The enduring Korean ceasefire: Ian McGibbon comments on the 65th anniversary of the armistice that stopped the fighting on the Korean peninsula.

AuthorMcGibbon, Ian

In November we will observe the centenary of the armistice that ended the war to end all wars. But 2018 is also the anniversary year of another armistice, of greater duration and contemporary significance than its more famous counterpart. This is the Korean War armistice, the 65th anniversary of which passed on 27 July.

Whereas a peace settlement with Germany followed within a year of the 1918 armistice, a Korean peace settlement remains an elusive prospect. The possibility of the two Koreas declaring an end of hostilities was raised by the two Korean leaders at their meetings in April-May, but it was noticeably absent from the document signed by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump in Singapore on 12 June.

There is another important difference. In 1918 with its army about to collapse on the Western Front, Germany took hasty action to secure a ceasefire. The Korean armistice, by contrast, took several years to finalise. It reflected a battlefield stalemate that had existed for nearly two years before the signature of the document at Panmunjom on 27 July 1953. The line of contact had been established as the line of demarcation, now in the Demilitarised Zone that is todays de facto border, as one of the first agenda items. This reflected the state of combat on the ground and was different from, and more defensible than, the border that had separated the two countries until the outbreak of war, on the 38th Parallel.

There is a common misconception that the armistice was signed by North and South Korea, and that they alone can declare an end of hostilities. Although the Korean War began as a war between the two Koreas, it ended as a war fought essentially between the United States and China, though the latter was not officially involved. Chinas troops, who formed a major part of the communist force from late 1950, took part as Chinese People's Volunteers, a status adopted on crossing the Yalu River into Korea. The volunteer aspect allowed China deniability at the time. However, China's role in the war is now openly acknowledged in Beijing: President Xi reportedly made clear to Kim at their meeting in Dalian in May that China must also be involved in any declaration of an end of hostilities. The more than 600,000 Chinese troops who lost their lives during the war underscore Chinas interest in the situation in the peninsula, and its determination to ensure the survival of the North Korean state.

Nor can it be just a...

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