Some people might answer: “Didn’t that happen in 1953?”
Others may know that it was only an armistice that brought hostilities to a halt in 1953 — but there’s never been a treaty to end the conflict between North Korea (and its chief ally China) and South Korea and its allies, most notably the United States.
With the top South Korean diplomat on Wednesday saying Seoul and Washington have “effectively” agreed on a draft agreement to end the war, here’s a primer on what that means.
What was the Korean War?
The war broke out on June 25, 1950, when the first of what the US military estimated as 135,000 North Korean forces stormed across the 38th parallel dividing North and South Korea in an effort to take total control of the Korean Peninsula.
The United States, under President Harry Truman, responded with what was called a “police action,” assembling a group of international allies under the auspices of the “United Nations Command” to come to the aid of South Korea. Twenty-two nations contributed combat troops or medical support units to the US-led effort.
Communist-controlled North Korea had the support of both the Soviet Union and China, with Beijing actively intervening on the military front in October 1950, sending almost a quarter-million troops into the Korean Peninsula as the US-led forces were advancing toward China’s border with North Korea.
Chinese support of the North pushed the UN advance back down the peninsula and by 1951 stalemate emerged along the 38th parallel, where the border between the two Koreas sits today.
How did the fighting stop?
Armistice talks began in 1951 and occurred intermittently until a final agreement to end combat was made at Panmunjom on the 38th parallel on July 27, 1953. Within three days, both sides withdrew their troops to be at least 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from the cease-fire line.
Why didn’t the armistice end the war?
The signatories of the July 27, 1953 agreement to end hostilities were the heads of the UN Command, the North Korean army and of Chinese troops on the Korean Peninsula. South Korea is not a signee, and the agreement specifically says it is not a peace treaty.
According to the armistice preamble, it is made “in the interest of stopping the Korean conflict, with its great toil of suffering and bloodshed on both sides, and with the objective of establishing an armistice which will insure a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved.”
What has happened since 1953?
There was no official contact between the North and South Korean governments until 1971, according to the US State Department.
By 1991 though, tensions had eased enough that Pyongyang and Seoul signed on to the North-South Basic Agreement, which said reunification was the goal of both parties. But a State Department history says the North’s budding weapons programs and the death of its longtime leader Kim Il-Sung in 1994, coupled with political turmoil in the South, led to new tensions.
The first inter-Korean summit was held in June 2000, but the thaw it provided ended with North Korea’s admission in 2002 that it was pursuing nuclear weapons.
That admission led to a series of negotiations about the North’s nuclear program among North Korea, China, Russia, South Korea, the US and Japan, known as the six-party talks. North Korea pulled out of that effort in 2009 after restarting its Yongbon nuclear reactor and launching a series of missile tests.
In 2007, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il met in Pyongyang and agreed to try to bring peace to and reunify the peninsula without the intervention of outside parties. But conservative Lee Myung-bak was elected South Korean President a few months later, and switched to a hard line on the North’s weapons program, chilling peace efforts.
Tensions thawed again in 2018 when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Panmunjom. The two said they would work to turning the 1953 armistice into a peace treaty.
Later that year the two met again in Pyongyang and signed a joint declaration to pursue denuclearization while working toward peace on the peninsula.
Three meetings between US President Donald Trump and Kim — the first between a sitting US President and a North Korean leader — also failed to make any progress toward denuclearization of the North, despite their historic nature. Efforts have since stalled.
So what does the announcement of a possible peace treaty draft mean?
Essentially, not much — for now. Whatever deal the US and South Korean diplomats make on draft language, it would still need approval within their respective governments. Of course, North Korea would have to agree and, as a party to the armistice, so would China.
But there is some room for optimism.
South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong said Wednesday that North Korea has been quickly and positively responding to South Korea’s movement to declare the end of the Korean War.
And Kim Yo Jong, sister of the North Korean leader, in September termed the South Korean President’s proposal to declare an end to the war “interesting” and “an admirable idea,” but questioned the timing and demanded a hostile policy against the North must be withdrawn first.
North Korea has yet to respond in detail about the declaration though, even through China, Chung said.