A new Stanford University study alleges that North Korea can make more base ingredients for nuclear bombs than experts previously thought. This finding follows close on the heels of North Korea’s successful test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile off its eastern coast last month. Nicknamed the “impossible state” by policy experts, North Korea remains as isolationist and provocative as ever. Yet there is increasing chatter in the Washington Beltway about the possibility of offering the North Korean regime an “end-of-war declaration” without preconditions. This would be a mistake.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s term will end in March, after which he cannot run again. Moon wants to leave a legacy of advancing peace between the North and South—something that, despite two historic summits with President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, he has not made progress on. Now South Korean diplomats are pressing the United States to get on board with an end-of-war declaration. Activists and libertarian-minded experts are now seizing the opportunity to advocate for this declaration, or even a peace agreement.
Such efforts to formalize an end to the Korean War might appear harmless. After all, the United States has not actively engaged in military conflict with North Korea since signing the Korean Armistice Agreement on July 27, 1953. An end-of-war declaration would not change the situation on the ground, at least not immediately. But American officials remain nervous about the unintended consequences that could result from such a declaration, and for good reason.
Victor Cha, senior vice president and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, notes, “For there to be a peace declaration there has to be peaceful intentions with all parties involved. Although Seoul and Washington may fit this criterion, that’s not clearly the case with Pyongyang with their constant testing.” Indeed, Kim Jong Un shows no inclination to commit to peace.
The regime is advancing its nuclear weapons program while Kim issues veiled threats. North Korea’s horrific human rights abuses are ongoing, and the emerging details about the regime’s brutal abuses against Christians are egregious. Now—due partially to the leaders’ isolation, paranoia, and hostility to the outside world—the regime is telling the North Korean people to prepare for food shortages until 2025. Supporters of an end-of-war declaration say that America needs to offer the declaration to get Kim to the negotiating table. Yet, this declaration is a reward that North Korea is not asking for and does not deserve.
Representative Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) goes a step further with his recent introduction of the Peace on the Korean Peninsula Act (H.R. 3446) in the US House of Representatives. The bill calls for a “binding peace agreement constituting a formal and final end to the state of war between North Korea, South Korea, and the United States.” This effort is premature. A formal peace agreement should come only after all involved parties affirm peaceful intent. Without proof that the North Korean regime is interested in respecting human rights or is serious about denuclearization, any end-of-war declaration or peace agreement will fail to serve US interests.
In contrast to a peace agreement, an end-of-war declaration is merely symbolic and does not constitute a formal peace treaty. However, there could still be significant consequences for promoting this symbolism. North Korea is likely to use a declaration in its propaganda messaging, accusing the United States of hostile intentions for keeping troops in South Korea after the war’s end. Kim Jong Un already routinely accuses the United States of “hostile acts.” An end-of-war declaration would bolster this propaganda. The will of the American people to keep troops in South Korea could also diminish following such a declaration. These developments would leave the Korean Peninsula less secure than before.
Unsurprisingly, a bill like Rep. Sherman’s would catch on with some members of Congress. The supposed goal to “end forever wars” remains a popular and powerful sentiment in American culture. But good messaging and optics don’t always equal good policy, especially when dealing with the long-standing rogue leadership of North Korea. The Biden administration should have learned from its hasty withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan that it’s dangerous to rush major foreign policy decisions with unnecessary deadlines that were set purely for the sake of optics.
No matter how much South Korean President Moon wants the United States to agree to an end-of-war declaration, it’s not the job of American leaders to fulfill Moon’s dreams for his political legacy. Their job is to protect the American people and advance US interests abroad. For now, America’s interest is best served by maintaining a position of strength rather than rewarding North Korea’s bad behavior.