In a potential sign that the U.S. is preparing to reach a deal in Hanoi with North Korea that could include a so-called end-of-war declaration and the opening of liaison offices in both countries, a top State Department lawyer who has handled key issues in East Asia is taking part in negotiations, sources confirmed to The Japan Times on Wednesday.
Robert Harris, an assistant legal adviser for East Asia and Pacific Affairs with the State Department, is involved in the nuclear talks with top North Korean officials, two informed sources said on condition of anonymity.
Harris did not immediately respond to an email for comment.
Harris’ presence at the talks comes as U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un were scheduled to have a one-on-one sit-down followed by a “social dinner” on Wednesday, the first day of their two-day summit in the Vietnamese capital, the White House said. On Thursday, the two leaders are expected to engage in full-scale negotiations at Hanoi’s Metropole Hotel, where they could issue a joint statement summarizing the results of the talks, if a deal is reached.
There has been growing speculation that the two sides could agree on an exchange of liaison offices, diplomatic posts that are more limited than embassies, but which would mark a step toward more normalized ties, as well as a declaration ending the 1950-53 Korean War, which was temporarily halted with the signing of an armistice agreement.
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.
On Monday, South Korea’s presidential Blue House further fueled speculation about a peace declaration, calling it a “possibility.” And Tuesday, news website Vox, citing three people familiar with the negotiations, reported that a peace declaration and the establishment of liaison offices were part of a tentative agreement. The Japan Times could not independently confirm that report.
North Korean officials have in the past reportedly told senior U.S. officials that they see a liaison office as a security assurance of sorts, in that such an office in Pyongyang would make an American surprise attack significantly less likely since U.S. diplomatic personnel would be on the ground.
Whatever the case, the declaration, as well as the creation of liaison offices, would still require a keen legal eye to comb over the intricacies of any agreement.
One of the sources called Harris’ participation in the talks “a good sign that the declaration was at least a serious possibility, since there are major legal ramifications.” That source also noted that it “could also well apply to liaison offices or other issues.”
Still, both sources noted that there are a number of reasons for lawyers to be present for high-level negotiations, and even working-level talks, depending on the issue.
“All I can really say for certain is that this U.S. negotiating team appears prepared for the possibility of a serious, detailed deal,” one of the sources said.
Jean Lee, a Korea expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, called the revelation “intriguing” and “yet another indication that discussion about an end-of-war declaration is on the agenda.”
Lee, who as the former chief of the Associated Press’ bureau in Pyongyang was one of the few Western journalists to work in North Korea on a consistent basis, said a declaration was something Kim desperately wanted at the last summit in Singapore — but didn’t get.
She said he had likely assigned his right-hand man, Kim Yong Chol, the North’s former spy chief, “to make sure it was on the agenda this time around.”
Lee noted that although a declaration would not amount to a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War, since all signatories, including China and the United Nations, as well as South Korea, would need to be involved, the move would be a boon for both Kim and Trump.
“A political ‘peace’ declaration between the United States and North Korea would be something both Kim and Trump could claim as a victory,” Lee said. “For Kim, it may also allow him to turn the focus of North Korean ideology away from war and toward rebuilding the economy.”
Experts say Kim is likely to be looking to offer just enough concrete moves toward dismantling his nuclear program against a larger backdrop of peace to entice the United States to support an easing of crushing U.N. sanctions, something Pyongyang has repeatedly demanded.
But Lee said there are risks in pursuing such an approach, including for the U.S. military presence in South Korea and Japan.
“If Kim and Trump declare an end to the war, North Korea will likely pressure the United States to pull back militarily,” she said. “And if the United States refuses, North Korea could use that as a reason to withdraw from its commitments on denuclearization.”