May 24, 2024
Today marks the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Korean War armistice agreement. A legal agreement that ended combat on the battlefield, it was hoped to be a path to a peace treaty. Peace has never truly materialized, but the armistice has endured due in no small part to lengthy, complicated and difficult negotiations with the North Koreans. Frank Jones is back to elucidate some of the incredible lessons of that intensive two-year negotiation process. What skills are necessary to communicate and bargain with an entity that you are still actively seeking to destroy via violent methods? How does one ignore their own emotions while seeking to manage and understand those of their opponent? How are military goals influenced by political realities? These are all questions that must be answered to successfully achieve a better peace.

U.S. senior military officers rarely find themselves negotiating with their enemy counterparts regarding an armistice.

A strong wind buffeted Panmunjom, Korea, the morning of July 27, 1953, carrying the sound of artillery firing from miles away, a reminder of ongoing hostilities. The Korean War that had raged for three years was not yet over. At 10:00, the two senior delegates representing the belligerents, U.S. Army Lieutenant General William K. Harrison, United Nations Command (UNC), and General Nam Il on behalf of the Korea’s People’s Army and the Chinese People’s Volunteers coalition, walked into a specially constructed building. They did not acknowledge each other but immediately started signing the armistice agreement. Minutes later, they rose from their seats and wordlessly left the building. That afternoon, the Commander in Chief, UNC, U.S. Army General Mark Clark, countersigned the documents at Munsan in the Republic of Korea. His communist coalition counterparts would do the same in North Korean territory. The ceasefire would go into effect at 10:00 p.m. and with it the guns fell silent after nearly 200 negotiating sessions and 400 hours of discussions over the span of two years and 17 days. The armistice still holds 70 years after its military signatories agreed to it.

U.S. senior military officers rarely find themselves negotiating with their enemy counterparts regarding an armistice. Nonetheless, such negotiations can be a critically important step toward conflict resolution. As historian Jeremi Suri has observed, “Wars are indeed won and lost at the negotiating table.” Even 70 years later, the Korean truce talks serve as a significant model for today’s senior leaders who may find themselves involved in military battlefield negotiations, a distinct and understudied subject

It was evident to the U.S.-led United Nations Command and the Chinese-North Korean coalition by the summer of 1951 that neither side could attain a military victory. Although the UNC established a battle line north of the 38th parallel, the prewar boundary between the two Koreas, the United States concluded that the solution to the conflict could not be accomplished through military efforts alone. Chinese and North Korean leaders deduced the same. Consequently, the two sides agreed to truce talks to achieve an armistice.

The United States took full responsibility for the negotiations and had three objectives: limit the armistice to military matters in Korea only; achieve complete cessation of hostilities and acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement in Korea until a final peaceful settlement; and establish a commission to supervise implementation of the armistice agreement and to settle through negotiations any violations. The Chinese government established policy for the Korean People’s Army and Chinese People’s Volunteers’ delegation. Its objectives were to restore the status quo ante, attain a truce at the 38th parallel, and settle the Korean question at a postwar international conference.

The two delegations, headed by five senior military delegates (general/flag officers for the UNC), none of whom were professional negotiators, and their staffs, met for the first time on July 10, 1951. The two sides agreed to an agenda in seventeen days and on four substantive issues for further negotiation: the location and demarcation of a truce line and demilitarized zone; arrangements of a ceasefire and armistice, including a Military Armistice Commission to implement the cease-fire and a supervisory organization to carry out the terms of the truce and armistice; release and repatriation of prisoners of war; and recommendations to the concerned governments regarding translating the truce into a peace settlement. The United States policymakers believed the negotiations would bring a swift end to the conflict, but the talks proved more contentious than they had presumed, often leading to a venomous environment filled with acrimonious arguments, ridicule, arrogance and accusations of bad faith based on “ideological differences, cultural misperceptions,” and the astringent character of war. Moreover, U.S. General Matthew Ridgway, Commander-in Chief, UNC, who was not present at the truce talks, held firm to ethnocentric beliefs that the communist negotiators were practiced in the “ancient oriental custom of doggedness in negotiations.” It was up to the UNC delegates to remain firm and patient. As the journalist Clay Blair was to write in The Forgotten War, “Washington would find it necessary to negotiate with not merely one stubborn adversary, but two,” the Communists and Ridgway. “The emergence of Ridgway as a strong ‘third party’ greatly complicated and prolonged the negotiations and on some occasions, very nearly led to their collapse.”

Nonetheless, the two sides made progress, agreeing to a provisional demarcation line in November 1951, to terms on the political conference in February 1952, and by April 1952, the supervisory commission issue was largely resolved. In October 1952, the UNC negotiators broke off negotiations over a lack of progress regarding  the repatriation of prisoners, which the United States insisted, as a matter of principle, be voluntary. It took until April 1, 1953, for the Chinese-Korean coalition to agree to voluntary repatriation of POWs. From that point, events moved quickly but intensely, with final disposition of that issue in June, and on July 27, 1953, the two sides signed the armistice agreement. It was the longest negotiated armistice in history.

In international law, an armistice is a military agreement suspending active hostilities between the belligerents. It does not terminate the state of war existing between the belligerents, either de jure or de facto.

The Korean War truce talks illustrate five points about military battlefield negotiation that commanders and their staffs should keep in mind. First, it is decidedly different from those occurring in business and legal venues. In those settings, negotiation theory offers two predominant frameworks. The first, distributive bargaining, views negotiation situations as a win-lose: an adversarial situation where one side’s gain is the other side’s loss. The second is integrative bargaining, designed to advance a win-win approach wherein both parties benefit. These binary outcomes are overly simplistic in battlefield negotiations. In this instance, negotiations are a dialectical relationship, seesawing between what anthropologists call “competitive antagonism” and “cooperative coordination.” To reach an agreement, cooperative coordination is needed. If competitive antagonism is persistent, the result will likely be deadlock and failure. However, if a party emphasizes cooperative coordination, it may neglect its own national interests or policy objectives.

Second, because battlefield negotiations are driven by the military mission, they occur within an unstable and hostile setting that sometimes even includes “duress, physical threat, and armed intervention.” Thus, it is tied directly to the dynamic military operational environment, which can expand or limit the options available to the negotiators. The truce talks paused occasionally so the sides could use the time to perform a military strategy review, consider offensive operations, or strengthen defensive positions. Additionally, the two sides conducted combat operations to gain negotiation leverage, which retired U.S. Army Colonel Donald Boose calls “fighting while talking.” However, by the beginning of 1953, the situation was one of an enduring military stalemate, with little change to the battlefront, mirroring the impasse in the truce talks that had resulted in the UN delegation to walkout in October 1952.

Third, delays in the negotiating process can lead to lasting costs: a considerable loss of life, ecological devastation and reinforcement of hostile attitudes for generations. UNC bombing raids devastated North Korea. Every major city was destroyed along with severe damage to major infrastructure; Pyongyang was deemed militarily worthless as a result of air attacks, and as many as two million North Korean civilians died in the war. South Korean losses were substantial, some 1.3 million casualties. U.S. casualties during the war numbered approximately 136,000 killed, wounded and missing in action. Further, because the loss of human life is a potential outcome of failed negotiations, neither side wants to be accused of negotiating in bad faith, or worse, walking away from the negotiating table. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were particularly sensitive to this issue during the Korean truce talks. They warned the U.S. negotiators that if the talks failed the “enemy must be clearly responsible.” It would not be sufficient to blame the communists because of mere disagreement. Instead, it had to be “abundantly clear that we have used persistence and patience to obtain agreement on terms which will appeal to world opinion as reasonable and just.”

Fourth, battlefield negotiation seeks to transform conflict, that is, a temporary change in the situation on the ground in an ongoing war, not war termination. In international law, an armistice is a military agreement suspending active hostilities between the belligerents. It does not terminate the state of war existing between the belligerents, either de jure or de facto. The Korean Armistice Agreement states that it shall remain in effect until superseded by “an appropriate agreement for a peaceful settlement at a political level between both sides.” Nonetheless, an armistice is a war convention or agreement that has political significance.

Therefore, battlefield negotiation of an armistice is not solely a military matter despite what U.S. policymakers hoped to gain during the Korean War. Equally, it is more than an event recording the cessation of hostilities. It is also a product of the complex social phenomenon of warfare that documents and explains the politics of war (foreign policy of the warring parties in a limited war and their cultures and ideologies), a legal agreement between warring parties (international law and ethical responsibilities), and an artifact of military, cultural, international and intellectual activities. As political scientists James Foster and Garry Brewer note, the cessation of armed hostilities is a political choice.

Lastly, because of these weighty elements, battlefield negotiation entails a unique skill set of cognitive complexity, emotional intelligence, creative thinking, and cultural understanding as well as technical expertise. As one scholar points out, battlefield negotiation requires the actors to “consider and manage emotions, history and hatred.” It necessitates what Hill and Douds call strategic imagination: in war, conditions are complex and outcomes are not simply binary. It is, in sum, a skill set required of senior military leaders and their staffs acting as soldier-diplomats in today’s increasingly complicated operational environment.

The five points underscore that battlefield negotiation requires unique knowledge, skills, and analytical abilities practiced in a hostile environment with the potential for fostering conflict resolution, but possibly resulting in dire consequences if the negotiation collapses. The Korean War truce talks emphasize as well that these essential leader competencies are not ones that commanders alone need to acquire. U.S. Army, Air Force and Marine Corps colonels led staff negotiations for the UNC and settled disputes with their enemy counterparts regarding such crucial issues as the line of demarcation, the repatriation of prisoners and the functions of the Military Armistice Commission. As one expert noted, ultimately, military leaders “assume responsibility for defining military negotiation in a battlefield setting” as their mission and through their efforts achieve either success or failure.

Frank Jones is a Distinguished Fellow of the U.S. Army War College where he taught in the Department of National Security and Strategy. Previously, he had retired from the Office of the Secretary of Defense as a senior executive. He is the author or editor of three books and numerous articles on U.S. national security.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo Description: General Mark W. Clark, Far East commander at the signing of the Korean War Armistice, 27 July 1953.

Photo Credit: From the Larry L. Dylina Collection (COLL/675), Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections, Official USMC Photograph


  1. Q: Do we think that Putin might consider a Korean War-like settlement/outcome regarding Ukraine?

    A: I think not. This, because it is the successful market-democracy example of Ukraine — much like the successful market-democracy example of S. Korea — that threatens Putin (much like Kim Jong Un) most.

    (From this such perspective, “an armistice — a military agreement suspending active hostilities between the belligerents” — this does not prevent a successful market-democracy — in S. Korea and/or in Ukraine — from becoming manifest, and from continuing to threaten your authoritarian regimes.)

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