In 1953, an uneasy truce was reached in the Korean War—and things were left there. No peace treaty has ever been signed, and technically, at least, the war is ongoing.
But today, South Korea announced that it’s discussing a peace deal with North Korea ahead of the summit next week between president Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. As part of the meeting, the sides could release a joint statement agreeing to end hostile acts between the two nations, an official in Seoul told reporters.
The agreement, if it indeed materializes, will be about 65 years overdue.
The Korean War started in 1950 when the north, backed by the Soviet Union, invaded the south. The US, wanting to stop the spread of communism, led United Nations forces to fight for the south, while Chinese “volunteer” troops helped the north.
In 1953, the truce was made official by an armistice agreement signed by North Korea, the Chinese forces, and the UN Command. South Korea did not sign it.
The armistice was meant to be a temporary document at best. It states the objective of “establishing an armistice which will insure a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved.”
Of course, that never happened—and that lack of settlement has shaped events on the Korean peninsula ever since.
The armistice also created the Demilitarized Zone, which became the de facto border between the two nations. At the time, in the context of the war, calling it a “demilitarized zone” made sense. The agreement reads:
A military demarcation line shall be fixed and both sides shall withdraw two (2) kilometers from this line so as to establish a demilitarized zone between the opposing forces. A demilitarized zone shall be established as a buffer zone to prevent the occurrence of incidents which might lead to a resumption of hostilities.
Later, the name would come to sound rather odd, as the DMZ solidified into one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world—looking highly militarized instead of “de” militarized. The talks next week will likely focus in part on what becomes of the DMZ.
And it is at the DMZ, in an area variously referred to as the Joint Security Area, Panmunjom, and Truce Village, where the Moon-Kim summit will take place on April 27. Talks will be held in the Peace House, which is on the southern side of the military demarcation line. That means Kim will cross into the South, which is highly significant—the two previous summits between the two nations, in 2000 and 2007, were held in Pyongyang.
Next week’s summit will be preceded by the installation of a hotline between Moon and Kim that could be implemented as early as Friday (April 20).
The summit will also pave the way for a meeting between US president Donald Trump and Kim that could take place as soon as May or June—the first top-level summit between the United States and North Korea. Yesterday the Washington Post reported that CIA director Mike Pompeo made a secret visit to North Korea over Easter weekend to meet with Kim and lay the groundwork for the summit. The visit took place shortly after Trump nominated Pompeo to become the next US secretary of state.
Clouding both summits, though, are doubts that Kim is really willing to give up his nuclear weapons, despite saying in Beijing last month that he is ”committed to denuclearization.” The Trump administration has signaled that anything less than complete denuclearization is unacceptable, with military action being the other option.
Meanwhile it’s worth recalling how the “temporary” armistice of 1953 has continued to shape the Korean peninsula in the 21st century in ways that would surprise—and no doubt baffle—those who signed it.