[SEOUL] South Korean officials Monday indicated that President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, could agree on a joint political statement declaring an end to the 1950-53 Korean War when they meet in Hanoi, Vietnam, later this week.
"The possibility is open," said Kim Eui-kyeom, a spokesman for South Korea's president, Moon Jae-in, referring to the results expected from the Trump-Kim summit meeting scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday. "We still don't know exactly what format the end-of-war declaration will take, but there is an ample possibility of North Korea and the United States agreeing to such a declaration."
Mr Moon has strongly advocated an end-of-war declaration to build trust between North Korea and the United States and to prod the North to move toward giving up its nuclear weapons. The North and the United States have remained technically at war since the Korean War was halted in a truce in 1953, and Washington still keeps 28,500 troops in South Korea to prevent the war from rekindling.
Until now, South Korean officials, who are closely monitoring pre-summit meeting negotiations between North Korea and the United States, had sounded skeptical that Mr Trump and Mr Kim Jong Un would agree to an end-of-war declaration during their Hanoi meeting. The remarks by the South Korean spokesman indicated such a declaration was now being seriously discussed as Mr Trump seeks to encourage Mr Kim to take steps toward denuclearisation.
As Kim heads to Hanoi by train, North Korean and US negotiators are already there trying to hammer out an agenda and other details for the summit meeting, including what first steps toward denuclearisation that North Korea should take. North Korea has offered to dismantle its nuclear complex in Yongbyon, which houses plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities, but said it would do so only when the United States took "corresponding" trust-building measures.
When they met for the first time, in June in Singapore, Mr Trump and Mr Kim produced a vaguely worded agreement to build "new" relations between their countries, and to work toward a peace regime and "complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula" but the agreement was short on specifics.
Subsequent talks between the two countries have stalled over how to carry out the Singapore deal, as North Korea insisted that the United States must first ease sanctions.
But Washington has been reluctant to do so, since sanctions are the strongest leverage it has on the impoverished country. On Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States had no intention of easing the UN Security Council's toughest sanctions against North Korea until it achieved a full, verifiable denuclearisation of North Korea. He added, however, that the United States might relax other restrictions.
"The core economic sanctions, the sanctions that prevent countries from conducting trade, creating wealth for North Korea, those sanctions are definitely going to remain in place," Pompeo told CNN. "We've said consistently full, verified denuclearisation - that's the standard for relieving those sanctions."
Instead, US negotiators have been studying noneconomic incentives for the North, such as an end-of-war declaration or the exchange of liaison offices between Pyongyang and Washington, according to South Korean officials familiar with Washington's talks with North Korean officials.
But it remained unclear whether an end-of-war declaration would convince the North to commit to the kind of serious steps toward denuclearization that Washington demands, according to South Korean analysts and officials, who say the North will likely calibrate its commitment to denuclearisation on whether Mr Trump grants sanctions relief, the North's top priority.
US and South Korean analysts have expressed fear that declaring an end to the war would give Mr Kim reason to demand that the United States withdraw its 28,500 troops from the South while the North remains a nuclear-armed state.
But South Korean officials said the declaration would be merely a "political statement" that would "give the North Koreans some comfort." North Korea has long argued that it was forced to develop a nuclear deterrent because of US "hostility," and that it would keep that deterrent until it felt safe from American aggression.