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(News Focus) Talks for end-of-war declaration gather pace, but skepticism lingers

All News 14:35 October 25, 2021

By Song Sang-ho and Kim Eun-jung

SEOUL, Oct. 25 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's push for the declaration of a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War appears to be gaining steam, with the United States publicly confirming ongoing consultations with the ally and North Korea signaling conditional interest.

Still, skepticism lingers over feasibility and utility, as well as controversy over its potential impact on regional security.

In recent weeks, Seoul and Washington have been discussing President Moon Jae-in's renewed suggestion for the declaration meant to help bring Pyongyang back to dialogue and resume a stalled process toward a lasting peace regime on the peninsula. Moon and his aides emphasize that it represents a largely symbolic and political move as a "catalyst" toward the denuclearization goal.

The proposed declaration topped the agenda for the talks between Seoul's top nuclear negotiator, Noh Kyu-duk, and his U.S. counterpart, Sung Kim, in Seoul on Sunday and the trilateral talks with their Japanese counterpart, Takehiro Funakoshi, in Washington days earlier.

After the talks in Seoul, Kim reiterated Washington's willingness to discuss the end-of-war declaration with Seoul in an apparent show of its openness to various options to build confidence with Pyongyang and move forward the peace efforts.

"I look forward to continuing to work with Special Representative Noh to explore different ideas and initiatives, including the ROK's end-of-war proposal as we continue to pursue our shared objectives on the peninsula," Kim said. ROK stands for the South's official name, Republic of Korea.

Noh Kyu-duk, South Korea's top nuclear envoy, and his U.S. counterpart, Sung Kim, speak during a joint press event after their meeting on North Korean issues in Seoul on Oct. 24, 2021. (Pool photo) (Yonhap)

He did not clarify where the allies stand when it comes to relevant discussions, but his repeated mention of the proposal suggested they are seeking to build common ground.

Addressing an annual U.N. General Assembly session in New York last month, Moon renewed the proposal for the declaration by the two Koreas and the U.S. or by the two Koreas, the U.S. and China -- in a last-ditch move to revive his waning peace crusade ahead of the end of his five-year term in May.

The proposal touched off a heated debate again, pitting liberals and others advocating for speedier efforts to ensure a peaceful coexistence of the two Koreas against security hawks, mostly in the nation's conservative fold.

Liberals said that the declaration would help bring the divided Koreas together, ease military tensions and create a much-needed impetus to the stalled peace process.

Conservatives have said the declaration should come only after the North takes significant denuclearization steps to reduce its military threats, and that its evolving nuclear and missile programs underscore that Pyongyang is not ready for an end to the war.

Naysayers also raise speculation that the North could use the declaration to demand the withdrawal of the U.S.-led U.N. Forces Command, an enforcer of the armistice agreement and American troops here, which they fear could eventually lead to the dissolution or at least a significant rupture in the South Korea-U.S. alliance.

The South and U.N. forces fought against the North and its ally China during the Korean War, which ended with an armistice and not a peace treaty.

At issue is the Joe Biden administration's position. The U.S. was initially seen as lukewarm to Moon's offer.

While Washington officials haven't publicly brought up the declaration issue in stark contrast to emphatic Seoul diplomats, there seems to be a subtle change in tone following a series of recent high-profile meetings between the two nations.

"The U.S. acknowledged the need to review the potential impact of the declaration, and has been looking into the matter internally," a senior government source here said.

Some news reports also say Washington has already begun a legal review on the sensitive issue, even including specific wording in a draft declaration.

The Moon administration points out that the declaration is a political gesture for building trust and a preliminary step for signing a legally binding peace treaty, with its peace initiative having lost steam since the Hanoi summit in 2019 between the U.S. and North Korea ended without a deal.

"South Korea and the U.S. are having more in-depth discussions on the declaration, but it is premature to say how the U.S. will respond to the proposal considering the complexity and potential impact on the security situation on the Korean Peninsula," the source said. "How to persuade North Korea is another matter."

The North Korean side has been seen as warming to the proposal, albeit conditionally.

In this photo released Oct. 20, 2021, by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency, a new type of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) is test-fired from waters the previous day. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

Kim Yo-jong, the influential sister of the North's leader, branded Moon's offer as "an interesting and an admirable" idea, but said discussions can resume only if the South abandons its hostile policy towards the North.

The North's repeated calls for an end to the hostile policy remains vague, but Pyongyang has persistently demanded the South end its joint military drills with the U.S., denouncing them as a war rehearsal. The North's leader Kim Jong-un openly accused the allies of having what he described as "double standards" and demanded confidence-building measures.

Observers raise the need for a careful approach to the declaration as it could affect the future of the 28,500-strong U.S. Forces Korea -- a symbol of the hitherto security-centric alliance -- as well as the U.N. Command amid renewed tensions over Pyongyang's missile activities.

On Tuesday last week, North Korea fired a new submarine-launched ballistic missile in its eighth known missile test this year.

The U.S. State of Department condemned the latest missile test as violation of multiple U.N. Security Council sanctions, but said it remains open to talks with the North without any preconditions.

Park Won-gon, a North Korean studies professor of Ewha Womans University, said Pyongyang has "nothing to lose" from the end-of-war declaration whether it's signed or not, which could give it leverage in its nuclear diplomacy and efforts to ease sanctions.

Curtis Scaparrotti, a former commander of U.S. Forces Korea who also led U.N. Command from 2013-2016, said Wednesday North Korean security threats won't change even if a formal end to the Korean War is declared and stressed the bilateral alliance for the stability on the Korean Peninsula.



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