What A U.S.-North Korea Peace Declaration Could Mean For Key Countries

February 27, 2019
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by Priyanka Boghani Digital Reporter & Producer

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with U.S. President Donald Trump during their summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island on June 12, 2018 in Singapore. (Kevin Lim/The Strait Times/Handout/Getty Images)

As U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, meet in Hanoi, Vietnam, this week, their two countries are still technically at war.

Although Trump’s long-standing promise to denuclearize North Korea was a popular talking point ahead of their second summit, another potential outcome was raised: a peace declaration that would formally end the Korean War.

Earlier this week, South Korean officials indicated there was “ample possibility” that the U.S. and North Korea would agree to a joint political statement declaring an end to the war, which lasted from 1950 to 1953.

The conflict came to a halt with an armistice agreement, but a peace treaty never followed.

An end-of-war declaration also wouldn’t be a peace treaty, which would require much more complex negotiation. But the possibility of such a statement marks significant progress from 2017, when North Korea carried out a series of weapons tests — which included intercontinental ballistic missiles that it said could reach the U.S. — and the two leaders engaged in a war of words, sparking fears that the heated rhetoric would spill over into military confrontation.

As the two leaders meet for a high-stakes summit, we spoke to experts about what a declaration ending the war would mean for the U.S., North Korea, and other regional players impacted by tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea

North Korea has long sought reassurance from the United States that it does not have hostile intent toward the North. Some experts view an end-of-war declaration as a symbolic way to offer that, while also making a move toward an eventual peace treaty.

“It’s certainly obvious that the war is over,” Joel Wit, an expert at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute, said. Wit, who took part in negotiations with the North during the Clinton administration, said a peace declaration should have happened “a while ago.”

But some experts caution that a joint agreement, if it’s not done the right way, could have implications for denuclearization negotiations and broader U.S. policy in the region.

Victor Cha, Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was involved in the six-party talks on the North’s nuclear program during the Bush administration. He said that North Korea would interpret a peace declaration while the country possesses nuclear weapons as “de facto acceptance of them as a nuclear weapons state.” “This is certainly the way they’ll spin it at home,” he said.

There are also concerns about North Korea using a peace declaration to raise questions about America’s role in the Korean Peninsula and its policy with regard to the North.

For example, the North could use such a declaration to object to criticisms of its dismal human rights record, noted Jung H. Pak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies. “If we start talking about human rights or we start talking about military exercises, they can say, ‘I thought we had an end-of-war declaration. Why are you being so hostile and war-like?’”

United States

Although President Trump tempered expectations on the denuclearization front ahead the Hanoi summit, saying he was “in no particular rush,” he’s highlighted his “historic push for peace” in recent weeks. “President Trump is ready to end this war,” Stephen Biegun, U.S. special representative to North Korea, said last month. “It is over. It is done.”

A declaration “would reinforce President Trump’s narrative that he has brought peace to the Korean Peninsula,” Pak said. It could also bolster the United States’ stance that we are serious about denuclearization negotiations, putting the onus on the North Koreans to prove their commitment, she said. A declaration would also give America’s ally, South Korea, what it wants (more on that later).

Cha noted that headlines about a peace declaration could also offer a respite during a rough week for the president, whose former lawyer is back home testifying before Congress.

A peace declaration is not expected to alter the military situation in the Korean Peninsula, which was established by the 1953 armistice agreement. However, many experts and American lawmakers have raised the possibility that North Korea could use a formal end to the war to question the presence of 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea.

A bipartisan bill introduced in the House last month would limit the Pentagon from using funds to reduce troop levels in South Korea below 22,000 unless the defense secretary could certify that such a reduction would be in America’s national interest and would not undermine the security of U.S. allies. Rep. Mike Gallagher, a co-sponsor of the bill, wrote it was meant to “protect and reinforce” the U.S.-South Korea alliance and ensure a “robust military presence” on the Korean Peninsula.

Wit, meanwhile, said such fears of a “slippery slope” leading to U.S. troops leaving South Korea are overblown, and the declaration is just the first step in a long negotiation.

South Korea

The current South Korean administration, led by President Moon Jae-in, has been supportive of a peace declaration between the U.S. and the North as an incentive for North Korea to denuclearize . After a summit with the North Korean leader last September, Moon said Kim wanted to secure an end-of-war declaration before moving toward denuclearization, according to The New York Times.

Moon also said at the time that the declaration would not change the status of American troops in his country or affect the U.S.-South Korea alliance. While Moon’s progressive government has supported improving relations with the North, conservative politicians in the country have been more skeptical of his approach.

“You’d have very split views in [South Korea]. The progressives would see it as an important step in inter-Korean reconciliation and hopefully getting to some form of denuclearization,” Cha said. Conservatives, on the other hand, “would say that the North Koreans have not demonstrated anything with regard to peaceful intent.”

China

Experts said one of China’s priorities with regard to North Korea is ensuring stability. Chinese leaders would seek to avoid situations that could destabilize Kim’s regime and trigger a refugee crisis that could spill over into their country.

China would take “a peace declaration as a sign that the U.S. and North Korea are still getting along, and that it bodes well for peninsular stability, which is Beijing’s primary concern,” Pak said.

It’s unclear whether China would play a role in a peace declaration, but — as North Korea’s ally during the Korean War — it would likely be involved in the process of working out a peace treaty.

Japan

Japan views North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles as a threat to its national security. Foreign Affairs magazine noted that five out of 11 North Korean missiles launched in 2017 fell within 200 nautical miles of Japan’s islands.

Trump spoke to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the week before the Hanoi summit, and according to the White House they reaffirmed their commitment to a final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea.

Still, experts said that Japan fears that it will be sidelined in any agreements between the U.S. and North Korea, or that its security concerns about the North — like short-range missiles that could hit Japan — will be left unaddressed.

Cha said the Japanese government would try to put the “best face possible” on the summit and avoid being openly negative about it.

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