South Korea faces technical roadblock in any peace treaty with North Korea

Key Points
  • North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are expected to meet face-to-face next week.
  • Pyongyang and Seoul have technically been at war since the 1950 Korean War which ended with a truce — and not a peace treaty.
  • "Technically, South Korea is not a signatory to the armistice and a peace treaty would require UN action," Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow of Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation, told CNBC.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un guides a target-striking contest of the special operation forces of the Korean People's Army to occupy islands in Pyongyang on Aug. 25, 2017.
KCNA | Reuters

Although the expected meeting of leaders of North and South Korea next week has sparked reports that Kim Jong Un may agree to officially end the Korean War, Pyongyang does not view Seoul as an authorized participant in peace talks, a former CIA official told CNBC.

After nearly seven decades, the Korean War, which began on June 25, 1950, and lasted for three years, remains officially unresolved. When the war ended, the North agreed to a truce but not a peace treaty. As a result, the North and South have technically remained at war for the last 68 years.

"When I met with North Korean officials last year, they said that South Korea is not 'qualified' to participate in peace treaty negotiations because it didn't sign the armistice and didn't have wartime operational control of its forces," Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow of Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation, told CNBC.

"Technically, South Korea is not a signatory to the armistice and a peace treaty would require UN action," Klingner added. "The previous North Korean position has been for three parties – North Korea, China, and the U.S. – to sign a final peace treaty."

The potential April 27 summit between the two Koreas will be their first face-to-face meeting since 2007. Notably, the two are set to meet in the South Korean village of Panmunjom, which would make Kim the first North Korean leader to cross the 38th parallel since the Korean War.

A possible meeting between Kim and President Donald Trump — which would be the first between two sitting leaders of North Korea and the United States — is also reportedly in the works. However, details of the arrangement are slim.

Trump said Tuesday that the Koreas have his "blessing" to try ending their war.

People watch a television news screen showing pictures of US President Donald Trump (C) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (R) at a railway station in Seoul on November 29, 2017.
Jung Yeon-Je | AFP | Getty Images

What's more, the two Koreas agreed last month to install a hotline to help facilitate communication between their governments. The telephone line is expected to be operational by the end of this week.

Klingner, a former CIA deputy division chief for Korea, said he is concerned that South Korean President Moon Jae-in is apparently eager to engage with Pyongyang with few conditions.

"But he is operating under greater international constraints than his progressive predecessors," Klingner said, noting that negotiations under Kim have hit historic lows.

The prospect of negotiations has been dampened by the third-generation North Korean leader's ambitions in developing long-range nuclear missiles.

Under Kim's regime, the reclusive state has conducted its most powerful nuclear test, launched its first-ever intercontinental ballistic missile and threatened to send missiles into the waters near Guam.

Since 2011, Kim has fired more than 85 missiles and four nuclear weapons tests, more than his father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather, Kim Il Sung, launched over a period of 27 years.

North Korea, believed to the only nation to have tested nuclear weapons this century, spent most of 2017 perfecting its missile arsenal, which has only upped the ante for any potential peace talks.