Are We at War With North Korea?

Um, sort of, in a way …

North Korean army officers

North Korea conducted a nuclear test on Monday, the second such test in less than three years. In response to the incident, a senior administration official told the New York Times“that the United States would never grant full diplomatic recognition to North Korea, or sign a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War, unless its nuclear capability is dismantled.” Wait, we’re still at war with North Korea?

Sort of. The 1953 Korean War Armistice Agreement, signed by the United Nations Command, North Korea, and China, ended the conflict in a practical sense. It set up a system for exchanging prisoners of war, created a north-south boundary within a demilitarized zone, and marked the suspension of all open hostilities. It was not, however, intended as the final say on the matter. In fact, Article IV of the Armistice recommends that “the governments concerned on both sides” convene a conference within three months of signing to organize the withdrawal of foreign forces from the peninsula and settle the “Korea question”—roughly, who would rule over a reunited Korea. Talks did take place in Geneva in 1954, but they broke down over how, exactly, to hold fair elections for a unified government.

The difference between an armistice and a formal treaty is partly semantic. An armistice is more or less a permanent truce (unlike the temporary cease-fires often worked out between Israel and its neighbors). It’s a cessation of hostilities between militaries, as opposed to a cessation of the disagreement between governments; as such, it marks the end of armed conflict but not the conclusion of a war, per se. The details of a permanent treaty can vary wildly, but as a general rule, they are supposed to establish long-lasting terms of engagement—like formal borders, trade agreements, and the resolution of war debt.

Since 1954, there have been a few attempts to negotiate a formal treaty between the United States and North Korea—one that might end the presence of soldiers in the demilitarized zone, say. Notably, in 1974, the North Koreans tried to negotiate bilaterally with the United States—that is, without input from South Korea. They proposed a withdrawal of U.S. forces from the south and the end to foreign military bases on the peninsula, among other measures. But this request and subsequent ones never came to fruition. A formal accord is so elusive in large part because it’s a step toward diplomatic recognition of the north—something that almost certainly won’t come about before the United States and North Korea reach an agreement over the Communist regime’s nuclear ambitions.

Despite the fact that there is no official peace treaty between North Korea and the United States, it’s not quite correct to say that we’re at war (even in a technical sense) because, technically, we weren’t at war to begin with. The 1950-53 conflict was conducted under the aegis of the United Nations and was dubbed a “police action” by President Harry Truman. Congress never actually declared war, nor did it authorize a military engagement. (By contrast, Congress didn’t declare war in the current conflict with Iraq, but it did authorize the invasion.)

Although the lack of a formal end to the conflict between the United States and North Korea is unusual, it’s not unique. Due to a territory dispute over the status of the Southern Kuril Islands, Russia and Japan never signed a peace treaty after World War II and are thus still technically at war.

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Explainer thanks Bruce Cumings of the University of Chicagoand John Feffer of the Institute for Policy Studies.