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N Korea at crossroads

Koreas aim to contain Trump threat with moves toward peace

Agreement ending military drills risks weakening South's alliance with US

South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo, front left, and North Korean counterpart No Kwang Chol, front right, signed an agreement Sept. 19 to "completely cease all hostile acts against each other."   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- U.S. President Donald Trump has praised the agreements reached at last month's inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang, but Washington may come to rue a military deal furthering North-South reconciliation at the cost of potentially tying the hands of American forces.

The accord, signed Sept. 19 by then-South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo and North Korean counterpart No Kwang Chol, states that the two countries will "completely cease all hostile acts against each other in every domain, including land, air and sea that are the source of military tension and conflict."

The neighbors agreed to halt all live-fire artillery drills and field exercises above a certain size within 5 km of the border as of Nov. 1. They will also end naval and live-fire artillery exercises in specified areas in the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan, and even put covers on the barrels of guns on ships and in coastal batteries. No-fly zones will be designated around the border as well.

Seoul and Pyongyang also "agreed to refrain from any action to infiltrate, attack or occupy each other's area of jurisdiction by any means or method" and to communicate closely through a new joint military committee to prevent accidental clashes.

That much of the deal takes effect at the start of November, just before the American midterm congressional elections, is likely no coincidence. Trump's June summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was far from universally supported in the U.S., and the president will likely look to persuade his base that the meeting got results.

But the question of how Trump will act after the election is far murkier -- a point that worries Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

The joint declaration signed by the two Korean leaders at last month's summit states that "the Korean Peninsula must be turned into a land of peace free from nuclear weapons and nuclear threats." Pyongyang's interpretation of "threats" includes nuclear-capable advanced American weapons. This will make it difficult to resume joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, which Washington suspended after the June summit.

The two agreements almost amount to a mutual nonaggression pact and have sidelined the U.S., according to a North Korea expert. Banning military exercises near the border risks reducing the combat readiness of South Korean forces and weakening the effectiveness of the Washington-Seoul alliance as a deterrent.

The North, by contrast, has many options beyond conventional forces at its disposal in a conflict, including weapons of mass destruction, cyberattacks and special forces. Pyongyang deftly capitalized on Moon's desire for peace and reconciliation.

For now, North Korea's main goal is having the U.S. declare an official end to the Korean War -- a move that would help guarantee the security of Kim's government. Its interests align with those of South Korea here as well, as Moon believes that this would encourage Pyongyang to denuclearize sooner.

In a joint news conference after the summit, Kim stressed that he pledged to work toward ridding the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons and nuclear threats. Moon said the two leaders agreed to eliminate any threats on the peninsula that could lead to war.

Moon's government considers the agreements from last month's summit to essentially declare an end to hostilities, said Yoon Young-chan, South Korea's senior presidential secretary for public communication. Seoul apparently hopes to pave the way for a formal declaration that includes the U.S. and China as well.

Part of the point of the agreements was to help North and South work together to push Trump to act. The summit came just before Moon's Sept. 24 meeting with the American president on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. The South Korean leader sought to appeal directly to Trump to meet with Kim again and announce an end to the war.

Moon may also have told Trump about a secret denuclearization proposal conveyed to him by Kim. Trump told reporters shortly after speaking with Moon that he expected an announcement on a second summit with Kim "pretty soon."

In a further move to lay the diplomatic groundwork, the Moon-Kim joint declaration states that Kim agreed to visit Seoul "at an early date." Moon clarified at the news conference that this means before year-end, barring any extenuating circumstances.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will visit Pyongyang on Sunday to prepare for a second Trump-Kim summit. North and South Korea envision a three-way summit in Seoul late this month, a source familiar with the situation said. Another proposal would have the three leaders meet in Europe in November.

Yet for all this planning, Trump's next move remains impossible to predict.

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