DPRK Briefing Book: North Korea’s Campaign Against the Korean Armistice

DPRK Briefing Book: North Korea’s Campaign Against the Korean Armistice

DPRK Briefing Book: North Korea’s Campaign Against the Korean Armistice

(95-1187 F)
Larry Niksch, Congressional Research Service, December 11, 1995.


The 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement, ending the Korean War, established mechanisms to enforce the armistice along a military demarcation line separating North and South Korea. Since April 1994, North Korea has acted to dismantle these mechanisms as a means of pressuring the United States to replace the Armistice Agreement with a U.S.-North Korean peace agreement, excluding South Korea. U.S.-South Korean responses to North Korea’s responses to North Korea’s moves have been largely rhetorical, which raises the question of future responses if North Korea escalates its campaign.

Provisions Of The Korean Armistice

The Korean Armistice Agreement was signed on July 27, 1953, ending three years of war. The signatories were: the United Nations Command, which represented 16 U.N. member states that had committed troops to Korea under U.N. Security Council resolutions of June 27 and July 7, 1950; and the military commands of North Korea and China. The South Korean (R.O.K.) Government refused to sign, although it declared that it would not obstruct implementation of the pact. The Armistice Agreement and subsequent amending agreements established a number of mechanisms to maintain the truce:

(1) A military demarcation line (MDL) separating North and South Korea;

(2) A demilitarized zone (DMZ) on either side of the MDL, running the entire length of the Korean peninsula. The DMZ is four kilometers wide (about 2.4 miles), extending two kilometers to the north and south of the MDL. Coastal islands north and south of the DMZ were allotted to the Communist and U.N. commands respectively, except for four island groups off Korea’s west coasts north of the DMZ, which the Armistice Agreement stipulated would remain under the U.N. Command;

< (3) A Military Armistice Commission (MAC), located at the town of Panmunjom and tasked with investigating and resolving violations of the Armistice Agreement;

(4) A Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC), composed until 1993 of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, and Switzerland. The NNSC was to investigate violations of the armistice, including the prohibition of imports of arms into Korea.

The Agreement stipulated that the NNSC’s headquarters would be located “in proximity to” the MAC’s headquarters (i.e., Panmunjom);

(5) A Joint Security Area (JSA) within the DMZ, encompassing Panmunjom and the MAC headquarters, according to an “Agreement on Military Armistice Headquarters Area, Its Security, and Constitution,” which the signatories signed on Oct. 19, 1953. Personnel assigned to the MAC, the NNSC, and designated security personnel were allowed access to all parts of the JSA. However, in August 1976, North Korean security personnel in the JSA assaulted U.N. command security personnel. Two American officers were killed. The MAC and North Korea negotiated an amending agreement of Sept. 6, 1976, which provided that: (a) personnel assigned to the MAC and the NNSC would continue to have access to the entire JSA; and (b) security personnel of either side must remain on their side of the Military Demarcation Line within the JSA.

North Korea’s Proposal To Replace The Armistice Agreement

On Mar. 25, 1974, North Korea proposed that it and the United States negotiate a bilateral peace agreement that would replace the Armistice Agreement. North Korea’s proposal included a total withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea, a prohibition of the introduction of weapons into Korea, and the termination of foreign military bases in Korea. Since then, North Korea frequently has renewed the proposal. North Korea has held that South Korea has no right to participate in peace talks since South Korea did not sign the Armistice Agreement and the Commander of U.S. Forces in South Korea holds operational command over R.O.K. forces.

In December 1991, North and South Korea concluded an “Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression and Exchanges and Cooperation,” which stated that the two sides would “transform the present armistice regime into a firm state of peace…and shall abide by the present military Armistice Agreement (of July 27, 1953) until such time as such a state of peace has taken hold.”

North Korea’s Moves To Weaken The Armistice

After March 1991, North Korea refused to participate in full MAC meetings, although it did attend lower level meetings. In 1993, North Korea expelled from its territory the Czech members of the NNSC. These acts appeared to be in response to other developments: the 1991 appointment of a South Korean general to represent the U.N. Command in the MAC (an American general had led the U.N. Command team) and the division of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

It appears that North Korea decided to re-assert its bilateral peace agreement proposal in November 1993 when Washington and Pyongyang began to move towards bilateral negotiations on the nuclear issue. Beginning in April 1994, North Korea initiated a series of actions to weaken the mechanisms of the armistice and pressure the Clinton Administration to accept bilateral peace talks.

(1) On Apr. 28, 1994, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement, describing the Armistice Agreement as “blank sheets of paper” and demanding the United States negotiate a peace agreement. North Korea withdrew its delegates from the MAC and established a “military liaison office” at Panmunjom “as a new mechanism for negotiating with the U.S. side.”

(2) North Korea and China issued a communique on Sept. 2, 1994, in which China announced the withdrawal of its delegation from the MAC, “taking into consideration the request of the Korean side.”

(3) At the U.S.-North Korean nuclear talks in September- October 1994, the North Koreans pressed their U.S. counterparts to expand the talks into the negotiation of a peace agreement.

(4) In January 1995, North Korea proposed that the United States establish a military liaison group at Panmunjom to negotiate with the North Korean military liaison group created when North Korea withdrew from the MAC. North Korea described this as an “interim arrangement” preceding negotiation of a bilateral peace agreement. Members of the North Korean liaison group have pressed U.S. officers to hold meetings of officers at the rank of General outside of the MAC.[ 1 ]

(5) Beginning in January 1995, North Korea’s demands for a bilateral peace agreement contained a stronger element of threat. A Foreign Ministry statement of February 24 warned that if the United States continued to “evade its responsibility” to conclude a bilateral peace agreement, “we will have no alternative but to take more necessary measures to solve this problem.”

(6) In early March 1995, North Korea expelled the Polish delegation of the NNSC from its territory. The Poles had maintained an NNSC facility in North Korea just north of Panmunjom.

(7) Beginning in March 1995, North Korea staged incidents in the DMZ, including open penetration of the DMZ by North Korean troops, on several occasions the crossing of the MDL by these troops, and the refusal of North Korean personnel in the DMZ to wear the insignias specified by the MAC.[ 2 ]

(8) On May 3, 1995, North Korea issued a statement that unilaterally abrogated the September 196 agreement on the movement of personnel within the JSA. The statement prohibited personnel of the NNSC and the U.S. military personnel assigned to the MAC from crossing the MDL within the JSA. The statement accused the United States and South Korea of moving “thousands of military personnel armed with sophisticated weapons into the DMZ,” and warned that if the United States allowed such “provocations” to continue, “we will take steps concerning the position of the DMZ to cope with them.”

(9) Since its May 3, 1995, warning regarding the DMZ, North Korea repeatedly has accused South Korea of moving troops and weapons into sectors of the DMZ. It has warned that “an accidental war” could break out.[ 3 ]

(10) North Korean military officers at Panmunjom told U.S. Command personnel in June 1995 that North Korea would announce in the near future that the Armistice Agreement was null and void. However, as of November 1995, North Korea has made no such announcement.

(11) In September 1995, North Korea issued a sequential dual track proposal. It proposed to negotiate with the United States a “peace guaranteeing system” by setting up a U.S.-North Korea mutual security consultative commission. North Korean public statements stressed that this peace system would include a U.S. troop withdrawal from South Korea.[ 4 ] However, Selig Harrison of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace claimed that during his September visit to North Korea, a North Korean Lt. General said that U.S. troops could remain for “an indeterminate period of time before withdrawing.”[ 5 ] North Korea proposed that when a peace system “is set up and implemented,” North Korea would resume military talks with South Korea, which it had broken off in 1992. North Korea’s proposal also indicated that U.S.-North Korean peace negotiations would have a broad agenda while North-South military talks would have a narrower agenda of negotiating a non-aggression agreement.[ 6 ] A North Korean statement of Oct. 18, 1995, threatened “to take action to root out the outworn armistice system.” An October 28 statement linked future implementation of the U.S.-North Korean nuclear Agreed Framework with U.S. agreement to a “peace mechanism.”

U.S.-South Korean Responses

The Clinton Administration has rejected North Korea’s proposal to negotiate a bilateral peace agreement. It has stated that North Korea should negotiate a peace accord with South Korea. The Administration has reacted to North Korea’s moves against the armistice mechanisms with verbal protests and statements affirming the validity of the Armistice Agreement.[ 7 ] However, the Administration has taken no further diplomatic or other actions to counter North Korean moves. There was no U.S. reaction to North Korea’s physical moves in the JSA to abrogate the 1976 agreement with the U.N. Command. The Administration has not responded to North Korea’s threats to alter the status of the DMZ.

Since North Korea’s capture and release of a U.S. airman in December 1994, the Administration has allowed U.S. military personnel assigned to the MAC to meet with members of North Korea’s “military liaison group,” and reportedly in September 1995, the U.S. Military Command offered to upgrade military contacts to the rank of General. However, knowledgeable sources stress that the U.S. offer was for contacts to remain within the context of the MAC with full South Korean participation. South Korea, however, has opposed the U.S. proposal.[ 8 ]

The Clinton Administration’s approach seems based on the priority it gives to maintaining the October 1994 Agreed Framework, under which the United States will provide North Korea with nuclear reactors and economic and diplomatic benefits in return for North Korea halting the operation of its nuclear installations.[ 9 ] This priority entails a strategy of avoiding confrontation with North Korea on other issues. Administration and State Department officials also appear to believe that North Korea is constrained form instituting further acts against the armistice because of the Agreed Framework and a weakened economy.[ 10 ]

One potential counter-measure was a proposal that R.O.K. President Kim Young-sam prepared to make on Aug. 15, 1995, for a North-South peace agreement to be guaranteed by the United States and China. U.S. officials interviewed for this report disclosed that the Clinton Administration endorsed the idea of issuing such a “two plus two” proposal. According to interviews with R.O.K. officials, China reacted coolly, apparently to avoid a split with North Korea if, as likely, Pyongyang would reject “the two plus two proposal.” This, coupled with South Korean public criticism over the R.O.K. Government’s handling of talks with North Korea over shipments of rice to North Korea, dissuaded President Kim from issuing the proposal.

Future Prospects

North Korea has not implemented its threats to alter the DMZ, formally declare the Armistice Agreement null and void, or link its obligations under the Agreed Framework with U.S. acceptance of bilateral peace negotiations. This suggests a policy debate in Pyongyang. North Korea’s apparent desire to retain the Agreed Framework and its attempts to secure rice from South Korea and Japan may constitute factors inducing caution in North Korean policymakers. However, a rationale for implementation also exists: the prospects of success, given the inactive U.S.-R.O.K. responses to date; increased pressure on the United States to agree to a peace agreement if the remaining armistice mechanisms cease to exist; and the prospects of producing more disagreements between Seoul and Washington. North Korean leaders also might react to economic deterioration by seeking new political/diplomatic victories (North Korea’s economic situation is predicted to deteriorate in the winter of 1995-1996). The apparent heightened influence of the North Korean military in the regime could strengthen the proponents of an aggressive strategy.

U.S.-R.O.K. strategy raises several questions related to responses to possible future developments. First, have the Clinton and Kim Young-sam administrations planned a substantive response (and warned North Korea of such a response) if North Korea moves to alter physically the DMZ, perhaps by occupying the northern half of the DMZ with North Korean troops? A North Korean success in reducing or bifurcating the DMZ would damage the armistice by positioning North Korean troops closer physically to South Korean troops, thus making likely an increase in violent incidents along the MDL.

Second, will Seoul and Washington develop another counter- proposal to replace the aborted “two plus two” proposal? According to knowledgeable South Koreans interviewed for this report, the Kim Young-sam Administration also considered a “two plus one” formula (the “one” being the United States).

Third, if South Korea shifted to a “two plus one” proposal, would the United States play only the role of guarantor, or would it be an active negotiator? The question is pertinent because any negotiation of a peace agreement would include military issues involving U.S. forces in South Korea and possibly issues of monitoring and a potential American role in monitoring. Moreover, prospects appear better that North Korea in time would accept a tripartite negotiation on military issues rather than North-South talks.

Fourth, how extensive would the R.O.K.-U.S. military agenda be in any peace agreement negotiation. Options range from negotiating a non-aggression declaration to presenting an agenda consisting of all or some of the following stated goals of U.S. policy: a pullback of North Korean conventional forces from the DMZ; North Korean cessation of production and export of long range missiles; dismantling of North Korea’s reported stockpiles of chemical/biological weapons; and a complete resolution of the North Korean nuclear weapons issues.

Fifth, if South Korea and the United States decide against counter-diplomacy, would a more refined North Korean dual track proposal for military negotiations become a suitable framework for negotiations? If North Korea dropped the sequential negotiations elements of its proposal to Selig Harrison and offered parallel talks, this would advance the U.S. policy goal of promoting North- South negotiations–though at the expense of agreeing to North Korea’s proposal for bilateral U.S.-North Korean peace negotiations.


1 . Seoul KBS-1 Radio Network Broadcast, Feb. 8, 1995; Professor Reviews Visit to DPRK. Yomiuri Shimbun (Tokyo), Jan. 31, 1995. p. 4.

2 . Kim Song-chin. Drastic Increase in DPRK Activity in DMZ. Chungang Ilbo (Seoul), June 18, 1995. p. 2.

3 . One example, in the official Workers’ (Communist) Party journal, Nodong Sinmun, of Aug. 19, 1995, warned that “With the previous armistice system, one cannot even prevent an accidental situation from occurring.” A second Nodong Sinmun commentary of June 2, 1995, declared that “war can be unleashed by a small accident.”

4 . Nodong Sinmun, Sept. 19, 1995; Statement by North Korean foreign Ministry, Sept. 7, 1995.

5 . Exclusive Interview with Selig Harrison. Chungang Ilbo (Seoul), Sept. 28, 1995. p. 3.

6 . Nodong Sinmun, Sept. 19, 1995.

7 . Interview with President Clinton. Yonhap News Service, July 27, 1995.

8 . Exclusive Interview with Selig Harrison. Chungang Ilbo, Sept. 28, 1995. p. 3. U.S. officials have confirmed to the author that the U.S. Command did agree to talks at the General officers’ level.

9 . See: North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Program. CRS Issue Brief 91141.

10 . Hoagland, Jim. The Trojan Horse at North Korea’s Gate. Washington Post, Aug. 2, 1995. p. A25. This included a view among key Clinton Administration officials that the North Korean regime will collapse in the near future.