Trump Could Declare an End to the Korean War—but That Might Not Mean Peace

Trump might leave the Hanoi summit with a end-of-war declaration, but one expert warns that, without specific caveats, to do so could make the peninsula even more dangerous.
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South Korean conservative protesters participate in a pro-U.S. and anti-North Korea rally on February 23rd, 2019, in Seoul, South Korea.

South Korean conservative protesters participate in a pro-U.S. and anti-North Korea rally on February 23rd, 2019, in Seoul, South Korea.

As Kim Jong-Un travels south through China in an armored train and President Donald Trump flies to Hanoi, Vietnam, to meet him, the two leaders may be preparing to declare an end to the state of war that has existed since 1950 on the Korean Peninsula. According to the New York Times, South Korean officials indicated that Trump and North Korea's leader could use the Vietnam summit to release a joint statement announcing an end to the conflict.

Though Trump and his North Korean counterpart would likely proclaim such an agreement a diplomatic victory, some experts warn that, if Trump returns home waving an end-of-war declaration, it might not actually mean peace—and it could even make the region more dangerous.

Military conflict between the two Koreas ended in a 1953 armistice, but no peace treaty was ever signed on the peninsula. Today, over 23,000 U.S. soldiers remain stationed in South Korea, on constant alert. Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a think tank, is worried that Trump might agree to remove U.S. troops before North Korea makes a commitment to full denuclearization.

Manning has experience trying to gain clear commitments from the North Koreans: In 2003, he was a senior counselor in the U.S. Department of State during the "six-party talks," when a group of nations—the U.S., China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and North Korea—attempted to broker an end to North Korea's nuclear program. For years, the talks produced symbolic agreements and motions toward peace, but failed to result in a meaningful halt to North Korea's nuclear program. In 2006, the country detonated its first successful nuclear weapon in a test.

Pacific Standard talked to Manning about what Trump and Kim might agree to, and what those agreements could mean for the U.S. and South Korea.

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Going into these negotiations, what do you think Kim Jong-Un's objectives might be?

[Kim] is looking to get sanctions removed and to drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea. In the long-term—and the real objective of everything he's doing has been on this trajectory—he wants North Korea to be another Pakistan: to be accepted as a de facto nuclear state and also treated like a normal country.

There have been indications that one result of the summit might be a joint statement: a declaration of an end to the Korean War. Are there any reasons to worry about such a declaration?

An end-of-war declaration shouldn't be confused with a peace treaty. I think what will be meant by an "end of war declaration" will be more of political statement of intent, or political symbolism. You know, the war has been over for 66 years. And if we [meaning the U.S.] were going to attack North Korea, we probably would have done it before they had nukes and missile delivery systems. The reality is that there isn't really a military option that doesn't put at risk tens of thousands of lives, including, on any given day, probably a couple hundred thousand Americans who are in South Korea.

What would an actual peace process look like?

Probably the best way to think about that would be the end of the Cold War. The confrontation is over, we got rid of all these weapon systems, and we were hoping to integrate Russia into the international system (although we didn't do a very good job of that). But in North Korea, are we, for instance, going to sign a peace treaty when they have a million-man army and nuclear weapons? To me, that's absurd. It's just a piece of paper. [Instead], we ought to have a process that involves conventional force reductions. And the U.S. troops ought to be part of that discussion, if you want [the North Koreans] to reduce. I'm not necessarily saying we should remove all our troops, but, if you have a real peace treaty and a denuclearized Korea, how many troops do you need?

But instead, I think we'll just see an end-of-war declaration, which is just a way for North Korea to turn to their people and say: "We've beaten the U.S. They've declared an end to the war."

How do you think the first summit between Kim and Trump, in Singapore last June, went? And what does that say about this next summit in Vietnam?

The first summit was a disaster because it didn't give us any word of how they were going to take these abstract commitments and realize them. So at this next one, it's imperative that the two leaders give a mandate for a diplomatic negotiation process that lays out a roadmap and a timeline. And it needs to connect the peace treaty to a process of denuclearization. I think the special envoy to North Korea, Steve Biegun, has tried to put something together along those lines.

The problem, of course, is that Trump has not often listened to his advisers. So that's the question: Will Trump listen to Biegun and his Korean policy team, or will he decide he's the greatest negotiator in the world and he'll make the deal? I think that's a fear a lot of people have. A lot of people I've talked to, who have been in North Korea recently, say that the North Koreans are extremely cocky and confident that if they can get Trump in a room, they can get what they want.

Would it be a poor bargain to reduce American troop presence in South Korea without committing the North Koreans to denuclearization? Would that diminish the U.S.'s deterrence commitment to South Korea?

I think it [would be a poor bargain]. I mean, you don't want to put the cart before the horse. The problem is that Trump has stated publicly many times that he doesn't like alliances, and, for reasons many of us don't quite understand, he has an unusual disdain for South Korea. So I think he's susceptible to Kim Jong-Un offering to freeze his nuclear program or something that is less than complete denuclearization, and Trump would be happy to bring the boys home.

That's sort of the worse case. I'm not saying that's going to happen, but it wouldn't shock me if it does.

What do you think of Trump's attitude going into this summit?

I think, for Trump, everything is a reality TV show, and he sees this as a reality TV spectacular that the whole world has to watch. So I think you need to be careful: When Trump stands up and says, "I ended the Korean War," keep your hand on your wallet and look carefully at what's actually happened versus what he says has happened.

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