In light of North Korea’s recent belligerence and threatening behaviour, much has made of the fact that the two Koreas are still ‘technically’ at war. This is based on the fact that, although an armistice agreement was reached between the two sides on July 27th 1953, no formal peace treaty was ever signed.
The North Koreans themselves have been quick to declare a “renewed state of war” against the South, based on the absolving of the armistice, which was never supposed to be a permanent settlement. As a British observer in the 1970s noted:
Armistice agreements [are] between military commanders and not, at least in origin, an agreement between states or governments. The distinguishing feature about all armistice agreements is that they are intended to be agreements between commanders in the field for a temporary or indefinite cessation of hostilities.
An armistice is therefore a military and not a political agreement and so can be expunged with ease by governments not party to such an agreement. The observer goes on to state that:
A general armistice is expected to lead in the ordinary course of events to a peace treaty or other settlement of the conflict, and this peace treaty constitutes the political treaty between states which normally accompanies the ending of the war in international law.
As such a peace treaty never materialised, it is often assumed that the Korean War still persists, at least theoretically, under international law. Some doomsayers have interpreted this to suggest that renewed conflict on the Korean Peninsula is more likely than the start of a war elsewhere because no grander justification for aggression is required other than that a state of conflict already exists. But how logical is such a suggestion?
Our observer, writing in the 1970s, argues that:
For twenty years North and South Korea have continued to regulate their relations on the basis of the armistice agreement and UN activities in Korea have also been based on the assumption of the continued validity of the agreement. In my view therefore the armistice agreement has acquired the status of an international agreement.
This view was expressed despite the fact that Great Britain did not at this time recognise North Korean sovereignty. The argument is a simple one. The armistice signed by the military commanders to stop the Korean War had proved effective and the resumption of inter-Korean relations, however tentative, was proof that it had a binding effect. Given that another forty years have elapsed since then, the armistice can be said to have achieved its intended outcome even if it has never been solidified by an official peace treaty.
Consequently, the use of a technicality to threaten war is just another North Korean ploy to garner attention. Today, its bizarre regime changed tact suggesting that it was willing to engage in dialogue with the international community on the proviso that sanctions are dropped and US-South Korean military drills curtailed.
This is typical North Korean behaviour; violent rhetoric followed by increasing conciliation in a bid to quash the stranglehold sanctions have on the regime. For those who think that a lack of a peace treaty makes war more likely, just consider the sound logic of the British diplomat from the 1970s. If the armistice has held for this long, why shouldn’t it continue?
Source: National Archives FCO Documents