South Korea’s “Sunshiners” in President Moon Jae-in’s administration have nothing to show for years of solicitousness to Kim Jong Un, and Mr. Moon’s presidency is nearing its end. So they are doubling down, trying to stage a unilateral “end of war“ declaration—a bit of diplomatic theater asserting the Korean War is formally over, no matter that the North says. The goal is to rope the U.S. in.
Press reports from Seoul suggest the Biden team has been going along with this charade. Washington has said little publicly about the initiative, but Sunshiners in the South, who have been pressing it on Mr. Biden since his inauguration, claim a joint U.S.-South Korea end-of-war declaration is in its “final stages.”
Let’s hope the reports are wrong. Pantomime statecraft and make-believe breakthroughs can’t enhance Korean security—though they could very well make the peninsula a more dangerous place.
In Sunshine (or “engagement”) doctrine—a theory of international relations—the signing of “peace declarations” has been a fixation for decades. For true believers, these declarations are talismanic: Somehow they will end peninsular hostilities. Believers never lose faith when the magic fails to work.
In 2007, in an earlier era of Blue House Sunshine, President Roh Moo Hyun and Kim Jong Il signed a joint statement in Pyongyang resolving, among other things, to “put an end to military hostilities, mitigate tensions and guarantee peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
North-South peace didn’t materialize. Instead, the Kim regime went on to sink a South Korean military vessel, shell civilians on a South Korean island near the Northern Limit Line, set off five atomic devices, and launch vast numbers of short- and long-range offensive missiles.
Nowadays, Kim Jong Un won’t talk to Mr. Moon about a peace declaration—or anything else. (Pyongyang’s propaganda chief, Kim’s sister Kim Yo Jong, dismisses Mr. Moon as a “parrot raised in America.”) So Mr. Moon has pivoted and is now pressuring the U.S. to provide him with a joint declaration instead.
A bilateral “declaration” would serve obvious purposes for Mr. Moon and his party, whose nominee for the March presidential election is running far behind his conservative opponent in the polls. But a pretend celebration of the end of the Korean War will do no favors for the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Demonstrating a lack of seriousness about genuine security threats is almost certain to have serious real-world consequences.
With an end-of-war declaration by Seoul and Washington—the world’s only two countries committed by treaty to defend against North Korean aggression—denuclearization of the North would become effectively an abandoned global objective. How do you mobilize the international community to press North Korea on its nukes when you are throwing an end-of-war party for yourself?
By signaling that things aren’t as bad as we thought with the North, the declaration also stands to set back the international North Korea human-rights movement. And no matter how much the alliance tries to spin the declaration, Pyongyang can bank on an international law-enforcement break: for cybercrime, terror-network commerce and other illicit financial operations.
Empty words won’t move the peninsula any closer to peace because the threat of war in Korea today is set by the North, as it always has been. Pyongyang is still committed to wiping South Korea off the map. That is what its nuclear arsenal, missile program and million-man army are all about.
Kim Jong Un won’t be appeased by an “end of war” declaration from reviled U.S. “imperialists” and their South Korean “puppets.” He would regard such a gesture as a sign of weakness—a concession inviting still more demands. While deeming Mr. Moon’s end-of-war declaration “an admirable idea,” Kim Yo Jong, his sister, insisted that dialogue with the South would require an end to “hostile policies”—that is, an end to the U.S.-South Korea alliance, closing of U.S. bases in the South, and lifting of economic sanctions against North Korean proliferation.
As soon as that document is signed, the U.N. Command—the multilateral defense structure that still includes other international forces in Korean peacekeeping—would be doomed to vanish, as the North has long wished. The U.S.-South Korean alliance would come under greater scrutiny in America. After all, isn’t the Korean conflict the original “endless war”?
China and Russia would be emboldened, too. They would take the declaration as an invitation to violate the United Nations Security Council’s North Korea sanctions at will and to lobby for lifting those sanctions.
One immediate loser will be America’s key Asian ally. Such virtue-signaling in the Korean Peninsula would leave Japan more exposed and less secure. Throughout the postwar era, the U.S. has been one of Tokyo’s only reliable friends. Japanese leaders would start to question American credibility and act accordingly. Other allies would do the same.
At the moment North Korea seems all but incapacitated, overwhelmed by its Covid-19 emergency and the ensuing economic crisis that Pyongyang’s own mismanagement exacerbated. An end-of-war declaration would help the Kim regime get back on its feet and back to its familiar menacing playbook.
Mr. Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute.