As the talks for a second Trump-Kim summit will soon hit the headlines, there are certain hidden factors that could affect, if not determine, the possible outcome of the summit, if it materialises. One is that the US has urged the UN Security Council for an urgent meeting as it suspects some countries are undermining and obstructing sanctions against North Korea.

The main suspicion is towards Russia and China. These two countries are alleged to have colluded with North Korea, indulging in illicit ship-to-ship transfer of petroleum products and transferring coal at sea, thereby flouting an arms embargo and financial sanctions in violation of UN sanctions. It is alleged that some products were off-loaded from Russian ships meant for North Korea.

There are also reports that suggest that North Korea has not stopped its nuclear and missile programmes and is still engaged in developing sophisticated ballistic missiles in violation of UN resolutions on sanctions, adopted unanimously to cut off all North Korean exports to the tune of 90 per cent of its trade and disbanding its pool of workers sent abroad to earn hard currency. President Trump feels that the sanctions compelled the North to mend fences with the South and this facilitated his summit with Kim Jong-un in June.

Undeterred, North Korea has warned the US even when Russia and China continue to back Pyongyang. Moscow has called on the UN to consider easing sanctions on North Korea as talks between Trump and Kim are under way. However, US calls for denuclearisation led to the stalling of talks further. Trump and Kim made a broad agreement at the Singapore summit in June, but Pyongyang denounced the “gangster-like behaviour”, accusing Washington of betraying the spirit of the summit by making unilateral demands on the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation, while putting sanctions in place.

The long term goal harboured by Kim is to seek a declaration from the US to end the Korean War. This is one major demand that is unlikely to be conceded by Trump, at any rate in the short run. The question that arises is: Would Kim’s peace initiatives provide Trump leverage to finally win concessions? Trump’s dilemma would be twofold ~ granting it could guarantee him 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.

The prospect of a peace declaration to end the 70-year conflict is the biggest leverage Trump has in dealing with Kim, a dramatic departure of the “fire and fury” threat of nuclear war that we heard in the closing months of last year. A shrewd Kim is aware that any peace declaration will bolster arguments for easing sanctions and scaling back the US military presence in South Korea and also in Japan subsequently.

Euan Graham, a director at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, observes: “Even a nonbinding declaration carries significant weight because it effectively says there is no war and that makes it easier for North Korea to chip away at the alliance, which is already on slightly difficult ground. South Korea is divided on this, so if there is a declaration there would be no going back.”

If Trump declares peace in the Korean Peninsula, he shall be open to insist that Kim provides firmer disarmament commitments, such as freezing the production of weapons-grade material, allowing inspectors to scrutinise his nuclear arsenal, or setting a time-frame for giving it up. Or he could settle for a more open-ended pledge that gives Kim more room to stall the interaction.

And yet, Trump is open to Kim’s wish to have a second summit and talk things over. Notwithstanding the bickering over a peace deal ever since the Korean War ended without a peace treaty in 1953, the current debate is based on the agreement reached in Singapore in June that listed a commitment to “build a lasting and stable peace regime” ahead of a pledge to “work toward complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula”.

Kim expressed his frustration that Trump has not recognised his decision to suspend weapons tests and dismantle a key testing site, and that he wants to “achieve denuclearisation” before Trump’s term ends in 2021. Kim seems frustrated that Trump has not yet accepted his specific demand, which is peace declaration.

Such a declaration would represent a symbolic first step towards replacing the armistice that ended the Korean War with a formal peace treaty. However, this would require years of negotiations. It bears recall that the 1953 cease-fire was signed by the military commanders of China, North Korea and the US-led UN forces, but not South Korea, which boycotted the talks.

An obvious interpretation of the peace declaration would mean that the US withdraws its 28,000 troops from the Peninsula. At least an argument against their presence shall gain currency forcefully. From his side, Trump has raised concerns and expressed his unwillingness to bear the cost of maintaining the troops even though South Korea covers the bulk of the costs. Pyongyang argues that American withdrawal is “the irresistible trend of the times”.

If Trump agrees to a peace declaration, the inevitable pressure on him would be to relax international sanctions on North Korea, something China and Russia have advocated. However, even a symbolic declaration would still need language to protect the US military position on the peninsula. The US needs to ensure that a declaration to end the war does not alter the armistice in any way, shape or form and contains no ambiguity for international lawyers to argue over interpretations.

The parties involved in talks to end the war ~ North and South Korea, China and the UN (representing the international community, including the US) ~ never were able to agree on a peace treaty. The border between North and South Korea, dividing the peninsula across the DMZ in Panmunjom, has been one of the world’s tensest region for decades. The resumption of talks between Trump and Kim raises the prospect for a peace declaration. But the issues and implications of such a declaration are so complicated that it is too early to expect such a breakthrough.


The writer is former ICCR Chair Professor at Reitaku University, Japan, and currently Lok Sabha Research Fellow.