By Jasmine Choi
In December 2021, South Korean President Moon Jae-in announced South Korea and North Korea’s agreement to officially end the Korean War “in principle,” a decision endorsed by the United States and China. The 70 year-long Korean War ended in July 1953 with an armistice. However, the two countries have technically still been at war as a peace treaty was never reached. We should not expect to see substantial progress in the form of a peace treaty, let alone reunification, from this point forward anytime soon. The two countries; fate remains uncertain.
A lack of momentum
The announcement should come as no surprise as President Moon, whose term will be up in May 2022, made rapprochement with North Korea a key part of his agenda upon entering the Blue House (Cheong-wa-dae) five years ago. Correcting the mistakes of his predecessor, Moon now hopes to leave a legacy behind by getting into the good graces of North Korea and putting the peace process back on track. However, since this announcement, no substantial step has been taken towards drafting a robust peace treaty.
One notable reason is the four core parties’ conflicting demands and political motives. While South Korea believes a peace declaration could kick-start talks with Pyongyang about its nuclear weapons program, North Korea objects to the United States’ “hostility” and calls for it to end as a precondition for talks. The United States has yet to confirm the extent of its support. However, it will likely be concerned with undermining its influence in the region should Seoul concede to Pyongyang’s demands. China, while offering its support, will probably pay attention to the change in dynamics between the United States and ROK as it continues to strengthen its position internationally.
Drafting a peace treaty is a complex process the four countries must navigate together. However, it would be remiss not to mention another notable cause for the slow pace of the peace process—South Korea’s conservative approach to foreign policy. The fundamental differences in political systems and ideologies make the two countries’ tension stronger than its inclination to cooperate.
South Korea’s conservative politics
Much of the driving force behind South Korea’s foreign policy is from the pressure the government faces from a population that is only one or two generations removed from its war-torn history. Results from a 2018 survey, showed that South Koreans in their 20s, which make up a significant portion of Democratic voters, are wary of North Korea, seeing the country as an “enemy” more than any other age demographic. Furthermore, they have increasingly exhibited indifference to the idea of a peace process and reunification “due to the rising generation’s perceived distance from identifying with their Northern neighbors.” South Korean youth’s perception towards reconciliation with North Korea has been influenced by their secondary PTSD from the Korean War (as experienced by their grandparents’ generation) and the growing difference in ideologies.
The existence of domestic constraints on the country’s foreign policy is not new news; however, the impeachment process of Moon’s predecessor Park Geun-hye and the subsequent elections soon after that led to Moon’s seating is evidence of how strong of a grip public accountability has on the government. Moreover, foreign policy issues have generally not been at the center of South Korea’s presidential campaigns and will continue to be the norm.
March 2022 presidential elections
South Korea’s upcoming presidential election adds to the already complicated mix. South Korea will see its new leader in two months, who will either contribute to or detract from any peace progress. So far, neither of the two front-runners from the Democratic Party and the People Power Party exhibit the same level of enthusiasm nor possess a tactical agenda for peace talks, which means trouble for Moon Jae-in. Democratic Party candidate Governor Lee Jae-myung has so far pandered to both conservatives and progressives with the aim to garner support across the political spectrum. In his August 22 statement, he describes his approach towards inter-Korean relations as “practical,” believing it to be “impossible to obtain popular consent for unification under the traditional logic of the two nations sharing a single ethnicity.” Governor Lee generally wants to avoid having to limit South Korea’s room for maneuver by working as a neutral mediator instead. Though he intends to build upon the prior presidents’ peace process efforts, he lacks the necessary forward-leaning approach.
On the other hand, we see even less optimism with People Power Party candidate Yoon Seok-yeol, who opts for a more hawkish approach. He has generally opposed President Moon’s plan and has stated that a war-ending declaration would undermine domestic support for a U.S. military presence in South Korea. Most recently, Yoon had doubled down on his support for a preemptive strike against North Korean missile attacks and has even called the Moon administration’s Korean Peninsula Peace Process a “complete failure” and a “show.”
Whether North Korea will cooperate on the peace process will rest upon the next leader of the Republic of Korea. Even still, South Korea’s weak momentum based on the new agenda of either would-be successor along with its limited negotiating power due to the long-term prioritization of its alliance with the United States implies there is minimal wiggle room for Seoul to make concessions. As a result, the world can expect to see a stalemate for some more time to come.
Jasmine Choi is a strategy and innovation consultant at a German boutique management consulting firm and volunteers as a communications manager for YPFP New York City. She received her Master of Arts in International Affairs and International Economics from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), with a focus on Conflict Management.