This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The United States, China, and North and South Korea have agreed to declare a formal end to the Korean War “in principle,” nearly 70 years after hostilities ended in a stalemate, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in told reporters Monday.
The remarks came during Moon’s four-day visit to Australia, and Moon elaborated that the four parties have not formally discussed the matter because of North Korea’s objections to what it calls “U.S. hostility.”
North Korea has said that a prerequisite of the talks would be an end to such hostility, likely referring to sanctions over Pyongyang’s nuclear program and Washington’s joint military exercises with the South.
“And because of that, we are not able to sit down for a negotiation on the declarations between South and North Korea, and those between North Korea and United States,” Moon said, during a press conference in Canberra alongside the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison.
“We hope that talks will be initiated. We are making efforts towards that.”
Moon said that ending the almost seven-decade-long “unstable” armistice would improve the chances for bringing about progress in negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
During the same news conference, Moon said that Seoul would not join a U.S.-led diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Australia and the United Kingdom, partners with the U.S. in the UK-Australia-U.S. tripartite partnership (AUKUS) last week joined the boycott.
“We have not received any recommendations to participate in [the boycott] from any country, including the U.S., and the Korean government is not considering it,” Moon said.
“The issue of the AUKUS is a matter for Australia to decide independently as a sovereign country, and South Korea respects the decision,” he said, adding that although South Korea intends to work closely with Australia in regional security matters, the visit to Canberra had nothing to do with Seoul’s relations with Beijing.
“South Korea regards the alliance with the U.S. as the cornerstone of diplomacy and security, but economically, relations with China are also very important,” said Moon.
“China’s constructive efforts are required for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and the denuclearization of North Korea,” he said.
Seoul’s Ministry of Unification told a news briefing that North Korea has expressed its support for an end-of-war declaration and had previously agreed to pursue one during the 2007 inter-Korean summit, and again during the Panmunjom Declaration in 2018, which Moon was party to alongside North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
“In September, the General Secretary Kim Jong Un and the deputy director of the party Kim Yo Jong also expressed their interest in the declaration of an end to the war,” ministry spokesperson Lee Jong-joo added.
“We would like to start dialogue between related countries and make efforts to resolve differences in positions such as the prerequisites that North Korea insists on,” he said.
Meanwhile, South Korea’s opposition People Power Party downplayed Moon’s remarks in a statement.
“In the case of the U.S., it is clearly opposed to the declaration of an end to the war that is not related to denuclearization. Nevertheless, the Moon Jae-in administration is misleading the people as if the declaration of an end to the war will soon be realized,” the statement said.
China’s support for an end-of-war declaration is likely a distraction from several issues that Beijing and Washington have differing views on, the RAND Corporation’s Soo Kim told RFA’s Korean Service.
“The two countries don’t see eye-to-eye on a number of issues, including North Korea’s nuclear weapons and the Kim regime. So, China getting into the mix is unlikely to bear good news for the Biden administration,” she said.
“We may also want to ask whether Seoul is truly taking a middle position [between China and the U.S]. Boycotting the Olympics may not be an easy decision but choosing to not boycott the games also carries consequences,” said Kim.
Seoul’s decision not to boycott the Olympics is understandable, Patrick Cronin of the Hudson Institute told RFA.
“The Winter Olympics is a significant issue for the Chinese leadership and attending can reap some goodwill without undermining South Korean security,” he said.
“What is less understandable is democratic South Korea’s reluctance to highlight China’s human rights abuses and crackdown on rights,” said Cronin.
South Korea’s decision to take no action on the Olympics is not surprising due to its unique geopolitical situation, often referred to as a “shrimp caught between whales,” the American Enterprise Institute’s Olivia Schieber told RFA.
Relying on China to broker peace on the Korean Peninsula is misguided, Schieber said, adding that Moon hopes that an end-of-war declaration would help persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons.
“But in reality, North Korea would likely only see the declaration as reason for U.S. troops to leave South Korea and a cessation of US-ROK joint military exercises,” she added.
“Given Moon’s limited time frame for making this happen before the end of his presidency, it is unsurprising that he doesn’t want to rock the boat with China,” Schieber said.
A White House spokesperson told RFA that Washington was “not coordinating a global campaign” to boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics.
“We have consulted with allies and partners and informed them of our decision. I can’t speak for them but expect they will make their own decisions,” the spokesperson said.