North Korea’s latest threats to annihilate its enemies have included a vow to scrap the 1953 armistice, the main legal document that theoretically stands in the way of a resumption of the Korean War, a conflict that by some estimates left nearly five million people dead, including more than 33,700 American soldiers.
But the North Koreans have said many times over the years that they were disregarding the armistice. It is not a peace treaty but rather a military document, reflecting what was at the time a stalemated conflict that no one wanted to prolong.
What is unclear is whether North Korea will make good on its vow to disregard the armistice this time, and what such a step would mean. While it may be bluster, analysts who study North Korea are not so sure.
Some fear that Kim Jong-un, the North’s young and untested leader, perhaps believing that his country is now a nuclear power, may regard the armistice as outdated, reflecting deterrents that no longer exist. If so, they say, he could feel emboldened to carry out a military provocation against South Korea.
The armistice was meant to be temporary, until a peace treaty between the governments in the conflict could be reached. It was the basis for the mechanisms that deter a resumption of the war, including the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, a communications hot line and a joint commission for resolving allegations of violations.
“An armistice reflects a balance of forces, the combatants reach a state of exhaustion, so you get a sort of equilibrium,” said Stephan M. Haggard, a visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “The armistice sustains itself in part because the parties recognize they can’t…