South Korea didn’t have to sign the armistice

There is a prevailing belief that says South Korea should have signed the armistice agreement ending fighting in the 1950-1953 Korean War. Some say that since President Syngman Rhee did not sign it, only the U.S., or even the United Nations (U.N.), can sign a peace treaty with North Korea. Others even go so far as to say that the Korean War persists in its unended state because President Rhee “refused” to sign the armistice. However, these arguments are problematic.

Today the armistice is defunct and exists in name only. First, over the past 65 years, there have been numerous violations of the agreement, from the “axe murders” to introducing nuclear weapons into Korea.

Perhaps the first term to be violated was the failure to replace it with a peace treaty. Second, North Korea officially pulled out of the agreement in 2013. Third, the U.N. Command, the other party to the armistice, has always existed in name only (with actual control exercised by the U.S.) and has been disowned by several U.N. Secretary-Generals.

In fact, South Korea did not have to sign the armistice. After all, it is not a peace treaty; it’s a ceasefire arrangement between two sides. South Korea was not an independent party in the conflict as the command over its military was given to a U.S. general.

Accordingly, in the original signing, representatives of two sides signed the armistice: North Korean General Nam-il and U.S. Lieutenant General William K. Harrison, Jr. The document was later recognized with the signatures of the commanding generals of three main independent fighting forces: Peng Teh-Huai, commander of the Chinese volunteers; General Mark W. Clark, commander of the U.N. Command, and Kim Il-sung, commander of the North Korean Army.


To be sure, Rhee was against it and wanted to keep fighting. But he had no legal authority and as it turned out, no practical ability to prevent it, let alone keep on fighting. The U.S. was intent on getting the armistice. The U.S. even had a covert plan in place to restrain or remove him if he tried anything to ruin it.

On the other hand, if Rhee had to sign the armistice by mere dint of being the head of state, so should other heads of state like Mao Zedong, Dwight D. Eisenhower and the leaders of about 16 other participating countries. But they didn’t. Kim Il-sung signed it as the commander of the North Korean Army, not as its head of state.

Also, there is no law that says you can’t sign a peace treaty because you didn’t sign the armistice. Many peace treaties in history simply skip the armistice. Often, there are no peace treaties at all.

Thus, despite not signing the armistice, South Korea can still pursue an independent peace treaty with North Korea. A peace treaty is merely a formal agreement to cease hostilities and promote normal relations that have been absent over the past 70 years.

Alas, the historic April 27 North-South Korean summit did not produce a peace treaty but another accord, the fifth since 1972. The Koreans appear to be taking a “phased-comprehensive” approach, coordinating with the coming U.S. and North Korean summit. There is the talk of a possible four-way treaty ending the Korean War. But the ongoing Korean conflict has always been complicated and difficult to resolve because of competing interests and the number of actors in and outside Korea.

A better formula would be to simplify it, where North and South Korea unilaterally and independently declare a peace treaty, then, in exchange for denuclearization, have the U.S. endorse it. Further, to ensure the U.S. guarantee, the U.N. Security Council and permanent member states could endorse the peace treaty, giving the North Koreans what they say they want: Peace and security guarantees in exchange for complete denuclearization.

Such an inter-Korean peace treaty may form the basis of lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula as well as a regional Northeast Asian peace regime.

The article was first published on May 2, 2018 in the Korea Times.

Photo Credit: