Korean peace talks pose new challenge for Trump

Negotiations to officially end the 65-year-old Korean War could create unexpected challenges for the Trump administration, which has 28,000 U.S. troops stationed on the peninsula.

South Korea confirmed this week that a peace treaty is on the table for next week’s summit between its president and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. President TrumpDonald John TrumpCould Donald Trump and Boris Johnson be this generation's Reagan-Thatcher? Merkel backs Democratic congresswomen over Trump How China's currency manipulation cheats America on trade MORE said the negotiations have his “blessing.”

But it’s unclear what concessions Pyongyang would expect from the United States in order to bring the decades-long conflict to a close.

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“We need to be very careful here because words means different things to different people,” said Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. “Yes, it ends a conflict, and therefore [in North Korea’s view], it also ends the U.S.-South Korea alliance.”

The Korean War ended in a 1953 armistice, not a peace treaty, meaning the two Koreas have technically been locked in a state of war ever since.

The armistice was signed by the U.S.-led United Nations Command, North Korea and China, meaning those parties would likely need to be the ones to sign a peace treaty. Though South Korea was not a signatory of the armistice, practically speaking, it would also need to agree to the terms of a peace treaty.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in made ending the war a top goal during his presidential campaign.

This week, Moon’s national security adviser confirmed that Seoul has been talking with both Washington and Pyongyang about a peace treaty in the lead-up to Moon’s summit with Kim, which is scheduled for Friday.

Despite South Korea’s announcement, some in Washington are skeptical the talks will yield a breakthrough.

“You’re going way down the road,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTrump announces, endorses ambassador to Japan's Tennessee Senate bid Meet the key Senate player in GOP fight over Saudi Arabia Trump says he's 'very happy' some GOP senators have 'gone on to greener pastures' MORE (R-Tenn.) said when asked about a possible peace treaty. “I think the first step is denuclearizing, and that would be huge for Kim Jong Un to give up when he views that as his only mechanism to keep from being regime changed or invaded or something else.”

Asked specifically about U.S. military posture after a peace treaty, Corker reiterated, “Y’all are talking about things that are years down the road.”

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamScarborough sounds alarm on political 'ethnic cleansing' after Trump rally The Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants GOP rattled by Trump rally MORE (R-S.C.) said North Korea needs to “earn” a peace treaty.

“You need to make sure if you sign a peace treaty with North Korea they’re peaceful,” Graham said. “I suggested this to the president. I said, ‘You should go big. You should look at ending the Korean War. It’s never come to an end. Put it on the table. We’re ready to end the war and have a more normal relationship, and the price of admission is you’ve got to give up your nuclear program.’ ”

Moon also said this week North Korea has dropped a long-standing demand for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea in exchange for denuclearization.

But that doesn’t mean North Korea won’t be seeking the withdrawal of U.S. troops as part of a broader peace treaty, said Cheng.

“It becomes a little like balloon animals,” Cheng said. “When you squeeze one end of the balloon, the air goes to the other end. North Korea’s not going to bring up troop withdrawal as a condition for denuclearization, but they may make it a condition for other things.”

North Korea could also want a decrease in the number of U.S. troops stationed in Japan. The original legal justification for that deployment was the Korean War, Cheng said.

Other thorny questions Cheng listed include whether to end sanctions on North Korea, provide economic assistance, normalize U.S.-North Korea relations, allow the North to keep its artillery within range of Seoul or require the South to pull its troops back from the border.

“To what extent do you choose to trust a regime that in the past sank a South Korean warship on the high seas, blew up South Korea’s Cabinet in Burma, killed two American soldiers,” Cheng said. “You hope a peace treaty will reduce tension, but what do you think North Korea will do after a peace treaty?”

North Korea has long sought a peace treaty as a tool to help normalize relations with the United States and gain international legitimacy, said Robert Gallucci, the chief U.S. negotiator during the 1994 North Korean nuclear crisis.

But, he added, it’s more of an “objective” than a “demand,” and it’s never been at the top of the United States’s wish list.

As such, he doesn’t see a peace treaty as a means of extracting concessions from either side.

“They ain’t got us by the throat or any other body part,” he said. “They’re in no position to make demands.”

As to whether U.S. troops would have to withdraw from the peninsula as part of a treaty, Gallucci argued North Korea’s view on that has long been misunderstood. He recalled being told by North Korea’s negotiator on the sidelines of a meeting in 1994 that, “we don’t actually require that the U.S. remove its troops from the South.” 

Still, he said he could see North Korea wanting some sort of change in the U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises, which Pyongyang views as practice runs for regime change.

“It’s not trivial to end the war,” he said. “That would be a good thing. The closest we ever got to that was in 2000 with [former Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright going over there. We’ve never gotten back to that. I think it’s important, but it’s not the kind of thing that one side or the other is likely to pay for, I don’t think.”