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'Trump-Kim summit can immediately be followed by declaration of end to Korean War'

A renowned security scholar countered skepticism in Washington that Trump has made too much concession on North Korea.

 With US President Donald Trump floating the idea of declaring an end to the Korean War following his summit with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, a Seoul-based security expert said the deal could be reached as soon as the day after their meeting on June 12.

Cho Seong-ryoul, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy and a member of advisory group for President Moon Jae-in, said Moon could travel to Singapore in time for the Trump-Kim summit and join the two leaders in reaching a trilateral agreement to end the Korean War.

While the move is more of a symbolic gesture than a decision with legal effect, Cho said declaring an end to the Korean War is necessary to ease North Korea’s concerns over their security during the arduous denuclearization process until the current armistice agreement is replaced by a peace treaty. 

“Declaring an end to the Korean War is like providing a political guarantee for North Korea’s security concerns during the transitional period of denuclearization,” Cho told The Korea Herald on Saturday.

“Even if North Korea decides to surrender its nuclear weapons, the process would take years. In the meantime, North Korea would become nervous about the security vacuum. So the idea is helpful in easing North Koreans’ jitters and encouraging them to do more on denuclearization.”

Cho Sung-ryul, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy and a member of advisory group for President Moon Jae-in. Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald
Cho Sung-ryul, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy and a member of advisory group for President Moon Jae-in. Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald
For Cho, who was also involved with the Roh Moo-hyun administration’s attempt at declaring an end to the Korean War, Trump-Kim summit offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as leaders in Seoul and Washington have more time to push for the initiative than their predecessors.

During the summit with the US in October 2007, the Roh administration, where President Moon served as presidential chief of staff, convinced the Bush administration to work with North Korea and China to declare an end to the Korean War, which ended with armistice, not a peace treaty.

But the idea has made little progress since then. The Roh administration was replaced by the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration in December 2007, and afterward President Barrack Obama came into office in the US.

“The previous attempts at declaring an end to the Korean War failed because we didn’t have much time. If we return to past mistakes and let things drag on, we would lose the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Cho.

There is one question, however, that should be addressed before pushing the initiative: the involvement of China. Unlike South Korea which refused to sign the armistice agreement, China is a signatory to the treaty along with North Korea and the US-led United Nations Command. 

When Moon proposed the idea of holding three-way talks among the two Koreas and the US to declare an end to Korean War, the Chinese government criticized it as an attempt to exclude Beijing and said the country should be involved as a “major stakeholder” in inter-Korean affairs.

Cho said that while he did not oppose China’s participation in declaring an end to the Korean War, Beijing’s involvement must come after the two Koreas and the US reach an agreement and that there was no need for the three countries to wait for Beijing’s participation.

“If Beijing wants to be involved in the process, we don’t have to prevent them from doing so. But I don’t think President Moon and Trump should wait on declaring an end to the Korean War until President Xi Jinping flies to Singapore,” Cho said.

“Since China has already normalized relations with South Korea and the US, I don’t think there is much case for justifying China’s involvement in the process… I don’t think we should pass up such an opportunity simply because of China.” 
US President Donald Trump and North Korea`s leader Kim Jong-un. Yonhap
US President Donald Trump and North Korea`s leader Kim Jong-un. Yonhap
When it comes to the negotiations with North Korea, he stressed that the devil is not only in the details of denuclearization process but also in the timelines of political schedules in Seoul and Washington.

While Trump has indicated that denuclearization talks would be a drawn-out process, Cho said Trump should set a detailed milestone for achieving key elements of denuclearization -- at least by mid-2020 before the US presidential election.

At the same time, the Trump administration should come up with what it can give in exchange for North Korea’s denuclearization -- such as lifting of economic sanctions and opening up diplomatic relations with North Korea.

“Of course, we can’t expect a detailed timeline to be included in the summit agreement and the details should be left to working-level officials. Trump and Kim should at least reach a broad agreement about what they would exchange at each phase,” Cho said.

North Korea has been eager to secure US security guarantee of the Kim Jong-un regime in return for abandoning nuclear arsenal. After meeting with Kim last month, President Moon said Kim had asked him about whether the US would deliver on such promises.

Cho said the best ways to ease such concern is to reach an all-in-one agreement on denuclearization and security guarantee and have it ratified by the US Senate -- a measure that can ensure the summit agreement is irreversible regardless of the political climate in Washington.

Brian Hook, a US diplomat who accompanied State Secretary Pompeo’s trip to North Korea, told the US broadcaster Public Broad Service that the US is open to a treaty relationship with North Korea “under the right condition.” 

“Trump-Kim summit is the best opportunity to gain approval from the US lawmakers for all-in-one agreement. If they deal with the issue one-by-one, other issues like human right and biological weapons would emerge and interfere with the negotiation process," Cho said.

If the denuclearization proceeds in a “phased and synchronized manner” -- an approach initially proposed by North Korea and apparently accepted by Trump now, Cho anticipated a two-phase denuclearization procedure.

The first process is likely to involve declaration and inspection of North Korea’s “current and future” nuclear materials by international nuclear inspectors -- such as plutonium in its Yongbyon nuclear facility and hidden highly enriched uranium.

Dismantling Intercontinental ballistic missiles, which Trump alluded to as a main agenda item for the upcoming summit, should be addressed during the first stage. In the meantime, North Korea should keep its moratorium on nuclear and ICBM tests, Cho said.

The second process would focus on eliminating North Korea’s “previous” nuclear capabilities, such as existing nuclear warheads and production facilities. The warheads need to be shipped out of country and the facilities should be “disabled,” Cho said.

“The first process is largely about building trust until such a time there would be complete, verifiable denuclearization of North Korea and normalizing of diplomatic relations between the US and North Korea,” said Cho.

“If we don’t do it on a phased basis, then we can put all things in one basket. In return for the US security guarantee of the North Korean regime, North Korea can agree to dismantle nuclear facilities and remove nuclear warheads from the country. After all, Kim Jong-un’s decision is most crucial.” 

North Korea`s leader Kim Jong-un. Yonhap
North Korea`s leader Kim Jong-un. Yonhap

Cho countered skepticism in Washington that Trump has made too many concessions on North Korea. When declaring his summit with Kim was back on, Trump appears to accept Pyongyang’s approach of a phased denuclearization and stop increasing pressure while talks proceed.

The expert noted Trump’s announcement came in return for North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization, which had been expressed during his latest summit with neighboring countries, including those with Moon and Xi, and shutdown of Punggyeri nuclear test site last month.

The obstacle to further negotiations, Cho asserted, is rather the US’ reluctance to accept any “transactional deal” with North Korea -- an approach criticized as unorthodox by the US foreign policy officials and experts.

“I think the US still sees the negotiation with North Korea from the perspective of American exceptionalism. Instead of seeking a fair transaction, they still want to see North Korea give in to the US demands first,” Cho said.

Fueling the concept is a misplaced belief in Washington that crippling economic sanctions changed North Korea’s strategic calculus and made the communist country eager to seek a deal with the US, according to Cho.

In his statement after the first inter-Korean summit late April, Vice President Mike Pence said North Korea’s coming to the table shows “a clear sign” that the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign is working.

Cho suggested that the reason for North Korea’s return to the negotiation table was totally different. North Korea wants to negotiate with the US on an equal footing, as it believes it has achieved “balancing power” against the US by achieving full-fledged nuclear capabilities, he added.

“With ICBM capable of reaching the US continent, I think North Korea believes that they have secured enough leverage against the US. If we can’t read into it, we might return to past failures,” Cho said.

By Yeo Jun-suk(jasonyeo@heraldcorp.com)

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