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North and South Korea Push to End Korean War, but U.S. Remains Wary

SEOUL, South Korea — When President Moon Jae-in of South Korea sits down Tuesday with Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, for their third summit meeting, they will share a common goal: fashioning a political statement this year declaring the end of the Korean War.

Such a declaration, although not a legally binding treaty, could carry far-reaching repercussions, helping North Korea escalate its campaign for the withdrawal of American troops from the South, analysts said. For that and other reasons, the United States has strong reservations about such a breakthrough.

The 1950-53 war has never been formally ended with a peace treaty. Instead, it was halted with a truce after three years of combat between American-led United Nations forces defending the South and the Communist troops of North Korea and China. That leaves the divided Korean Peninsula still technically at war, although fighting ended 65 years ago.

For decades, North Korea has made a peace treaty a central demand in its negotiations with Washington over ending its nuclear weapons program. When he met Mr. Kim in April for their first summit meeting, Mr. Moon agreed to push for the United States, and perhaps China too, to join the two Koreas in a joint end-of-the-war declaration this year, as a confidence-building prelude to negotiating a formal peace treaty.

“It will be a political statement expressing a common will to end hostile relations and peacefully coexist,” Mr. Moon said in July.

Mr. Moon’s government says that such a declaration will encourage North Korea to denuclearize by lessening its fear of the American intentions. Mr. Kim, for his part, said he was willing to denuclearize during President Trump’s first term — but only if Washington takes “simultaneous” reciprocal actions, starting with an end-of-war declaration, according to South Korean envoys who met recently with Mr. Kim.

But Washington insists that North Korea has often cheated in past negotiations, and first wants the North to take more concrete steps toward denuclearization — such as submitting a full list of its nuclear weapons and fissile materials for verification — before being rewarded. .

When Mr. Moon begins his three-day visit to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, on Tuesday, one of his primary aims is to help narrow the differences between Washington and Pyongyang.

Mr. Moon says he has been asked by both sides to work as a “chief negotiator.” If he can successfully break the stalemate by mediating a give-and-take exchange between the United States and North Korea, it could lead to a second summit between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim. But if Mr. Moon fails, it could again escalate tensions on the peninsula, analysts say.

But critics warned that by pushing for an end to the war in haste, Mr. Moon risked opening a “Pandora’s box.”

Kim Sung-han, a former vice foreign minister of South Korea who teaches at Korea University in Seoul, the South’s capital, said that if the United States merely gets North Korea to freeze its nuclear program in return for an end-of-war declaration, it will have given up too much.

“That will lead to North Korea escalating its campaign to disband the United Nations Command and undermine the South Korea-U.S. alliance, instead of focusing on denuclearization,” he said. “We will end up in a situation where the tail wags the dog.”

The American-led United Nations Command, created to fight the Korean War, has remained in South Korea overseeing the armistice that halted the war in 1953. Should war erupt again, it will automatically take the lead in fighting against North Korea, mobilizing 28,500 American troops based in South Korea and reinforcements from American military bases in Japan and elsewhere.

For the South Korean and American allies, the command remains their bulwark against North Korean threats. Over the years, the North has tirelessly called for dismantling the command, calling it the symbol of American zeal to restart the war.

Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, head of the United Nations Command and American Forces in South Korea, has said that the allies must sort out with North Korea what an end-of-the-war declaration “means” and “what it doesn’t mean.”

If the leaders of the United States and the two Koreas declare an end to the war, the United Nations Command will lose its “political” reason to exist, Suh Jae-jung, a Korea expert at the International Christian University in Japan, said during a forum in Seoul last week. But it would still keeps its “legal” rationale for existence until a formal peace treaty is signed.

South Korean officials say the United Nations Command will remain in force until such a peace treaty is signed, and that its military alliance with the United States will remain intact regardless of North Korea’s denuclearization.

When Kim Jong-un met Mr. Moon’s envoys this month, he acknowledged that the declaration will have “nothing to do with weakening the South Korea-U.S. alliance and withdrawal American troops from South Korea,” said one of the envoys, Chung Eui-yong, Mr. Moon’s national security adviser.

But not all are convinced.

An early end-of-the-war declaration will only help Mr. Kim cement his rule at home by advertising it as “another great victory in the confrontation with the Americans,” said Cheon Seong-whun, an analyst with the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

North Korea will also use the declaration to demand reductions in the American troops and the scale of joint exercises with South Korea, turning the alliance into “a paper tiger” before the North has completely denuclearized, he said.

“North Korea will highlight the discrepancy: ‘Why do the American troops remain in Korea now that the war has ended?’” Mr. Cheon said.

Source: NYT > World

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