As President Trump weighs options for a second meeting between himself and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, public discussion increasingly has taken up this question: Should the United States declare a formal end to the Korean War as a new catalyst for diplomatic efforts to reduce risks of a nuclear confrontation? Two USIP analysts of U.S.-Korea relations say such a declaration would offer advantages if U.S.-South Korean defense cooperation is not compromised.

President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, North Korea's leader, shake hands during a document signing ceremony on Sentosa Island in Singapore, June 12, 2018.
President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un North Korea's leader, shake hands during a document signing ceremony on Sentosa Island in Singapore, June 12, 2018. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Four months after Trump and Kim met in Singapore, the president says he is considering a new summit after the November U.S. election. And South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, is urging the United States to have something to offer Kim in response to what Moon says is Kim’s “strategic decision” to abandon nuclear weapons. Moon emphasized the point in an interview published yesterday in the French daily Le Figaro.

North Korea has shown that “they’re looking for some measures on the whole idea of a path toward a peace treaty, peace mechanism, peace regime, whatever you want to call it,” said Ambassador Joseph Yun, who until March was the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy. “So they will see the end-of-war declaration as the first step that will lead to that,” Yun said at USIP in a September 21 conversation with journalists.

‘A Rather Simple Document’

Fighting in the Korean War—between North Korea, supported by China, and South Korea, supported by the United States and United Nations—ended with a July 1953 armistice. A formal U.S. declaration that the war is ended would be “essentially … a political declaration,” said Yun, now a senior advisor at USIP. “I would imagine it would be a rather simple document” that would affirm that hostilities are ended and “also presumably say that … we will negotiate a peace treaty thereafter.”

An end-of-war declaration would state that “the existing ceasefire arrangement that was provided by the armistice agreement in 1953 will remain valid until there is a peace treaty,” Yun said. “I would imagine a likely fourth aspect will be that a peace treaty will also be accompanied by denuclearization—that everyone agrees [to] denuclearize the … Korean Peninsula.”

“Typically, when people talk about an end-of-war declaration, it contains those four elements,” he said.

The Concern: U.S.-South Korean Alliance

Among U.S. officials, “there is the concern that if you declare an end of the Korean War even as just a political statement, that removes the rationale for the U.S. defense posture in South Korea, and maybe even including the U.S.-South Korean alliance,” said Frank Aum, a former Defense Department advisor on Korea now at the Institute. Both the North Korean and South Korean governments have offered some reassurances “that an end-of-war declaration would not mean that U.S. troops have to be withdrawn from the peninsula,” Aum said in the press briefing.

U.S. officials want to ensure clarity on this issue, said Yun. “You have to think carefully. … Does it mean permanently giving up joint military exercises” between U.S. and South Korean forces? he asked. “Will it lead to some kind of degradation of the alliance commitments? Does it mean that U.S. forces might have to be pulled back? … We don’t know. To me, these are the things people want to study.”

I’m personally supportive of doing that [issuing an end-of-war statement] provided that these points are made clear,” Yun said.

Testing Kim Jong-un

Aum fleshed out that argument in a recent article for CNN. “An end-of-war declaration would provide a low-cost way of testing the hypothesis that Kim will denuclearize if he can be assured of a better relationship with the United States,” Aum wrote in the essay, co-authored with Washington attorney and Korea analyst S. Nathan Park. While North Korea may never give up its nuclear weapons, he at least committed, in meeting President Trump in June, “to going down the denuclearization path, as he shifts his focus to improving his country's economy and welfare. An end-of-war declaration would encourage Kim to stay on this path,” Aum and Park wrote.

A formal declaration would cost the United States little, simply acknowledging the reality that the war has been over for decades, Aum and Park argued. But it would offer Kim better leverage domestically if he really intends to press skeptics in North Korea’s security apparatus for compromise with the United States.

Current diplomacy represents “the best opportunity for peace and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula in decades,” Aum and Park wrote. “We should not let bureaucratic inertia and the fear of a potential disruption to our status quo defense posture in the region constrain our ability to achieve even greater security by building a new peace paradigm on the Korean Peninsula.”

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