Erecting a hurdle
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Humans dream about eternal life, but most realize it’s impossible to avoid death. The best they can do to achieve their dream is to continue on through their descendents.
At the end of its term, an administration may also pine for eternity. Key members of an administration want their political beliefs to continue. They may seek to install a major obstacle to their successors changing their legacy. The Moon Jae-in administration’s attempt to declare an end to the 1950-53 Korean War is a classic example of such an obstacle.
With only three months left before the next presidential election, the Moon administration is desperately pushing its desire to announce the formal end of the war. After Moon repeated his desire at the UN General Assembly in September, all members of his administration seem to be putting all possible diplomatic efforts into realizing it. Lee Soo-hyuck, Korea’s ambassador to the United States, claimed Seoul and Washington have almost reached an agreement and “the two sides are exchanging their opinions on a draft of the declaration.” If this optimism persists, the formal ending of the Korean War could be announced before the end of this year or in time for the Beijing Winter Olympic Games early next year.
But there are a plethora of reasons to doubt such progress on Moon’s quixotic goal. The U.S. response has been anything but warm. After a trilateral meeting with her Korean and Japanese counterparts on November 17, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said the United States was very satisfied with the consultations with Korea and Japan. But when the press asked her if the United States agreed with an end-of-war declaration, she did not even give an answer.
At the end of last month, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said, “We [Korea and the United States] may have somewhat different perspectives on the precise sequence or timing or conditions for different steps” on the declaration of the end of war. He did not conceal possible disagreements between Seoul and Washington on the issue. Furthermore, North Korea may not accept such a proposal even if South Korea and the United States manage to agree on the declaration after vigorous negotiations.
The plan to declare an end to the war will likely end up as an example of the wishful thinking of the liberal Moon administration. That possibility grew as the Biden administration is known to be giving serious thought to a political boycott of the Beijing Winter Games. That means the Moon administration’s ambitious plan to announce the end of the war in China, with U.S. President Joe Biden attending the event, will likely fail.
Why is the Moon administration obsessed with such a declaration? First, it may be a strategy to make a grand announcement before the March presidential election to give the image that peace has arrived on the Korean Peninsula. But that would be just an illusion. North Korea has not relaxed its programs to build nuclear weapons and missiles. Instead, it advanced its arms systems this year by developing hypersonic missiles and smaller submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). As North Korea’s threats are growing each day, how could we say peace has come?
Second, the Moon administration seems to want to make sure that its “Peace Process Policy” will not be reversed even if the ruling Democratic Party (DP) loses the presidential election in March. Key members of the administration do not hide their intention. “By putting an end to the Korean War, our government intends to commence the process of making irreversible progress in denuclearization and turning the abnormally long armistice into a peace regime,” said First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington on November 15.
But there is no way that denuclearization will make any progress through the declaring of an end to the war. The Moon administration wants to use the declaration as a starting point for inter-Korean dialogue and denuclearization. However, as we have long experienced, there is almost no possibility that North Korea will agree to inter-Korean dialogue without any quid pro quo. Pyongyang will certainly demand economic aid or other rewards from Seoul. Even if talks start, North Korea will likely reject any discussion of denuclearization.
If that is the case, the option of declaring an end to the war should be left unused for the next administration no matter who wins the presidential election. When the Park Geun-hye administration allowed the U.S. deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) anti-missile system in South Korea in March 2017, as her conservative government was nearing its end, the opposition Democratic Party (DP) led by Moon denounced the move for installing an obstacle that is impossible to remove.
Instead of wasting diplomatic energy and time on declaring an end to the war, the Moon administration should pay attention to other issues. How about making a bold move of resolving the icy Korea-Japan relations so that the next president can have a fresh start? It may invite criticism for now, but deserve praise in the long term.