A meeting of the Asian Regional Forum, a multilateral security council that brings together 15 foreign ministers will take place in Singapore from Monday to Saturday. At present, chances are not high that three-way talks between South and North Korea and the United States will happen during ARF, but there is a possibility that bilateral meetings between South and North Korean foreign ministers and between South Korean and U.S. ministers will happen in succession. If North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong Ho meets with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, it will be the first meeting between the top diplomats of Pyongyang and Washington since the June 12 North Korea-U.S. summit in Singapore. Pyongyang-Washington relations have seen progress albeit at a snail’s pace, but there has been little progress in the discussions over the North’s denuclearization. As such, attention is focusing on whether ARF will provide a momentum to end deadlock in the discussions.
Chances are high that Pyongyang will strongly demand Washington to declare the end of the Korean War. Because only when the stalemate ends as soon as possible and then can inter-Korean relations pick up speed, the Moon Jae-in administration, which eagerly seeks progress, has expectations on the chance that Washington changes its stance. The Moon administration expects that if Pyongyang and Washington reach an agreement on basic framework including the timing, parties and method to declare the end of the war, South and North Korea and the United States will be able to materialize the giant event of declaring end of the Korean War at the U.N. General Assembly in late September.
From a short-term perspective, declaration of the end of the Korean War can provide an impetus for ending the diplomatic impasse. However, declaration of the end of the war will only be a one-off event considering that discussions over the North’s denuclearization have yet to start in earnest. At the same time, it will provide a huge opportunity for Pyongyang to stage diplomatic and propaganda war regarding withdrawal of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. Washington will end up losing a significant part of its capability to pressure Pyongyang as it will come to lose the cause for military option, which serves as an important leverage against Pyongyang.
Since the Singapore summit, the North has been staying away from discussions over its denuclearization while appeasing Washington by taking measures including dismantling of a missile test site that are not directly related to its denuclearization. Passively looking at Pyongyang and Washington in such a situation, Seoul is effectively following Pyongyang’s timeline. Even if Washington manages to end the deadlock by presenting Pyongyang the declaration of the end of the Korean War, what kind of momentum will it be able to find once the effect of declaration weakens over time.
Foreign ministers of not only South Korea and the United States but also those of related countries including China should clarify to North Korea that Pyongyang’s initiation to implement its denuclearization is the prerequisite for and starting point of all different discussions. If the train of denuclearization gets back on track and starts running, it can flexibly overcome whatever obstacles it encounters. But if denuclearization process has to follow the method in which it has to form a deal and compensate North Korea for every step Pyongyang takes, it will never be able to reach the destination. We have to end as soon as possible the abnormal situation in which the car’s engine has yet to be linked with the transmission and axels to move forward, but only its auxiliary wheels have begun rolling.