Korean peace declaration ‘is possible without China, but would be weaker’
Suggestions of a formal deal when Donald Trump meets Kim Jong-un, as China’s state media claims end-of-war pacts are invalid without Beijing
A declaration to officially end the Korean war without China is technically possible, but its effectiveness may be weakened considering Beijing’s geopolitical importance over the region, observers say.
Last week US President Donald Trump suggested that he and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un might be able to fashion a peace agreement at their meeting in Singapore on June 12 – a meeting that may involve South Korean President Moon Jae-in, but to which China has not been invited.
That incensed Global Times, a state-owned Chinese tabloid, which argued in an editorial this week that China’s involvement was needed to ensure any deal to formally end the decades-long conflict was “more secure”, otherwise it could be overturned.
“An end-of-war agreement without China’s participation is invalid,” it said. “If Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang sign a declaration to end the war, that would be a good thing … but such a declaration cannot be legally linked to the Korean Armistice Agreement.”
The piece also rebuffed concerns that China was left out in the cold over a possible declaration to end the Korean war. “Was China kicked out of the end-of-war declaration? ... [China] has always been a key player,” it said.
Trump made his remarks after meeting North Korean special envoy Kim Yong-chol at the White House on Friday, saying that a formal agreement on the war’s end was “something that could come out of the meeting [with Kim Jong-un]”.
Seoul, which is keen to declare an end to the war, has raised the possibility of President Moon attending as well.
One of Beijing’s issues with such an arrangement that the Korean war did not just involve the Koreas, but also the United States and China - and all parties are still technically at war, with their mutual 1953 armistice agreement only pausing open hostilities.
That would make any declaration about the end of the war that might emerge from the Trump-Kim summit meeting separate from the Korean Armistice Agreement, necessitating a further discussion with China to write an official peace treaty.
Lee Ki-beom, a research fellow in the International Law and Dispute Settlement Programme at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, said that declaring a formal end of the war would not be a transformation of the 1953 armistice, so it could be made without Beijing’s participation.
“A declaration to end the war is a political act that is not legally binding – and technically speaking it can be made without China’s involvement,” he said.
It would be more effective to involve China, but Beijing would then make sure its own demands were included in the deal, Lee said, adding that those would probably include requests aimed at weakening US influence in the region.
He said that Seoul, Washington and Pyongyang could either proceed towards a less effective deal, if they wanted to eliminate the “China variable” from their equation, or push forward with a more effective deal but accommodate China’s strategic interests in the region.
“It is a matter of choice,” Lee said.
Zhang Tuosheng, director of the China Foundation for International Strategic Studies, said that China should be involved, since excluding the country would make the deal less stable.
“China had participated in the war and of course it should be part of the [end-of-war] declaration,” Zhang said, noting that North Korea would also want China’s involvement, to increase the viability of the deal. “Without China’s involvement, the declaration would be incomplete.”
“The Global Times editorial may be a reflection of the Chinese public’s opinion,” he said, adding that China, as a legitimate party to the Korean Armistice Agreement, should not be sidelined from the peace process.
Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Washington-based think tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said the three signatories of the armistice should ultimately be part of any agreement that formally ended the war, which would be different from the creation of a peace treaty.
Military officials from China and North Korea signed the agreement, along with the US-led United Nations Command. South Korea was not a signatory.
“If nothing replaces the armistice, then China may have a legal leg to stand on,” she said.
Beijing’s fears, she said, concerned the potential for its interests on the peninsula to be threatened if it were excluded from the talks, particularly if the US instead acted as the main power outside of North and South Korea in the discussions.
“The larger issue at stake here is that the Chinese want to have some means of shaping developments on the Korean peninsula going forward,” she said, adding that Beijing believes the US wants to erode Chinese influence on the peninsula.
“Ultimately, the Chinese want to have a seat at the table.”
That certainly seemed to be the tone Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang struck last month, when he said that China would continue to play a “positive and constructive role” on Korean peninsula issues.
“China stays committed to the goal of denuclearisation of the peninsula, upholding the peace and stability … [and] this position remains unchanged all along,” he said.