An end-of-war declaration dealing with the Korean Peninsula would be a powerful message from the U.S. to North Korea. It would also confirm that the U.S. is in sync with South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s efforts to resume a dialogue between the two Koreas and the U.S. and North Korea.
On October 4, North Korea reactivated the cross-border hotline with the South, following Mr. Moon’s September 21 speech at the United Nations that called for a formal declaration ending the war on the Korean Peninsula and movement toward “reconciliation and cooperation.”
This could be the beginning of a substantive and productive inter-Korean dialogue dealing with humanitarian and economic cooperation between the two Koreas. Moon’s summit with President Joe Biden in May 2021 also dealt with the need to improve inter-Korean relations. And there’s no shortage of humanitarian issues that can be pursued, given the dire economic situation in the North.
The appearance of Covid-19 in February 2019 contributed to the North’s decision to close its border with the outside world, resulting in significant shortages of food and medicine. In addition to the need for humanitarian cooperation, there are many economic issues that the South could also pursue with the North, like the resumption of tourist visits to Mount Kumgang, reactivating the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and connecting the rail lines between the South and North. These are just some of the many inter-Korean issues the South could and should pursue directly with the North.
U.S. willingness to enter a dialogue for an end-of-war declaration with South and North Korea, or also to include China, could be the catalyst for a broader conversation with the North. It could be a dialogue to express a willingness to consider the lifting of selective United Nations sanctions imposed in 2017 (UNSCR 2271, 2375 and 2397 banning or limiting the import of crude oil and petroleum products and banning the export of coal, seafood, textiles, etc.), in return for a halt to fissile material production and a moratorium on all missile launches. Any violation could result in the snapback of the U.N. sanctions.
If North Korea is favorably disposed to this U.S. offer, then a formal return to denuclearization talks could be established, at which time both sides can table their respective demands. North Korea knows what the U.S. wants: complete and verifiable dismantlement of all nuclear weapons and facilities. They also know that the issue of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea is a bilateral U.S. – ROK issue and not part of denuclearization talks.
In these negotiations, the U.S. would be prepared to address North Korea’s demands: Security assurances, lifting sanctions, a path to normal relations, economic development assistance, peaceful nuclear energy, and a right to put a satellite in orbit.
These and other issues have been discussed with North Korea since the 1994 Agreed Framework, the September 2005 Joint Statement of the Six-Party Talks, and the February 2012 Leap Day Agreement. Each failed. The Agreed Framework ended abruptly in 2002 when the North was confronted with its secret Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) program; the 2005 Six-Party Talks Joint Statement ended in 2009 when international monitors were not permitted to visit non-declared suspect nuclear sites, and the Leap Day Agreement ended abruptly in 2012 when North Korea launched a rocket to put a satellite in orbit on the centenary of the birth of Kim Il-sung.
Since then, North Korea has built more nuclear weapons; launched more missiles, including Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), Short and Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missiles, and cruise missiles. Most recently, they claim to have launched a hypersonic missile, which would be significant.
It’s evident that in the absence of denuclearization talks, North Korea, despite its humanitarian and economic challenges, will continue to build more nuclear weapons and more sophisticated missiles.
The goal should be to get the North back to the negotiation table, pursuing complete and verifiable denuclearization while providing a path for the North to normalize relations with the U.S. and others, with the economic and other incentives necessary to provide the North with greater security and economic well-being.
An end-of-war declaration could be the beginning of substantive inter-Korean progress and movement toward meaningful denuclearization negotiations that eventually could succeed with patience and creativity. And as negotiations are pursued, with the absence of nuclear tests and missile launches, the possibility of stumbling into an accidental war on the Korean Peninsula will become less likely.
• Joseph R. DeTrani was the former Special Envoy for negotiations with North Korea from 2003-2006 and the former director of the National Counterproliferation Center. The views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not imply endorsement of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence or any other U.S. government agency.