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The catch in North Korea's scrapping of Korean War cease-fire: China

North Korea's declaration that the armistice is 'null and void' overlooks the significant point that China is also a signatory – and that it's not saying anything about nullifying it.

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North Korean members of the Worker-Peasant Red Guards attend military training in this picture released in Pyongyang Wednesday. North Korea said last week that it will scrap the armistice signed in 1953 that ended a three-year war with South Korea if the South and the United States continue with two-month long annual military drills.

KCNA/Reuters

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North Korea’s declaration that the Korean War armistice is “null and void” overlooks one major point. China is also a signatory to the agreement, and China is not saying anything about nullifying it.

No one knows if North Korean officials talked to their Chinese contacts about canceling the armistice that ended hostilities on July 27, 1953. Nor is there any clue as to whether the Chinese have been reminding the North Koreans that China is an equal party to a document that bears the signatures of North Korea’s “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung as well as the commanders of both the UN forces and the Chinese People’s Volunteers. 

China has, however, indicated that it’s not in favor of tinkering, much less nullifying, the armistice during the current standoff.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, responding to North Korea threats to nullify the armistice, says "the Korean armistice agreement plays an important role in safeguarding peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.”

She recognizes North Korean pleas for a peace treaty with the United States in place of the armistice but makes clear the Chinese view that now is not the time.

“We believe a peace mechanism should replace the armistice mechanism on the peninsula in the long run,” she says, expressing the “hope that all relevant parties will work toward this goal through dialogue and negotiation."

Should the North Koreans have asked the Chinese if they, too, wanted to “nullify” the agreement? And are the North Koreans choosing to nullify it as it applies only to the US, while respecting the agreement as applied to China?

That’s not likely, though the North’s rhetoric has accomplished one major purpose – garnering widespread diplomatic and media attention.

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China's role in the war

Compounding the problem of the armistice is that Rhee Syngman, president of South Korea from the founding of the Republic of Korea in 1948 until his ouster in the student revolution of April 1960, wanted no part of it. South Korea, demanding that the North abide by the armistice, overlooks Rhee’s unhappiness about a deal that he believed would only legitimize the division of the Korean peninsula. 

In the end, Rhee had to agree to abide by the armistice, but the South was only an observer, never a participant, in the truce talks, even though the South had 600,000 men under arms, about the same number it has today. That number, despite several hundred thousand South Koreans killed or wounded, was up from about 100,000 when North Korea invaded the South in June 1950.

By the time the truce was signed, US bombing had flattened Pyongyang and most other North Korean cities and towns. The Chinese, however, had suffered far more casualties than either North or South Koreans – with at least 1 million believed to have been killed or wounded.

Chinese “volunteers” entered the war in the fall of 1950 just as American and South Korean troops were reaching the Yalu River border between North Korea and China. The Chinese turned back the Americans and South Koreans, advancing as far as Seoul before they were forced to retreat in heavy fighting all along what is now the demilitarized zone, formed between the two Koreas when the truce was signed.

The war ground to a truce after Zhou En-lai, Mao Zedong’s premier and foreign minister, realized that Chinese casualties were becoming unacceptable and all sides needed to negotiate a halt to the fighting.

When the Korean War broke out, Korea was already divided at the 38th parallel, which splits the peninsula about equally. When the truce was signed, the Americans had South Koreans had surged considerably farther north of that dividing line, while the Chinese and North Koreans had taken the major city of Kaesong and the southwestern coast of what is now North Korea. 

That was hardly the denouement that Kim Il-sung had imagined when he persuaded Soviet leader Josef Stalin to agree to an invasion of South Korea with the aid of Russian arms and air power. Nor had Rhee likely fantasized such a compromise finale when he urged American generals to keep fighting to reunite the country.

Aside from Zhou’s realization that the killing had to stop, the death of Stalin in March 1953 precipitated a shift in Moscow’s support for the North.

North Korea in the decades since has grown ever more dependent on China – in contrast to the North’s state ideology of  “juche,” or self-reliance.

In fact, the reason the North came to propounding self-reliance as a state ideology was to show its independence from China. The idea was that North Korea had to pull its own weight, to prove it could make it on its own.

With the collapse of communism in the old Soviet Union and its eastern European satellites around 1990, the new Russia stopped shipping in oil and other supplies on long-term, low-interest credit and hugely skewed exchange rates. China continues to ship enough oil to keep the economy on life support but far from enough to fight a war.

Under the circumstances, Chinese officials may not be enthusiastic about North Korea scrapping the armistice without telling China about it. Nor is North Korea publicly reminding the Chinese of their distaste for a deal that the Chinese more or less forced them to sign.

The Western media, in the meantime, appear to have forgotten that Peng Dehuai, later purged in China's Cultural Revolution, not only led the Chinese forces that rescued the North Korean regime but also signed the truce that remains very much in force – at least as far as two of the three signatories are concerned.


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