North Korean officials this week issued conflicting statements reacting to a South Korean reiteration of its call to formally end the Korean War.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in this week renewed his longstanding call for a formal declaration to end the war, a symbolic declaration aimed at spurring progress in stalled talks with North Korea.
In a state media editorial Thursday, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Ri Thae Song called an end of war declaration “premature” while the United States maintains its “hostile policy” toward Pyongyang. Specifically, he cited the presence of U.S. troops and military hardware not only in South Korea but also the wider region.
North Korea changed its tone hours later with a statement by Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Kim, the sister, who has taken a bigger role in inter-Korean relations in recent years, called the end of war proclamation an “interesting and admirable idea,” even proposing eventual talks with South Korea on the issue.
Although the earlier North Korean statement essentially demanded the removal of the U.S. military from East Asia — a seemingly impossible request — Kim Yo Jong’s subsequent comments set the bar much lower, only demanding Seoul change its rhetoric toward the North.
The apparently contradictory statements reveal a broader strategy by North Korea, which has long tried to drive a wedge and exploit disagreements between Seoul and Washington, Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said.
“Ultimately it is about calling the U.S.'s attention to the North, and leveraging the Moon administration,” which desperately wants to restart talks with North Korea before Moon’s single term in office expires next year, Go said.
“This is a clever and lower-risk option than testing long range ballistic missiles,” he added.
Source of friction?
The possibility of an end-of-war declaration has long been the source of disagreement between the United States and South Korea, though mostly under the surface.
U.S. Defense Department spokesman John Kirby this week said the U.S. is open to discussing the possibility of an end-of-war declaration.
Thursday, though, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Japan and Korea Mark Lambert, acknowledged U.S. reluctance to issue such a declaration.
"Our concern is that we not give a false narrative to the North, that in any way, shape, or form would jeopardize our troop presence in South Korea or the R.O.K.-U.S. alliance,” Lambert told an online forum, using the abbreviation for South Korea’s official name.
South Korean administrations have occasionally called for steps toward formally ending the war, either by declaring an end of hostilities or by negotiating a peace treaty.
The Korean War lasted from 1950 to 1953. It ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty. Since then, the United States has maintained a significant troop presence in the South; it now has about 28,500 troops there.
Supporters say such a declaration could help build trust with North Korea. Detractors say, at best, it would only be a formality, and, at worst, could undermine the U.S.-South Korea alliance, which has ensured the status quo on the Korean Peninsula for seven decades.
The idea has gained traction in recent years, even in some unexpected quarters.
Vincent Brooks, the former top U.S. general in South Korea, has raised the possibility of declaring an end to hostilities as the first step toward establishing a “normal international relationship” with North Korea.
“The alliance can take some risk by granting that, in my opinion,” Brooks said at an online event earlier this month.
Many experts predicted an end of war declaration would be announced at the 2019 summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, between former U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un.
Instead, the meeting ended abruptly when the U.S. refused a North Korean offer of partial denuclearization in exchange for a significant lifting of U.S. sanctions. Broader U.S.-North Korea negotiations collapsed later that year.
Since then, North Korea has refused to talk with the United States, despite repeated offers from the administration of President Joe Biden.
"We've reached out directly to Pyongyang to initiate dialogue, and we will go anywhere to talk with them … there are no strings attached. But unfortunately, they have not responded to date,” Lambert said Thursday.
The Biden administration has repeatedly said it will employ a “calibrated, practical approach” to diplomacy with the North, suggesting it is open to smaller deals that would establish trust between the two sides.
“We could talk about a few things in exchange for a few things, or a lot of things in exchange for a lot of things. But in order to have that conversation, you've got to have that conversation. And we're just not having that,” Lambert said.
“It's just frustrating that we're hearing nothing when we make overtures,” he added.
Some analysts have questioned whether the Biden administration is proactive enough in pursuing talks with Pyongyang. The U.S., they argue, appears to be returning to an Obama-era policy of “strategic patience," which gradually applied pressure on North Korea in hopes it would eventually return to negotiations.
Lambert dismissed those criticisms Thursday, saying the U.S. is “serious” about talks.
“It's just what would you have us do? Catapult [U.S. nuclear envoy] Sung [Kim] into North Korea and say, ‘I'm here to negotiate?’” he said. “You can't do that. You've got to have the other side willing to meet with you."
US, South Korea still united
It is not clear North Korea will succeed in exploiting disagreements in the U.S.-South Korea alliance.
Although Moon has repeatedly called for steps, such as the end-of-war declaration or reestablishment of inter-Korean economic projects, he has been reluctant to make any moves without U.S. support.
Lambert essentially acknowledged as much Thursday.
Even though the U.S. and South Korea “disagree on tactics,” Lambert said he does not believe the two allies will go “in radically different ways.”
“I think that would be a concern if South Korea were trying to implement its own foreign policy towards North Korea and the United States was doing its own foreign policy … we're doing this in concert,” he said.