SEOUL, Sixty-five years after the armistice halted the 1950-53 Korean War, Seoul is pushing to carve out a permanent peace arrangement, a goal long hamstrung by cross-border distrust, convoluted geopolitics and domestic discord.
South Korea is set to mark the anniversary of the signing of the armistice Friday amid hopes that its peace drive will help reduce border tensions, denuclearize North Korea and pave the way for a lasting peace on the divided peninsula.
The anniversary will be yet another reminder of the unfinished business of the Cold War conflict: bringing an end to the awkward state of armistice that has oscillated between intense hostility and brittle rapprochement.
"The reliability of the armistice stems from the fact that a second Korean War did not occur. Despite many violations, its basic framework has remained intact, enabling the stable management of the divided peninsula," said Park Won-gon, a security expert at Handong Global University.
"But the armistice has failed to fend off minor provocations even though it has helped forestall a full-blown war. ... This shows that it is an agreement that is still unstable -- a reason why many agree on the need for a peace treaty to supplant it," he added.
On July 27, 1953, U.N. Commander Mark W. Clark, North Korea's Supreme Commander Kim Il-sung and Peng Dehuai, the commander of the Chinese People's Volunteers, signed the armistice after two years of tough negotiations over prisoners of war, military demarcation and other issues.
The cease-fire was meant to be temporary with a plan to hold a political meeting three months later to permanently end the war. The meeting was held in 1954 but ended fruitlessly amid disputes over the withdrawal of foreign forces and other knotty issues.
The armistice, backed by the military superiority of the South Korea-U.S. alliance, has since evolved into a unique, if not bizarre, security regime that has helped the peninsula maintain the veneer of stability.
"The armistice reminds us that sometimes interim diplomatic agreements take on a degree of permanence that few officials expected," said Patrick M. Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program of the Center for a New American Security based in Washington.
"While the armistice will one day be replaced, we ought not to eliminate it in haste, given that it has provided a ballast against the return to open warfare," he added.
Well aware of both risks and opportunities, South Korea's liberal Moon Jae-in administration has been striving to move beyond the armistice by engaging the North for a change of course toward denuclearization and a permanent peace regime.
The first major step for the endeavor will be the declaration of a formal end to the Korean War -- a political and symbolic measure that Seoul hopes will help spur the transition toward a solid peace arrangement.
During the April inter-Korean summit, Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreed to pursue trilateral meetings involving the two Koreas and the U.S. or quadrilateral meetings involving the two Koreas, the U.S. and China to formally end the Korean War this year, and pursue a "permanent and solid" peace regime.
They said establishing a peace regime is a "historical mission that must not be delayed any further." But that mission may involve a lengthy process fraught with a slew of challenges, including great-power rivalries for influence over the peninsula, analysts said.
"I believe a political declaration ending the war is possible this calendar year, but a formal replacement of the armistice will take several years or longer," said Cronin of the Center for a New American Security.
"The United States and South Korea should ensure that denuclearization and peace are negotiated in parallel, avoiding the emergence of a large gap that could heighten risk or jeopardize what remains a tenuous search out of the post-1953 Cold War with North Korea."
Challenges to Seoul's peace drive come from multiple fronts. Chief among them is divergence between Washington and Pyongyang over how to enforce their leaders' summit agreement last month to work toward the "complete denuclearization" of the peninsula.
The North prioritizes declaring a formal end to the war as the first step toward peace, but the U.S. believes the declaration should come only after the communist state takes tangible denuclearization steps.
The sequence issue aside, how to achieve denuclearization also remains a point of contention, as Washington apparently wants a full declaration of Pyongyang's nuclear and missile program and clear disarmament verification, with Pyongyang favoring a phased -- or protracted -- process that involves compensation along the way.
Another challenge is distrust and concerns between the two great powers, the U.S. and China, that any shift in the status quo of the peninsula could undermine their strategic interests and tip the regional security balance in favor of each other's rival.
"The ossification of a peace regime beyond the armistice status is only possible when the interests of the U.S. and China converge over it. However, all actors are interested in such a change now, though this is bound to be a daunting task," said Nam Chang-hee, international politics professor at Inha University.
"Considering that the armistice regime has been in place for such a long time, breaking that status quo is challenging and requires a search for a new balance of interests between Washington and Beijing," he added.
Finding common ground between the major powers appears to be a Herculean task, as they have been clashing over a raft of volatile issues, ranging from trade and foreign exchange policy to maritime security in the South China Sea and Beijing's "core value" issue of Taiwan.
Their confrontation could also escalate as they may compete over relative gains from a transition toward a peace regime in Korea. China may fear that the peace regime would mean improvement in Washington-Pyongyang ties and greater American influence over the peninsula, experts said.
"The U.S. and China are approaching the peninsula issue as part of their great chessboard, which involves their calculations on various issues unfolding in various places across the world, while the two Koreas are looking at the issue in the context of the peninsula," said Kim Han-kwon, a China expert at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy.
"So overcoming the different approaches will require a complicated and long process," he added.
Amid the intensifying Sino-U.S. rivalry, Pyongyang also remains a wild card, as it appears to be playing one power against the other in a delicate balancing act, which could undermine their Washington-Beijing cooperation over peace on the peninsula.
Challenges also come from within the South.
South Koreans have been torn over how to make peace with the North. Conservatives favor a strict, sanctions-based approach and liberals dialogue and reconciliation -- a reason why Seoul's policy toward Pyongyang has fluctuated over the last decades.
"While the Moon government has to concentrate its energy on painting a common strategic picture to bring together all outside players in the peace efforts, it also faces a dilemma from within, which means that picture could be a tough sell to the general public amid social polarization over that issue," Nam of Inha University said.
On the inter-Korean front, what is required is confidence-building measures (CBMs) and arms control that would help ease cross-border tensions and antagonism, and expedite the process of fostering genuine peace, analysts said.
"A peace treaty is just an institutional one. History shows that too many peace treaties have collapsed. This highlights the need for efforts to practically reduce tensions and control conventional arms to move beyond just a (paper) treaty," said Park of Handong Global University.
Seoul has already started talks with Pyongyang on CBMs, such as fully restoring their military communication lines both on land and at sea, and exploring ways to reduce tensions through such steps as disarming the Joint Security Area in the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas.
Source: Yonhap News Agency