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WORLD | 20-02-2019 17:41

Second Trump-Kim summit brings the possibility of a peace declaration

US President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un to meet in Hanoi later this month to not only discuss denuclearisation, but also the prospect of peace.

With their second summit fast approaching, speculation is growing that US President Donald Trump may try to persuade North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to commit to denuclearisation by giving him something he wants more than almost anything else: an announcement of peace and an end to the Korean War.

Such an announcement could make history. But, if not done carefully, it could open up a whole new set of problems for Washington.

Here's why switching the focus of the ongoing talks between Pyongyang and Washington from denuclearisation to peace would be a risky move — and why it might be exactly what Kim wants when the two leaders meet in Hanoi on February 27-28.

THE STANDOFF 

After World War II the Korean Peninsula was divided at the 38th parallel, with the US claiming a zone of influence in the south and the Soviet Union in the north. Within five years, the two Koreas were at war.

The conflict ended with an armistice in 1953, which was essentially a cease-fire signed by North Korea, China and the 17-nation, US-led United Nations Command that was supposed to be replaced by a formal peace treaty. But both sides instead only settled deeper into Cold War hostilities marked by occasional outbreaks of violence.

The conflict in Korea is technically America's longest war.

North Korea, which saw all of its major cities and most of its infrastructure destroyed by US bombers during the war, blames what it sees as Washington's unrelenting hostility over the past 70 years as ample justification for its nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, which it claims are purely for self-defence.

The US, on the other hand, maintains a heavy military presence in South Korea to counter what it says is the North's intention to invade and assimilate the South. It has also implemented a long-standing policy of ostracising the North and backing economic sanctions.

Trump escalated the effort to squeeze the North with a "maximum pressure" strategy that remains in force.

A combination of that strategy and the North's repeated tests of missiles believed capable of delivering its nuclear weapons to the US mainland are what brought the two countries to the negotiating table.

WHY KIM WANTS A TREATY

Getting a formal peace treaty has been high on the wish list of every North Korean leader, starting with Kim Jong Un's grandfather, Kim Il Sung.

A peace treaty would bring international recognition, probably at least some easing of trade sanctions, and a likely reduction in the number of US troops south of the Demilitarised Zone.

If done right, it would be a huge boost to Kim's reputation at home and abroad. And, of course, to the cause of peace on the Korean Peninsula at a time when Pyongyang says it is trying to shift scarce resources away from defence so that it can boost its standard of living and modernise its economy with a greater emphasis on science and technology.

But Washington has a lot to gain, too.

Trump has said he would welcome a North Korea that is more focused on trade and economic growth. Stability on the peninsula is good for South Korea's economy and probably for Japan's as well.

Though Trump hasn't stressed human rights, eased tensions could create the space needed for the North to loosen its controls over political and individual freedoms. But it's naive to expect North Korea to suddenly change its ways.

According to a recent estimate, it has over the past year continued to expand its nuclear stockpile. And even as it has stepped up its diplomatic overtures to the outside world, Pyongyang has doubled down internally on demanding loyalty to its totalitarian system.

PEACE OR APPEASEMENT?

After his first summit with Kim, in Singapore last June, Trump declared the nuclear threat was over.

He isn't saying that anymore.

Trump made no mention of the word "denuclearisation" during his State of the Union address. Instead, he called his effort a "historic push for peace on the Korean Peninsula" and stressed that Kim hasn't conducted any recent nuclear or missile tests and has released Americans who had been jailed in the North and returned the remains of dozens of Americans killed in the war.

The biggest win for the North would be to get a peace declaration while quietly abandoning denuclearisation altogether, or by agreeing to production caps or other measures that would limit, but not eliminate, its nuclear arsenal. Simply having a summit without a clear commitment to denuclearisation goes a long way toward establishing him as the leader of a de facto nuclear state.

And unless Washington is willing to accept him as such, future talks will only be made all the more difficult.

The US has, however, continued to take a hard line in lower-level negotiations leading up to the summit.

Stephen Biegun, Trump's new point man on North Korea, stressed in a recent speech that as a prerequisite for peace, Washington wants a "complete understanding of the full extent of the North Korean weapons of mass destruction missile programs," expert access and monitoring of key sites and, ultimately, "the removal and destruction of stockpiles of fissile material, weapons, missiles, launchers, and other weapons of mass destruction."

The question is whether Trump will similarly challenge Kim or choose an easier and splashier — but less substantive — declaration of peace, by which Trump could unilaterally announce the end of the Korean War.

TALK VS TREATY

Trump can't by himself conclude an actual peace treaty. China, and possibly a representative of the U.N. Command, would have to be involved. South Korea would naturally want to be at the table. And, of course, the US Senate would have to ratify whatever they came up with.

Back in 1993, the administration of President Bill Clinton reached a familiar-sounding agreement with Pyongyang "to achieve peace and security on a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula."

The next year the two sides vowed to reduce barriers to trade and investment, open a liaison office in the other's capital and make progress toward upgrading bilateral relations to the ambassadorial level. In 2000, Clinton and Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, added a promise "of respect for each other's sovereignty and non-interference in each other's internal affairs."

But by 2002, George W. Bush was back to calling the North part of an "axis of evil." In 2006, North Korea tested its first nuclear device.

The lesson? Whatever grand proclamations are made, establishing real peace will go well beyond just another Trump and Kim summit.

But it could be a start.

-TIMES/AP

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