Asia Pacific / Politics

Seoul says U.S. and North Korea could reach deal on end-of-war declaration

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The United States and North Korea could reach a deal on declaring an end to the 1950-53 Korean War at a summit meeting this week between their two leaders, South Korea’s presidential Blue House said Monday.

“I believe the possibility is open,” South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted Blue House spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom as saying. “There is no way of knowing what kind of a declaration it might be, but I believe the United States and North Korea may reach an agreement on the declaration of war’s end at any degree.”

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are scheduled to hold their second summit on Wednesday and Thursday in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi. The two leaders met in Singapore last June — the first time a sitting U.S. president met with a North Korean leader.

Unlike a formal peace treaty, an end-of-war declaration is a legally nonbinding document and would represent a symbolic end to the Korean War, which was halted only with an armistice.

Asked about the possibility of such a declaration in an interview Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was mum, but he noted that the two sides have “talked about a lot of things” in ongoing negotiations.

Pompeo said earlier this month that the two sides have “had a lot of talks about” a peace declaration and security mechanisms, and that he expected those conversations would continue in this week’s talks between Kim and Trump in Hanoi.

Observers say that a declaration, perhaps as part of a package of inducements and concessions from both sides, could give negotiators fresh momentum and a new avenue to pursue peace and, ultimately, denuclearization on the peninsula.

The two sides appeared to have made headway in negotiations ahead of the summit, Yonhap reported later Monday, quoting an unidentified source with knowledge of the pre-summit talks as saying that negotiators were “engaged in far more serious discussions than (those prior to) the first summit held in Singapore last year” and that “differences are being narrowed.”

It is not clear what the North could offer in exchange in any deal with the U.S., but it has put inspections at its main Nyongbyon nuclear facility on the table in the past. Other concessions could include a formal halt to missile and nuclear tests, as well as an end to the production of fissile material and nuclear delivery vehicles.

Any decision to scrap only its intercontinental ballistic missiles — even as an initial step — is likely to fuel apprehension in Tokyo and Seoul, which would still be within range of the North’s shorter-range weapons.

David Kim, a former State Department nonproliferation and East Asia desk official, said that what Pyongyang offers in exchange for an end-of-war declaration will be dependent on what it considers “reasonable concessions.”

“But a verification mechanism — either through the International Atomic Energy Agency, Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty or another multilateral coalition — will be key.”

Pyongyang has also repeatedly said that crushing sanctions placed on it over its nuclear weapons program must be relieved. While this could be one concession from the U.S. side, it was unclear where Trump stood on the issue.

The U.S. president told state governors meeting at the White House on Sunday that he is “not pushing for speed, but we’re not removing the sanctions.”

But Pompeo alluded to the possibility of relaxing at least some of the measures in an interview earlier in the day.

Asked on CNN’s “State of the Union” if the Trump administration changed the conditions for sanctions relief from the North’s “complete denuclearization” to a “substantial reduction of risk,” Pompeo said there would be “no change” in “the core economic sanctions” — a reference to U.N. Security Council resolution sanctions.

“The sanctions that prevent countries from conducting trade, creating wealth for North Korea, those sanctions are definitely going to remain in place,” he said.

However, the top U.S. diplomat also noted that “there are other things we could do — exchanges of people, lots of other ways that North Korea is sanctioned today that if we get a substantial step and move forward we could certainly provide an outlet which would demonstrate our commitment to the process as well.”

Any relaxation in sanctions outside of the “core” measures could include allowing inter-Korean projects to go ahead.

North Korea’s Kim said in January that his country is “ready to re-open Kaesong industrial park and tours to Mount Kumgang without any preconditions or price.”

Beyond possible concessions, Trump has also touted his personal relationship with the young North Korean leader as key to securing a deal, saying ahead of his departure for Hanoi on Monday, that he believed he saw eye to eye with Kim and that they had developed “a very, very good relationship.”

“I’m not in a rush. I don’t want to rush anybody,” Trump said, according to pool reports.

“I just don’t want testing. As long as there’s no testing, we’re happy.”

The North’s last nuclear test, in September 2017, was also its sixth and largest. Its last ballistic missile test was in November of that year, when it tested a long-range missile that experts say is capable of striking much, if not all, of the continental United States.

Some experts said these comments effectively revealed the U.S. hand in negotiations, and could deplete the limited leverage American negotiators still have.

“Today, the president dropped his demand that North Korea disarm. His staffers will try to pick it back up, and he may too, but it will never be wholly credible again,” Adam Mount, a defense analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, wrote Monday on Twitter.

So far, few details of the Kim-Trump meeting have been announced. But Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry said Monday that Trump is scheduled to land at Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday on the eve of the talks. The following day, he plans to have back-to-back meetings with Vietnamese Communist Party General-Secretary and President Nguyen Phu Trong and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc starting at 11 a.m., it added.

This suggested that Trump would begin talks with Kim in the afternoon, with the North Korean leader expected to reach Vietnam by train Tuesday morning.

Kim’s trip was announced early Sunday, when North Korean state media confirmed he had left Pyongyang by train, accompanied by top officials including his influential sister, Kim Yo Jong.

Kim’s train passed through the central Chinese city of Wuhan at around 7 a.m., Yonhap reported. Kim is also scheduled to meet with Vietnamese officials ahead of his summit with Trump.