Why Is the U.S. Wary of a Declaration to End the Korean War?

President Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, in Singapore in June. The two sides have clashed over just what their agreement at the summit meeting means.

WASHINGTON — As a reward for its broader foray into diplomacy, North Korea wants a formal and official declared end to the decades-long Korean War that settled into an uneasy truce in 1953. South Korea wants this, too.

But the United States, which first sent military forces to the Korean Peninsula in 1950 and still keeps 28,500 troops there, is not ready to agree to a peace declaration.

No doubt the issue will be high on the agenda when the leaders of the two Koreas hold their third summit meeting next month, in Pyongyang. Both want the end of the war to be declared this year with the United States and, possibly, China. And North Korea insists on securing the declaration before moving forward with denuclearization.

But there is a range of reasons American officials have refused so far to embrace a formal peace declaration. The Trump administration wants North Korea to first halt its nuclear weapons program — a tough line that could create a divergence between the United States and South Korea, its ally.

In turn, analysts said, that gives an opening to North Korea — and maybe China and Russia — to exploit the gap between Washington and Seoul.

“You have South Korea moving so quickly on these projects to push for reconciliation with North Korea, and in Washington you have people pushing for denuclearization before anything else happens,” said Jean H. Lee, director of the Wilson Center’s center for Korean history and public policy. “They have very different end games and very different time frames. It’s very problematic.”

The Trump administration, like those of Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, is focused on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program above all else. That’s in large part because North Korea has been developing an intercontinental ballistic missile that would give Pyongyang the ability to strike the United States mainland with a nuclear warhead.

In a joint statement released after the Singapore summit meeting in June, the United States and North Korea said Pyongyang “commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

But the two sides didn’t agree on the definition of denuclearization.

For President Trump’s top foreign policy officials — Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, and John R. Bolton, the national security adviser — denuclearization means North Korea halting and dismantling its nuclear weapons program.

Mr. Bolton said last week that North Korea had not taken steps necessary for denuclearization, a process that American officials have said should include turning over a list of Pyongyang’s atomic weapons stockpiles, nuclear production facilities and missiles.

North Korea has notagreed to do so and, according to Mr. Pompeo, is still producing fissile material at plants. Separately, American intelligence officials have concluded that North Korea is continuing to make long-range missiles at a site north of Pyongyang, according to news reports.

South Korea wants the United States to give Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, something significant — ideally an end-of-war declaration — to build domestic political will for denuclearization.



It’s Been 65 Years. Why Hasn’t the Korean War Ended?

After six decades, the Korean War is technically still not over. Here’s what happened – and why it still matters.

1950: The Korean War begins. It’s technically never ended. Here’s why. First off, the war itself. It killed about 4 million people. On one side, there was South Korea, allied with U.N. forces led by the Americans. On the other side, there was North Korea, backed by the Soviet Union and China. They fought for three years, until — “A special building had been erected for the signing of the Korean armistice.” This was the signing of a cease-fire, and it did seem to offer some hope. “We have stopped the shooting. That means much to the fighting men and their families. And it will allow some of the grievous wounds of Korea to heal.” But a cease-fire is not a binding peace treaty. “It was all quiet on the Korean front the day after the signing of the armistice.” It only ended the fighting. It also set guidelines, like for the exchange of prisoners and where the army should withdraw to. “The open ground left between must become the demilitarized zone — or DMZ.” It also laid the groundwork for a permanent peace treaty. But here’s the catch. South Korea’s president was against the troops — “President Syngman Rhee is the man who threw a spanner into the works just as the armistice talks at Panmunjom seemed to have reached finality.” — and never let his country sign it. He wanted to keep fighting to unify the whole peninsula and punish the North. None of this boded well for the peace conference, which kicked off a year later. “Seeking solutions for Far Eastern problems. The free world and Communism are again locked in bitter argument.” One of those arguments was over whether foreign allies, like the U.S. and China, could keep troops on the peninsula. And another was how to unify the two countries through elections. Even allies couldn’t agree amongst themselves. So the talks went nowhere. Sixty-five years later, there’s now talk of hashing out a formal ending to the Korean War. And that could set the stage for a broader peace on the Korean peninsula.

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After six decades, the Korean War is technically still not over. Here’s what happened – and why it still matters.CreditCredit...Fox Photos – Getty Images

South Korean officials also have noted that North Korea is focused on the order of points made in the joint statement from Singapore. The commitment to denuclearization was third, while the first and second points called on the United States and North Korea to establish new relations and to build “a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.”

For the North Koreans, that means prioritizing an end-of-war declaration and peace treaty, analysts said.

Joseph Y. Yun, the former senior diplomat on North Korea at the State Department, said in an interview that Washington and Pyongyang could try for a “declaration-for-declaration” agreement: North Korea would declare its nuclear assets in exchange for the United States’ supporting a declaration to end the Korean War.

For the declaration, the two Korean governments are working on a year’s end deadline at the latest, but ideally by the Sept. 18 start of the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. It is widely believed that United Nations officials might invite Mr. Kim to attend the assembly and deliver a speech.

“The best-case scenario is that Kim Jong-un visits the United Nations with a peace declaration in hand,” said John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul who writes on the Korean conflict and Chinese history.

The Koreas had originally considered putting together an end-of-war declaration in July, but that did not happen.

Given their skepticism over North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization, American officials said the timeline was much too fast.

As always, the wild card is Mr. Trump. He insisted that the Singapore summit meeting be held in June, even though American officials wanted more time to prepare.

Mr. Trump might aim for a similar foreign policy extravaganza in the fall, timed to the United Nations assembly and before the crucial November midterm elections in the United States.

Although a peace declaration is not the same as a binding peace treaty, it would start the process for one. That would mean talking about how many American troops are needed in South Korea. Before the Singapore meeting, Mr. Trump ordered the Pentagon to prepare options for drawing down the troops there now.

For some American officials, the troop presence in South Korea is not just a deterrent toward North Korea. It also helps the United States maintain a military footprint in Asia and a grand strategy of American hegemony.

China has already begun challenging the United States’ military presence in Asia, which will only be reinforced as China becomes the world’s biggest economy and modernizes its military.

The officials also worry that President Moon Jae-in of South Korea might try to push for a lesser American military presence, or a weakening of the alliance, after an end-of-war declaration.

“For the United States, an end-of-war declaration or a peace declaration or a peace treaty has always had a broader context,” Mr. Yun said.

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