon said. Donald Trump enthusiastically endorsed the idea. At their first summit in Panmunjom in April, Moon Jae In and Kim Jong Un vowed to pursue the declaration within the year—an ambitious timeline the South Korean government deliberately sought not just “to make a transition from the Armistice Agreement to some form of peace treaty,” but also as a way to “expedite the process of North Korea’s denuclearization.”
As South Korea’s ambassador to the United States, Cho Yoon Je, told me earlier this summer, against the backdrop of reports that North Korea is largely continuing to develop its nuclear program even as it negotiates over the program’s future, an end-of-war declaration might afford North Korean leaders the interim security assurances he suspected they need to move toward full denuclearization and a final peace treaty.
But some in the United States and South Korea warn of the unintended consequences of an end-of-war declaration, no matter how logical and innocuous it might seem at first glance. Cheon Seong Whun, a national-security official in the conservative administration of former South Korean President Park Geun Hye, told me recently that such a declaration would increase pressure for a peace treaty even if North Korea hasn’t sufficiently rolled back its nuclear program. This, in turn, could dissolve the U.S.–South Korea military alliance and leave a jilted South Korea exposed to the aggression of a still-nuclear-armed North Korea, he cautioned. (Many South Korean conservatives are critical of the liberal Moon administration’s North Korea policies.)
The end-of-war declaration “is a perfect formula for North Korea to claim that our military exercises, our sanctions, our criticism of human rights are all breaking this opportunity for peace,” weakening all three forms of U.S. pressure on North Korea, said Michael Green, a former Asia adviser to President George W. Bush, during a panel last week at the Brookings Institution. Moon Jae In’s “idea was that you have these two wheels [of peace and denuclearization] connected by this axis and you’re just going to keep moving,” the North Korea expert Jung Pak observed at the same event. “There was always the fear that the peace wheel was going to move too fast and that denuclearization was not going to move … And I think that’s what’s happening.”
Such consequences help explain why, as The Washington Post reported this week, Pompeo is confronting resistance to the end-of-war declaration within the Trump administration. Moon acknowledged the risks but argued they’re manageable. “Yes, in the process of adopting a declaration to end the war North Korea could demand a withdrawal of American troops [from South Korea], but neither the United States nor South Korea would accept it,” he said. “Nothing”—not even declaring an end to the Korean War—“is irreversible other than the death of a human being.”
“I don’t know,” he admitted, when asked how to break the impasse, “but we will continue to tell Washington and Pyongyang ‘you gotta engage in talks.’” And what would the South Korean government do if North Korea refuses to denuclearize to the Trump administration’s satisfaction and the United States pulls out of those talks? “We’ll consult with the United States. We are allies. No doubt about it,” Moon told me. “But that is Plan B. We never talk about Plan B.”