U.S. President Donald Trump spoke of “a bold and new push for peace” with nuclear-armed North Korea during his speech before the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, in a hint at the direction his administration is heading as he gears up for a second summit with Kim Jong Un.
“With support from many countries here today, we have engaged with North Korea to replace the specter of conflict with a bold and new push for peace,” Trump told the body, citing his June meeting in Singapore with the North Korean leader and “a number of encouraging measures” that have emerged — actions that he claimed “few could have imagined only a short time ago.”
Trump thanked Kim for his “courage” in taking these steps, but said “much work remains to be done” and maintained that U.S. and international sanctions would remain in place “until denuclearization occurs.”
Talks on the matter between the United States and North Korea have stalled, reportedly over which side takes the next step in the negotiations. At last week’s inter-Korean summit, the North Korean leader served up a flurry of proposals, steps toward denuclearization that Pyongyang said were contingent on “corresponding measures” by the U.S.
But in the absence of sanctions relief, one option for the U.S. could be a political declaration that ends the Korean War, a move that would be a step ahead of a formal peace treaty. Fighting in the 1950-53 war was halted by an armistice, which has governed the conflict ever since.
Kim committed to “work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” in exchange for security guarantees and moves toward normalization of relations with the U.S. at his historic summit with Trump, and an end-of-war declaration could provide some measure of assurance to the regime in Pyongyang.
The North has in recent weeks urged the U.S. to issue such a declaration, calling one “a prerequisite for peace.”
Observers say Kim is likely to demand such a declaration at his second meeting with Trump.
Both Koreas have played up the idea in recent months, with South Korean President Moon Jae-in insisting that it would encourage the North to move further down the path toward complete denuclearization.
“The declaration of an end to the war that the South and the North are seeking is a process we must undergo to move toward a peace regime. It is also needed to accelerate North Korea’s denuclearization steps,” Moon was quoted as saying Tuesday during a special lecture in New York for members of three U.S. think tanks.
Moon has previously said his administration aims to declare an end to the Korean War this year, a statement in line with April’s landmark Panmunjom Declaration.
Frank Aum, a former senior Pentagon adviser on North Korea now with the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, said a year-end timeline for an announcement would not be unthinkable.
“I would put the odds of an end of war declaration happening before the end of the year at above 50 percent,” Aum said. “South Korea wants it. North Korea wants it. China wants it. And I think President Trump wants it. But both sides need to start making concessions for this to happen.”
On Tuesday, Moon dismissed concerns that any such move would weaken the South Korea-U.S. alliance and eliminate a key reason for keeping tens of thousands of U.S. troops on the peninsula.
“The deployment of U.S. Forces Korea is only an issue that will be decided by the South Korea-U.S. alliance, regardless of a formal end to the Korean War or a peace treaty,” Moon said.
In attempting to bat away concerns about the ramifications of announcing a formal end to the war, the South Korean leader has also said that doing so would merely be a symbolic political declaration that could be retracted should the North renege on its promises.
But a peace treaty, he added, can be signed only after Pyongyang completely denuclearizes.
Critics have taken South Korean officials such as Moon to task for downplaying their concerns over the consequences of a declaration, noting that advocates have yet to identify any tangible benefits to such a move.
Citing past nonhostility declarations and promises not to attack North Korea with either conventional or nuclear weapons, Bruce Klingner, a Korea analyst and former CIA officer, wrote in a recent report posted to the website of the Heritage Foundation think tank that these documents ultimately “had no impact on North Korea’s continued production of nuclear weapons.”
“Why would this piece of paper be expected to have greater impact than those previously provided pledges?” he wrote in reference to a war-ending declaration.
Such a move could also have “serious negative consequences for alliance security,” wrote Klingner. “Even a limited declaration can create a domino-effect advocacy for prematurely signing a peace treaty, reducing U.S. deterrence and defense capabilities, and abrogating the mutual defense treaty before reducing the North Korean threat that necessitated American involvement.”
For Japan, the repercussions could even possibly mean the removal of the U.S. nuclear security umbrella.
With Trump alluding Monday to a second meeting with Kim before the end of the year, all eyes will be on what happens at that summit.
One that discusses an end of war declaration will, however, face its share of obstacles, especially from harder-line officials in the Trump administration who have repeatedly said that the North must provide a complete inventory of is weapons programs and take irreversible steps to give up its nuclear arsenal before any further steps by the U.S. side.
“Given North Korea’s — and South Korea’s — emphasis on the importance of this declaration, it seems unlikely that there would be a second Trump-Kim summit if the U.S. wasn’t willing to do this,” said Jenny Town, a Korea specialist at the Stimson Center in Washington.
“However, the administration seems insistent on making it conditional on some concrete denuclearization step,” Town added. “So it does raise questions of whether Trump can convince his administration to move on this unconditionally, or if Kim is willing to make some kind of concession — perhaps not an inventory declaration, but something — to give it the final push.”
It remains unclear if the North would be willing to provide this extra nudge, especially considering reports that Trump had promised Kim in June that he would sign a declaration to end the war soon after their meeting.
“If the reports that Trump … are true, Trump’s credibility as a negotiating partner is somewhat on the line,” said Town. “I would suspect if they have another summit and can’t agree to terms and timing for an end of war declaration, it will likely be the last time the two meet and it’s hard to say where the negotiations go from there.”