Written by Mark Landler
When President Donald Trump meets North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, next week in Vietnam, Trump’s advisers hope to hammer out a road map for ridding the reclusive state of its nuclear weapons. But Trump appears more tantalized, at least for now, by declaring an end to seven decades of war on the Korean Peninsula.
Those two goals, while not at odds, could result in a summit that produces historic headlines but does little to advance the core US objective of eliminating North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
Administration officials insisted Wednesday that disarmament remains Trump’s “overriding goal.” A US delegation recently visited Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital, for preparatory talks with North Korean officials before Trump and Kim sit down for their second meeting, on February 27 and 28, and the officials said they were pushing for concrete steps by the North.
But the president said recently that he was in no hurry to force North Korea to give up all of its weapons. Among the potential outcomes in Hanoi, according to experts briefed by the Trump administration, is an agreement that would trade a peace declaration for a North Korean commitment to open up and dismantle a handful of nuclear or missile facilities.
Ending the war is a cherished goal of North Korea’s leaders because it would reduce their isolation and increase pressure to lift sanctions against the regime. But it raises troublesome issues for the United States, including whether it would hasten the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea, a prospect that appeals to Trump.
“What I worry about is the president may want the peace most — more than the denuclearization,” said Scott A. Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I think we can see that tension; it’s on display in the senior administration comments.”
The Trump administration has not discussed with Pyongyang pulling out the roughly 28,500 troops stationed in the South, according to two senior officials, and Trump’s top advisers uniformly oppose it. The president said this month that he had no plans to do so, though he noted that the troops were costly, and added, “Maybe someday — I mean, who knows?”
As Trump meets again with Kim, Trump’s role as a peacemaker is clearly weighing heavily on his mind.
The president has made no secret that he believes that he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic outreach to Kim. Trump said it had halted the North’s nuclear and missile tests for more than a year, easing a deadly threat to neighboring Japan. Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, nominated him for the prize, Trump said, though he added, “I’ll probably never get it.”
Trump also claimed that his most recent predecessor, President Barack Obama, told him that he was on the verge of a military strike on North Korea, a claim that Obama’s former advisers have dismissed.
Since Trump’s first meeting with Kim in June in Singapore — which produced extravagant claims of progress by the president but no evidence of disarmament — the administration has emphasized peace on the Korean Peninsula as a key goal of its diplomacy.
It is one of four pillars of the administration’s engagement with the North, along with denuclearization, transforming relations between Pyongyang and Washington and obtaining the return of the remains of US service members killed in the war.
“In President Trump, the United States has a leader who, more so than any previous president, is deeply and personally committed to once and for all bringing an end to 70 years of war and hostility on the Korean Peninsula,” Stephen E. Biegun, the president’s special representative for North Korea, said last month in a speech at Stanford University.
The thaw between North and South Korea has already eased tensions on the peninsula. On a visit to the Demilitarized Zone before Christmas, Biegun said, he was struck by how quiet and peaceful it was. “Not a weapon was to be seen,” he said. “Not even a sidearm.”
Still, a formal peace treaty would raise complicated legal issues. For one, the Senate might assert its prerogative to ratify it. But the White House counsel’s office has told senators it does not believe a treaty would have to be ratified, according to a person briefed by the lawmakers.
China is a signatory to the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement — along with North Korea and a US general, who was representing the United Nations Command — and it would presumably have to sign a successor treaty. The Chinese favor this course, in part, analysts warn, because they view it as a pretext to reduce the United States’ military presence in Asia.
A peace declaration would also be attractive to South Korea’s progressive government, which is eager to expand its business ties with the North and increasingly views the war as a relic.
“From the person on the street to the highest level of government, there is sort of this mood now that the war is basically over, so let’s just say it’s over,” said Victor D. Cha, an expert on Korea at Georgetown University who just returned from a visit to Seoul, the South’s capital.
For Trump, he said, the question is: What can he get from Kim in return for such a declaration?
North Korea could pledge to halt further nuclear testing and production, analysts said. But that would essentially preserve its nuclear capacity — and would look little different from the freeze-for-freeze arrangements that the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations negotiated with Pyongyang in previous rounds of diplomacy.
It could also agree to open facilities to nuclear inspectors, and to dismantle some of them. South Korean officials point to the Sohae missile launching site, which is near the North’s western border with China. A missile fired from that site in April 2012 scuttled the Obama administration’s “Leap Day” agreement with Pyongyang.
These would be piecemeal gestures, far short of the comprehensive, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization that administration officials demanded in the days leading up to the Singapore summit meeting. But they would keep Trump’s diplomatic efforts alive.
“If you don’t want the negotiations to fail, you start to lower your standards,” said Cha, who negotiated with North Korea during the Bush administration. “You start to lower the bar.”
North Korea has yet to provide the United States an inventory of its nuclear facilities, a prerequisite for any disarmament plan. Experts said they doubted that Kim would produce such a list in Hanoi, and said this was the most accurate gauge of the North’s intentions.
“There is absolutely zero indication — none — that North Korea has any intention of being anything other than it has been, which is a nuclear-weapons state,” said Michael J. Green, the Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Relations.
Administration officials said they would push North Korea to take bold steps in Vietnam. And they noted that punishing sanctions remained in place on Pyongyang, even if analysts said China and Russia had relaxed their economic pressure since Trump’s diplomatic efforts had begun.
The president may offer other enticements in Hanoi, like the opening in Pyongyang of a US Interests Section, a shadow embassy that would symbolize a more normal relationship with North Korea.
Even critics of the Trump administration said that, with Biegun negotiating with a newly appointed North Korean counterpart, Kim Hyok Chol, the United States was raising the right issues. The wild card is Trump — and his penchant for seat-of-the-pants negotiations.
“One of the big worries that people have is that somehow the president is going to trade the alliance for the prospect of a Nobel Peace Prize,” Snyder said. But he added that “by putting on the table the prospect of peace, we’re actually putting on the table a very significant lure.”