What It Would Mean For U.S.-South Korea Relations If The Korean War Ends

Jun 5, 2018
Originally published on June 5, 2018 5:25 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As President Trump prepares to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump is imagining a day when there might be peace on the Korean Peninsula.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Can you believe that we're talking about the ending of the Korean War? You're talking about 70 years.

SHAPIRO: Experts warn that if the U.S. tries to move toward a Korean peace treaty before North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons, there could be drawbacks. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The Trump administration is trying to convince North Korea that it is safer without nuclear weapons. A former U.S. envoy, Joseph Yun, says it will be a hard sell, one that will likely require some diplomatic recognition, sanctions relief and security guarantees.

JOSEPH YUN: Typically security guarantees starts with what we call negative assurance, which is we will not be the first one to attack. I don't know in this case whether that's enough. And then of course it can go on. Our allies will not attack you either.

KELEMEN: Yun, now with the U.S. Institute of Peace, says even that probably won't be enough.

YUN: I believe in this particular instance it would require what we call end-of-war declaration, that the Korean War - which, you know, technically ended with an armistice in 1953 - it's over.

KELEMEN: Negotiating a treaty to replace the armistice would take time. The U.S. and China would have to be involved. But something short of that, a peace declaration, probably appeals to Trump, says Daniel Russel, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asia now with the Asia Society.

DANIEL RUSSEL: Who's not for peace? It sounds great.

KELEMEN: But that doesn't resolve the most urgent problem on the peninsula - North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programs.

RUSSEL: So merely to issue some grand declaration about peace, while it may be a feel-good exercise, does nothing to advance or enhance the safety and security of America, of the Republic of Korea, of Japan and so on.

KELEMEN: In fact, Russel says, it plays right into the hands of the North Korean argument that the U.S. doesn't need a big military force in South Korea.

RUSSEL: It shifts the ground of the discussion to terms that are much more in line with North Korea's objectives and its strategy, and frankly don't address the real threat to our national security.

KELEMEN: And Russel isn't alone in his concerns about that. A former Bush administration official, Victor Cha, says President Trump is too transactional when it comes to alliances, even raising concerns about the price tag of the U.S. troops in South Korea.

VICTOR CHA: And he may actually see a twofer on the Korean Peninsula where he can shed the cost of maintaining U.S. forces in Korea by putting them on the table as a bargaining chip in return for North Korea's denuclearization.

KELEMEN: Cha is skeptical that North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons anytime soon, and talking about a peace treaty and the status of U.S. forces in the region too soon doesn't help.

CHA: If you sign a peace treaty with them while they keep their nuclear weapons, there's very little chance that they're going to give them all away at that point.

KELEMEN: So Cha, who teaches at Georgetown University, is cautioning Trump not to put too much on the table too soon.

CHA: I think it's largely because Trump wants the meeting so badly. And he is really taken by the idea of winning a Nobel Peace Prize by ending the conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

KELEMEN: And he says if the U.S. decides to go for some sort of peace declaration, it should get one thing from North Korea - a full declaration of the country's nuclear program. That's something North Korea has resisted in the past. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.