TOKYO — With their second summit fast approaching, speculation is growing that U.S. President Donald Trump may try to persuade North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to commit to denuclearization by giving him something he wants more than almost anything else: an announcement of peace and an end to the Korean War.
Such an announcement could make history. It would be right in line with Trump's opposition to “forever wars.” And, coming more than six decades after the fighting essentially ended, it just seems like common sense.
But, if not done carefully, it could open up a whole new set of problems for Washington.
Here's why switching the focus of the ongoing talks between Pyongyang and Washington from denuclearization to peace would be a risky move — and why it might be exactly what Kim wants when the two leaders meet in Hanoi on Feb. 27-28.
The Korean Peninsula was divided at the 38th parallel after World War II, with the U.S. claiming a zone of influence in the south and the Soviet Union in the north. Within five years, the two Koreas were at war.
Though the shooting stopped in 1953, the conflict ended with an armistice, essentially a cease-fire signed by North Korea, China and the 17-nation, U.S.-led United Nations Command that was supposed to be replaced by a formal peace treaty. But both sides instead settled ever deeper into Cold War hostilities marked by occasional outbreaks of violence.
The conflict in Korea is technically America's longest war.
North Korea, which saw all of its major cities and most of its infrastructure destroyed by U.S. bombers during the war, blames what it sees as Washington's unrelenting hostility over the past 70 years as ample justification for its nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. It claims they are purely for self-defense.
The U.S., on the other hand, maintains a heavy military presence in South Korea to counter what it says is the North's intention to invade and assimilate the South. It has also implemented a long-standing policy of ostracizing the North and backing economic sanctions.
Trump escalated the effort to squeeze the North with a “maximum pressure” strategy that remains in force.
A combination of that strategy and the North's repeated tests of missiles believed capable of delivering its nuclear weapons to the U.S. mainland are what brought the two countries to the negotiating table.
Why Kim wants a treaty
Getting a formal peace treaty has been high on the wish list of every North Korean leader, starting with Kim Jong Un's grandfather, Kim Il Sung.
A peace treaty would bring international recognition, probably at least some easing of trade sanctions, and a likely reduction in the number of U.S. troops south of the Demilitarized Zone.
If done right, it would be a huge boost to Kim's reputation at home and abroad. And, of course, to the cause of peace on the Korean Peninsula at a time when Pyongyang says it is trying to shift scarce resources away from defense so that it can boost its standard of living and modernize its economy with a greater emphasis on science and technology.
Washington has a lot to gain, too.
Trump has said he would welcome a North Korea that is more focused on trade and economic growth. Stability on the peninsula is good for South Korea's economy and probably for Japan's as well.
Though Trump hasn't stressed human rights, eased tensions could create the space needed for the North to loosen its controls over political and individual freedoms.
But it's naive to expect North Korea to suddenly change its ways.
According to a recent estimate, it has over the past year continued to expand its nuclear stockpile. And even as it has stepped up its diplomatic overtures to the outside world, Pyongyang has doubled down internally on demanding loyalty to its totalitarian system.
Peace or appeasement?
After his first summit with Kim, in Singapore last June, Trump declared the nuclear threat was over.
He isn't saying that anymore.
Trump made no mention of the word “denuclearization” during his State of the Union address. Instead, he called his effort a “historic push for peace on the Korean Peninsula” and stressed that Kim hasn't conducted any recent nuclear or missile tests and has released Americans who had been jailed in the North and returned the remains of dozens of Americans killed in the war.
Kim, meanwhile, has good reason to want to turn his summits with Trump into “peace talks.”
The biggest win for the North would be to get a peace declaration while quietly abandoning denuclearization altogether, or by agreeing to production caps or other measures that would limit, but not eliminate, its nuclear arsenal. Simply having a summit without a clear commitment to denuclearization goes a long way toward establishing him as the leader of a de facto nuclear state.
Unless Washington is willing to accept him as such, that will only make future talks all the more difficult.
The U.S. has, however, continued to take a hard line in lower-level negotiations leading up to the summit.
Stephen Biegun, Trump's new point man on North Korea, stressed in a recent speech that as a prerequisite for peace, Washington wants a “complete understanding of the full extent of the North Korean weapons of mass destruction missile programs,” expert access and monitoring of key sites and, ultimately, “the removal and destruction of stockpiles of fissile material, weapons, missiles, launchers, and other weapons of mass destruction.”
The question is whether Trump will similarly challenge Kim or choose an easier and splashier — but less substantive — declaration of peace.
Talk vs. treaty
If he chose to do so, Trump could unilaterally announce the end of the Korean War.
It would be great TV. But it wouldn't necessarily mean all that much.
Trump can't by himself conclude an actual peace treaty. China, and possibly a representative of the U.N. Command, would have to be involved. South Korea would naturally want to be at the table. The U.S. Senate would have to ratify whatever they came up with.
Back in 1993, the administration of President Bill Clinton reached a familiar-sounding agreement with Pyongyang “to achieve peace and security on a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.”
The next year the two sides vowed to reduce barriers to trade and investment, open a liaison office in the other's capital and make progress toward upgrading bilateral relations to the ambassadorial level. In 2000, Clinton and Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, added a promise “of respect for each other's sovereignty and non-interference in each other's internal affairs.”
But by 2002, George W. Bush was back to calling the North part of an “axis of evil.” In 2006, North Korea tested its first nuclear device.
The lesson? Whatever grand proclamations are made, establishing real peace will go well beyond just another Trump and Kim summit.
But it could be a start.
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