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The End Of The Korean War Cease-Fire – Does It Matter?

The Freedom Bridge connecting North and South Korea. The two neighbors have never signed a formal peace treaty.
The Freedom Bridge connecting North and South Korea. The two neighbors have never signed a formal peace treaty.
On May 27, North Korea announced that it no longer considers itself bound by the cease-fire agreement that ended hostilities in the 1950-53 Korean War. That announcement came two days after Pyongyang conducted its second underground nuclear test.

The cease-fire was signed on July 27, 1953, and has never been replaced by a formal peace treaty. It set up a 4-kilometer demilitarized zone along the 38th parallel. It was signed by North Korean and Chinese military leaders on one side, and by the U.S.-led United Nations command on the other. No South Korean representatives signed the agreement, which was always intended as a temporary measure.

RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Vladimir Tolts recently spoke with Andrei Lankov, associate professor of Korean history at Kookmin University in Seoul, about the North Korean announcement and the history of the cease-fire agreement.

RFE/RL: The North Korean press release says Pyongyang "does not consider itself obligated by the cease-fire agreement that ended military hostilities in the Korean War from 1950-53." Moreover, North Korea has promised to respond "with forceful military strikes" against any hostile actions, including attempts to inspect North Korean shipping suspected of carrying banned cargo.

What is the point of this reference to a document more than 50 years old? What obligations did North Korea have previously under this agreement and why does the North want to renounce it now?

Andrei Lankov: It didn't carry any obligations, and North Korea is not trying to get out of anything. The first thing to note is that South Korea never was a party to the cease-fire agreement. It never signed the agreement. The cease-fire agreement is, I would say, a monstrous example of international hypocrisy.

The war, as you know, originally broke out between North and South Korea. Later the Americans got involved and then the Chinese and they eventually pushed the original combatants aside and began fighting one another. Of course, that is a huge simplification, but so be it. There was some small involvement by others, including the Soviet Union, but basically that's the way it was.

But the point is that for diplomatic reasons -- as is the fashion now -- no one declared war on anyone. North and South Korea do not recognize one another. From the perspective of the 1948 South Korean constitution, North Korea is a nonexistent, self-proclaimed state and its army is simply a militant group. From North Korea's point of view, the army of South Korea is a militant group. Does anyone sign peace treaties with armed militants? Of course not.

The U.S. forces fighting formally were not U.S. forces. They fought there under the UN flag -- the UN sent them there. Of course, it is understood how that came about.

And the Chinese forces that fought against them, the Americans, also were not officially Chinese forces. They were "Chinese people's volunteers" who, according to the official version that was given by everyone -- including the UN, in the form of statements to the Soviet representatives there -- had no relationship to the Chinese authorities, the Chinese government. It was simply that whole divisions of Chinese soldiers went into North Korea on their own as volunteers to fight for a little while.

And this entire cast of characters -- the U.S. Army, which wasn't formally the U.S. Army; the Chinese Army, which also wasn't the Chinese Army; the Korean armies which were considered just militant bands by the opposing Koreas -- in 1953 signed this strange agreement.

South Korea refused to sign it. Out of the four representative sides -- the United States, China, North Korea, and South Korea -- the South said from the very beginning that they would not sign any agreement because its ultimate goal was the unification of Korea under a legitimate government, that is, under its own government. And that’s all. And if it signed an agreement with a self-proclaimed communist puppet regime and its militant group, that would be a complete disgrace. So it didn't sign anything.

And so this sort of strange cease-fire arrangement has persisted since 1953 and it will continue to persist. The recent [North Korean] statement doesn't have any meaning. It is just an attempt to create panic, to make everyone afraid. It isn’t the first time and it isn’t the last.

RFE/RL: If this is just a bluff, then we have to ask what North Korea is hoping for. What does it think such statements will achieve?

Lankov: Money. They want money. It is very simple. What else could they be talking about? Money.

Based on their experience, they are thinking that if they put enough pressure on the Americans – because the main target of all these exercises is the United States – then sooner or later, when negotiations begin – negotiations that Pyongyang hopes will be conducted with great urgency – the Americans, because of all the North Korean chest-beating and threats, will be willing to make additional concessions. That’s all.

It’s a normal tactic. When the Americans announced in 2002 that they had no intention of ever talking to the accursed regime in North Korea, the North went ahead and conducted their first nuclear-bomb test. The blast didn’t come off completely as they wanted – something didn’t work quite right – but everyone understood that they had a bomb. And four months later, the Americans began negotiations.

Now, of course, the Americans wanted talks from the beginning, but experience leads [the North] to think that if they stamp their feet a bit, jump up and down, make everyone afraid, the Americans will be even more generous. On the other hand, of course, there is a clear desire to complete the nuclear bomb and get it to the point where it actually explodes when they push the button. Because so far that hasn’t happened.

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