Groundhog Day: the Armistice Agreement in Historical Context

By | April 12, 2013 | No Comments

MGen. Bryan (2nd from left), Senior Member of the Military Armistice Commission, United Nations' Command, exchanges credentials with MGen. Lee Sang Cho, North Korean Army (3rd from right), Senior Communist delegate, at Panmunjom, Korea, on July 28, 1953, the day after the Korean War Armistice went into effect. | Official U.S. Army photo, Signal Corps Collection; courtesy of the National Archives.

Korea, July 28, 1953, the day after the Korean War
Armistice went into effect. |
Official U.S. Army photo, Signal Corps Collection;
courtesy of the National Archives.

Given Pyongyang’s penchant for constantly keeping the world on edge on its neighbors uneasy, it is easy to lose perspective. North Korea’s recent announcement that it had scrapped the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War is a case-in-point. Though reporting on the announcement has no doubt lead many to believe war is just around the corner, some historical perspective suggests otherwise. Nick Miller provides some historical context to assuage fears of an imminent war, in addition to examining China’s response to the recent threats of provocation coming from Pyongyang. – Steven Denney, Managing Editor

Groundhog Day: the Armistice Agreement in Historical Context

By Nick Miller

Tensions between the North and the South have reached new levels after North Korea declared on March 11 that the armistice treaty that brought the Korean War to a truce on July 27, 1953 was no longer being honored. North Korea increased its level of provocative rhetoric towards South Korea and the United States above what could be considered “normal,” even threatening a nuclear strike against the United States if it continued with its planned joint military drill, which started on March 1st.

Tensions between all parties have only escalated after North Korea successfully tested its third nuclear test on February 12. On March 11, President Obama issued an executive order targeting North Korean nuclear and missile proliferation capabilities. The executive order also designated several top North Korean officials who have assisted in the development of North Korea’s nuclear program. The UN sanctions are set to pass some of the toughest sanctions against North Korea; the sanctions are targeted at North Korean illicit finances and strengthening cargo and port shipments inspections for nuclear, ballistic missile related items, or conventional weapons. The Rodong Sinmun declared that the sanctions set forth by the UN Security Council were seen as a declaration of war against North Korea and were timed to coincide with the US-ROK military drills.

Politicizing the Ceasefire: Scrapping the Armistice, Again and Again | As the Korean War was never formally ended an armistice was put into place on July 27, 1953 in order to get the fighting to end and allow for both sides to find a peaceful end to the war. The armistice restored the border to the 38th parallel, thus establishing the world’s most volatile border: the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The problem was the temporary solution never evolved into a peace treaty. The Korean War remains essentially frozen in time; a spark from either side could be the straw that breaks the camels back and plunges both Koreas (and their allies) into another war on the peninsula.

North Korean threatening to withdraw from the armistice is not a novel event; such threats have been a part of the North’s routinization of threats. Some past examples include:

As one can see this repeated threat of the resumption of the Korean War has created a groundhogs day like scenario for all major powers with vested interest on the peninsula. As North Korea continues to threaten to start a second Korean War—and then never does—it fuels the cynicism of members within the international community.

Ken Gause interpreted the most recent rounds of bombastic rhetoric as North Korea wanting the world to believe that is going through the necessary steps to carry out its provocations. As North Korea ceased all of its communication channels it only raised the probability that a provocation could occur. The Red Cross hotline was installed in 1971 to help prevent a war from occurring has been shut down five times between 1971 and 2010. To further bolster the image that North Korea is preparing for war Kim Jong-un was seen inspecting troops along the Yellow Sea.

Michael Madden at NK Leadership Watch blog stated that it was not the first time North Korea had threatened to walk away from the armistice treaty, but add a pessimistic note that threatening to scrape the armistice raises the possibility for skirmishes in the West Sea or the Northern Limit Line (NLL). Michael Mazza, at the American Enterprise Institute, interpreted North Korea’s actions as a sign that Pyongyang saw itself as “boxed in” and the rhetoric dangerous the new South Korean President Park Geun-hye could not be seen as caving into North Korean threats.

Only possible in cross winds

Disagreement: only possible in cross winds.

North of the Yalu: Chinese Views on the North’s Actions | Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, reiterated China’s message that all parties should restrain from provocation actions and the armistice as a necessary for keeping stability in the region. Cui Zhiying, director of the Korean Peninsula Research Center at Tongji University, interpreted the North Korea actions as a way for the US to reengage its past talks.  Lu Chao, director of the Korean Research Center at Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, saw the North’s rhetoric as way to further defy the international community after its most recent round of sanctions. Lu saw that there is a greater probability that skirmishes along the border areas could occur, as that has been a frequent flashpoint between the two Koreas.

Wang Junsheng, at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, stated that North Korea’s focus on improving relations with the United States has not been a success as the cycle of further sanctions on North Korea by both the United States and South Korea has made the stability in the region fragile.

Su Hao, director of the Strategy and Conflict Management Research Center at the China Foreign Affairs University, believed that North Korea deserved to be punished by the international community but that China did not need to initiate its own sanctions on North Korea. Su called for the Chinese government to reconsider its national security priorities as nothing has stopped North Korea’s pursuit to gain nuclear deterrence. Shen Dingli, an arms control expert at Fudan University, believed that the United States should not suspend negotiations with North Korea rather the North is acting out because it desire a guarantee that the US will not invade. Shen also believed that China would be able to reign in North Korea from crossing the Rubicon.

One of the more hawkish voices from within China came from retired Major General Lou Yuan, who wrote in the Global Times, that despite the history between the two countries, if North Korea continued to act against China’s national interests “we’ll [China] get even with you.” General Lou saw that a nuclear arms race developing between Japan and South Korea because of the North’s actions as unacceptable and was concerned over radiation leaks from North Korean nuclear facilities.[1]

Pounding the War Drums, but Keeping the Armory Locked: Will There Actually Be War? | While most of the “war rhetoric” pouring out from Pyongyang south to South and across the Pacific to Washington should be taken with a grain of salt; such rhetoric is part of a tried-and-true strategic brinkmanship strategy. North Korea’s bombast is likely part of its strategy to intimidate President Park Geun-hye, as her administration is only a few weeks old ,and to mark their displeasure with the international community over the sanctions that are set to be imposed on North Korea. This will not be the last time North Korea decides to unilaterally withdraw from the armistice treaty; but, more importantly, what people need to remember is that this is not the first time this has happened. North Korea’s actions these past few weeks continue to create a groundhog’s day cycle of threats of provocations followed by in-action. However, this is not to say that one day in the future the North will stay true to its word and carry out an act of military provocation that ignites a sequence of events similar to what Europe witnessed in 1914.


Further Reading

Adam Cathcart, “Incinerated Fantasy: Kim Jong-un, Zhu Feng, and a Censored Article in Beijing,” SinoNK, February 9, 2013,

Adam Cathcart, “No More Firewall: Qiao Xinsheng on the DPRK’s Military Isolation.” SinoNK, February 17, 2013,

Roger Cavazos, “When the Bomb Goes Boom: Gauging China’s Policy Responses,” SinoNK, February 13, 2013,

[1] There are a multitude of sources that cover the various perspectives outlined here. Amongst them, see the follow: Hao Zhou ““NK threatens to scrap 1953 armistice,” Global Times, March 6, 2013,; Chinese State Media Hints at Implosion of N. Korean Regime,” March 11, 2013, The Chosun Ilbo,” For further analysis on the internal debates within Chinese officials, elites, and academics, see esp.: Adam Cathcart, “Incinerated Fantasy: Kim Jong-un, Zhu Feng, and a Censored Article in Beijing,” SinoNK, February 9, 2013,; Adam Cathcart, “No More Firewall: Qiao Xinsheng on the DPRK’s Military Isolation.” SinoNK, February 17, 2013,; and Roger Cavazos, “When the Bomb Goes Boom: Gauging China’s Policy Responses,” SinoNK, February 13, 2013,

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