Opinion: declarations of peace offer even the most hardened enemies an opportunity to signal a desire for friendship and collaboration

Given the recent spirit of reconciliation on the Korean peninsula, one might overlook the fact that North and South Korea are still technically at war. While a 1953 armistice brought an end to the brutally contested Korean War, no peace agreement was ever concluded to formally resolve the conflict. However, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has recently said that a formal declaration of peace is only a matter of time. Would a declaration of peace really change the political environment on the Korean peninsula? After 65 years of relative peace, is a declaration really such a big deal?

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From RTÉ Radio One's Morning Ireland, Chad O'Carroll, Managing Director of NK News, discusses the summit between North Korea and South Korea

Declarations of peace offer even the most ancient of adversaries an opportunity to signal their intentions to move forward in a spirit of friendship and co-operation. For example, the 2,500th anniversary of the Peloponnesian Wars afforded modern-day Athens and Sparta an opportunity to fuse ‘their respective ancient ideals together’ in 1996. The mayors of contemporary Rome and Carthage (in modern day Tunisia) concluded a similar pact of "friendship and collaboration" in 1985 to officially mark the end of the Punic Wars. In reality, the conflict had ended in 149 BC with the complete destruction of the city of Carthage. 

Though the first World War officially ended with the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, neither Costa Rica nor the principality of Andorra were signatories to the agreement. As a result, both countries’ declarations of war against Germany continued through the interwar period and throughout the second World War. Costa Rica’s war with Germany ended in August 1945, with the rest of the Allied Powers. With its army of 10 part-time solders wielding ceremonial blank cartridges, Andorra finally declared an end to its largely symbolic war against Germany in 1958, when the two countries concluded a formal treaty. 

In particularly challenging contexts, a "no war, no peace" situation can persist

The absence of a declaration of peace may otherwise signal an ongoing political dispute. For example, Russia and Japan have not formally negotiated an end to their second World War belligerence. This is because of an ongoing territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands, which the Soviet Union seized in the dying days of the war. To date, Japan has repeatedly refused to acknowledge Russia’s territorial claims to the islands, though it did declare an end to its state of war with Russia in 1956. Russian President Vladimir Putin has recently invited Japan to sign a formal peace treaty before the end of 2018, but Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has ruled out the possibility of agreement prior to resolution of the Kuril Islands dispute.

In particularly challenging contexts, a "no war, no peace" situation can persist. In such cases, the conflict might move from the battlefield to the parliament, economy, or court room. One prominent example is the enduring legacy of the Chinese Civil War in the Taiwan Strait. In the aftermath of the civil war, the Chinese Communist Party gained international recognition as the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The former nationalist government retreated to Taiwan, where it continues to claim authority over all of China as "the Republic of China" (ROC).

2008 saw the resumption of direct flights between Taiwan and China for the first time in six decades

Though the ROC officially declared an end to its state of war in 1991, no declaration of peace has ever formally resolved the civil war. Instead, the conflict continues to play out by other means, with the PRC employing economic and diplomatic pressure to discourage any effort to remove Taiwan from the PRC’s ambit. The PRC continues to threaten military action if the ROC ever attempts to declare an independent Taiwan.

A similar "no war, no peace" situation divides the Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot population of Cyprus. The conflict began in the summer of 1974, when Turkey invaded to protect the Turkish-Cypriot population. A buffer zone was established to separate the parties in August 1974, thereby dividing the island into the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and the southern Republic of Cyprus.

Today, the parties contest the dispute peacefully through political and legal processes. In 1996, the dispute came before the European Court of Human Rights, which determined that the Republic of Cyprus was "the sole legitimate government of the island." Peace talks most recently collapsed in July 2017, leading some to compare the Cypriot dispute to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (though Cyprus is noticeably more peaceful).

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From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News report by Kevin O’Kelly from May 1964 on Irish soldiers on UN peace-keeping work in Cyprus

So what do these examples tell us about the prospects of peace on the Korean peninsula? As Taiwan and Cyprus demonstrate, the passage of time does not always result in the declaration of peace. Nor are the recent talks unprecedented: North Korea has often teased the prospect of peace in order to deflect criticism of its nuclear weapons programme. However, both North and South Korea believe that the present peace talks could provide North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un with the political cover to denuclearise. A peace declaration could be seen as a political victory in North Korea, and could be used to build domestic support a denuclearisation effort. 

But South Korea’s chief military ally, the United States, is not yet convinced. The US wants to see real progress on denuclearisation before, not after, a peace declaration. Peace could also damage the US’s strategic interests in Asia by removing the justification for the 23,000 US military personnel that are currently deployed in South Korea. 

Amidst US concerns, the Korean pursuit of peace has duly slowed to a halt. But observing Moon Jae-in’s unwavering confidence that peace is at hand, and recalling Kim Jong-Un’s unprecedented visit to South Korea in April of this year, there is reason to believe that recent talks really are a big deal.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ