Kim’s peace push gives Trump leverage to finally win concessions

In exchange for peace, Trump could insist that Kim provides firmer disarmament commitments


HONG KONG • Three months after US President Donald Trump’s historic handshake with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader is holding up talks over one consequential demand: A declaration ending the Korean War.

For Trump, the request presents a dilemma. Granting it could guarantee himself another headline-grabbing moment to play the peacemaker weeks before a pivotal midterm election.

Withholding it could give the US a second chance to win real concessions in its goal of eliminating the regime’s nuclear threat.

Either way, the prospect of a peace declaration to end the 70-year conflict is one of the biggest pieces of leverage Trump has left in dealing with Kim without going back to “fire and fury” threats of nuclear war.

The stakes are high: Any peace declaration will bolster arguments for easing sanctions and scaling back the American military presence in South Korea.

In exchange for declaring peace on the Korean Peninsula, Trump could insist that Kim provides firmer disarmament commitments, such as freezing the production of weaponsgrade material, allowing inspectors to scrutinise his nuclear arsenal, or setting a time frame for giving it up. Or he could settle for a more openended pledge that gives the North Korean leader more room to stall.

On Monday, the Trump administration sent signals in both directions. Even as National Security advisor John Bolton said the US was “still waiting” for North Korea to take steps to denuclearise, the White House said it was ready to start planning a second summit to follow up on Trump’s historic June meeting with Kim in Singapore.

While the two sides have been bickering over a peace deal since the Korean War ended without a treaty in 1953, the current debate was framed by the 11⁄2-page document signed by Trump and Kim in Singapore. That agreement listed a commitment to “build a lasting and stable peace regime” ahead of a pledge to “work toward complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula”.

In subsequent weeks, the US and North Korea have clashed over the pace and sequence of meeting those goals. North Korea denounced the US’ “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearisation” after Secretary of State Michael Pompeo pressed for more specific commitments during a July trip to Pyongyang. Trump cancelled a follow-up visit by Pompeo last month, citing a lack of sufficient progress.

That 1953 ceasefire was signed by the military commanders of China, North Korea and the US-led United Nations forces, but not South Korea, which boycotted talks.

Although Kim told South Korean officials that a peace declaration wouldn’t require the US to withdraw its 28,000 troops from the peninsula, such a statement would bolster arguments against their presence.

Trump has previously expressed concerns about the cost of maintaining the alliance and North Korea’s state run media published a statement last Friday calling an American withdrawal “the irresistible trend of the times”.

A peace declaration could also increase pressure on the US to relax international sanctions on North Korea, something China and Russia have advocated.

“Ending” the Korean War would provide Trump a signature accomplishment to tout while campaigning to preserve Republican majorities in the US House and Senate in the November midterms. In a rally in Montana last week, Trump highlighted Kim’s suggestion that he wants to denuclearise during his tenure.

Moon Chung-in, an advisor to South Korea’s president, told the local MBC News on Sept 5 that the US might grant a peace declaration in exchange for a complete list of North Korea’s nuclear facilities, material, weaponry and ballistic missiles. “That’s enough to discuss a deal on declaring the end of war,” he said. — Bloomberg