With only a few months left for the end of his term in office, South Korean President Moon Jae-in is doubling down on pushing the agenda of ‘End of the War Declaration (EWD)’ to revive the Peace Initiative he first shaped four years ago.
After assuming power in the summer of 2017 in the wake of a highly tense security situation in the Korean Peninsula which was on the brink of war, President Moon was instrumental in transforming the situation in the direction of peace through his Korean Peninsula Peace Initiative. President Moon skillfully orchestrated the PyongChang Winter Olympics of February 2018 into a ‘Peace Olympics’ that brought about a breakthrough in inter-Korea relations and United States (US)-North Korea relations.
The historic Singapore Summit between the US President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong-un in June 2018 was the highpoint in President Moon’s Peace Initiative that set motion to a multitude of diplomatic processes, including US-North Korea denuclearisation dialogue, restoration of inter-Korea relations and the diplomatic opening of North Korea. However, the peace momentum proved to be short-lived following the failure of the second Trump-Kim Vietnam Summit in February 2019, highlighting the gaps in Washington and Pyongyang’s perceptions on the issue of denuclearisation.
“End of the War Declaration”
The outbreak of the pandemic and the political change in the US had interrupted President Moon’s Peace Initiative for the last two years. Despite having spent much of his political capital on the initiative and given the limited time left for him in power, President Moon, without losing hope, continues persistently with attempts to revive the Peace Initiative. During his speech at the ‘United Nations (UN)’ in September 2021, President Moon proposed the idea of EWD to reset the diplomatic momentum. In his address at the UN, President Moon said,
“More than anything, an End-of-War Declaration will mark a pivotal point of departure in creating a new order of ‘reconciliation and cooperation’ on the Korean Peninsula…When the parties involved in the Korean War stand together and proclaim an end to the war, I believe we can make irreversible progress in denuclearisation and usher in an era of complete peace.”
Even seven decades after, the two Koreas are technically still at war, as the Korean War (1950-53) ended with signing an armistice, not a peace treaty. The armistice agreement between the US-led UN Command, North Korea, and China was an interim arrangement to establish a ceasefire until signing a peace agreement. EWD and a peace agreement have been the primary goal of President Moon’s Peace Initiative all along. While achieving a peace agreement appears too farfetched in the current context, Moon hopes to jump-start the stalled diplomatic process with the EWD. President Moon proposed EWD when he saw a diplomatic opening following Washington’s announcement that the Biden administration is “prepared to meet with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) without preconditions”.
Since his address at the UN, President Moon has invested much diplomatic capital in gaining support from Washington and Pyongyang. Despite having intense interaction, Washington appeared to be sceptical of the Moon administration’s proposal. It is quite natural for Washington to be sceptical about the EWD, considering its potential implications for United Nations Command, US forces in Korea, and the Korea-US alliance. To woo Washington, the Korean government has presented the EWD as a political declaration, which is more symbolic and has no implication for the armistice arrangement until a peace treaty is signed.
Even if President Moon could persuade Washington on EWD, it is unclear whether he could get Pyongyang on board. In responding to the EWD proposal, KimYo-jong, sister of Kim Jong-un and the head of Pyongyang’s propaganda agency, commented that the proposal is “interesting and an admirable idea” but demanded the “end of the hostile policy against North Korea”. With North Korea in severe economic distress on account of the pandemic, sanctions and repeated natural disasters, Seoul expects that this could once again create a situation to convince Kim Jong-un to rejoin the diplomatic process in exchange for aid and economic support.
The Moon administration appeared to have looked at the Beijing Winter Olympics in February 2022 as an opportunity to announce EWD. During his meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in September, President Moon said he is looking forward to the Beijing Winter Olympics becoming “another turning point in improving relations with North Korea”. China has openly supported President Moon’s proposal for EWD that includes China. Another challenge before the Moon administration is the intensifying US-China strategic rivalry, particularly in a context where the Biden administration has announced the diplomatic boycotting of the Beijing Winter Olympics.
Domestic Political Pressure
President Moon’s push for EWD has also been motivated by the emerging political situation in South Korea in the context of the upcoming presidential election scheduled in March next year. The ruling party expects that a successful EWD will enhance the chances of its candidate’s victory, who is currently trailing behind the opposition candidate in public polls.
Given the opposition party’s strong criticism of President Moon’s North Korea policy, in the event of an opposition candidates’ victory in the Presidential election, chances are high not only in reseting of the Moon’s Peace Initiative but also in undoing the achievements made in the inter-Korean relations over his entire term. Thus, for President Moon, EWD is not only a measure to secure his political legacy but also the last opportunity to irreversibly set the direction of peace in the Korean Peninsula as envisioned by the progressive political dispensation, which he has been in pursuit during his entire political career.
*Dr. Jojin V. John, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal
Jojin V. John (2018), "Korea Peninsula Peace Initiative: Prospects and Challenges of President Moon Jae-in's North Korea Policy", ICWA Issue Brief, October 31, 2017,https://icwa.in/show_content.php?lang=1&level=3&ls_id=1562&lid=1510 (Accessed on December 1, 2021)
"Address by President Moon Jae-in at 76th Session of United Nations General Assembly", MOFA, ROK, September 24, 2021, https://www.mofa.go.kr/eng/brd/m_5674/view.do?seq=320659, (Accessed on December 1, 2021)
 “Department Press Briefing”, US State Department, September 24, 2021, https://www.state.gov/briefings/department-press-briefing-september-24-2021-2/, (Accessed on December 1, 2021)
"Kim Yo Jong rejects talks on ending war until Seoul fixes ‘hostile policy’", NK News, September 24, 2021, https://www.nknews.org/2021/09/kim-yo-jong-rejects-talks-on-ending-war-until-seoul-fixes-hostile-policy/(Accessed on December 1, 2021)
"S. Korea asks China for cooperation on inter-Korean relations", Hankyoreh, September 16, 2021, https://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_international/1012054.html (Accessed on December 1, 2021)
"China supports end-of-war pact, says Beijing envoy", Korea JoongAng Daily, November 3, 2021, https://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/2020/11/03/national/diplomacy/Xing-Haiming-Chinese-Embassy-Chinese-Ambassador/20201103195400429.html (Accessed on December 1, 2021)
 "Biden Administration Announces Diplomatic Boycott of Beijing Winter Olympics", Voice of America, December 06, 2021, https://www.voanews.com/a/reports-biden-admin-expected-to-announce-diplomatic-boycott-of-2022-beijing-winter-games-/6340954.html, (Accessed on December 12, 2021)
 The 20th presidential election of the Republic of Korea is scheduled to be held in March 2022. The incumbent president Moon Jae-in is ineligible to run for a second term as the term of the president is restricted to a single five-year term in office under the constitution. The leading candidates for the post of the President are ruling Democratic Party’s (DP) Lee Jae-myung, former governor of Gyunggi province, and the main opposition People Power Party’s (PPP) Yoon Seok-youl, former prosecutor-general.
 South Korean policy towards North Korea in the post democratic period has oscillated between engagement and hard-line approach reflecting highly contested views of Korean national identity between progressive and conservative political dispensation. See, Marco Milani (2020), “Progressive and conservative visions of inter-Korean relations“ in Marco Milani et al. (ed) The Korean Paradox: Domestic Political Divide and Foreign Policy in South Korea, Routledge.