South Korea Tamps Down Hopes for Peace Declaration at North Korea Summit

SEOUL—South Korean officials are playing down the likelihood of an imminent peace declaration after President Donald Trump suggested that he could declare an end to the Korean War at next week’s U.S.-North Korea summit.

South Korean representatives declined to comment officially on Monday, saying only that they were monitoring summit preparations. But behind the scenes some officials signaled caution about the prospect of a peace declaration and about what some here have called heated optimism over the possibility for such a declaration at the Singapore meeting.

The leaders of North and South Korea agreed in April to pursue a treaty this year to end the Korean War—a binding agreement that would go a notch beyond a more-symbolic peace declaration, which they also agreed in April to pursue.

An armistice, rather than a treaty, ended the 1950-1953 conflict and was signed by China, North Korea and the United Nations, which was led by the U.S. at the time. South Korea’s then president, Syngman Rhee, refused to sign it, as the armistice left the peninsula divided. Those signatories would need to approve a peace treaty.

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A series of twists ahead of a possible June 12 summit between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un suggest that, despite showcased optimism, the two leaders are struggling to find common ground on key issues such as denuclearization.

A peace declaration has been a policy goal for Seoul’s liberal Moon Jae-in administration, which considers it a gateway to more concrete agreements with North Korea, including a formal treaty or a denuclearization deal.

But Seoul officials’ caution appears due in part to the little time remaining before the June 12 Singapore meeting and expectations that a declaration would be largely symbolic.

The absence of China from the Singapore summit could be another reason for caution, analysts said.

Though a peace treaty would require China’s signature, a peace declaration could be possible without Beijing, as the country isn’t at war with either of the Koreas or the U.S., said Seoul’s former unification minister, Chung Dong-young, now a lawmaker.

For its part, the Chinese Foreign Ministry sounded upbeat Monday about the recent rounds of detente involving North Korea and said the summit with the U.S. presents an opportunity for a breakthrough.

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“The situation on the Korean Peninsula is facing a rare historic opportunity. Whether we can find the path to denuclearization and a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula, the summit holds the key,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a regular briefing.

Avoiding the political embarrassment of another abrupt U.S. withdrawal from the planned summit could also underlie Seoul’s caution, said Kim Meen-geon, a professor of political science at Kyung Hee University in Seoul.

In an editorial last week, North Korean state media appeared to urge the adoption of a peace deal as agreed to at the April inter-Korean summit, saying that North and South should “neither read others’ faces nor seek their egotistic interests” but “carry out” agreements signed by Messrs. Moon and Kim.

The Moon administration in the past has floated the idea of a peace declaration and had agreed with Pyongyang in April to pursue trilateral talks involving Washington, and, possibly, quadrilateral talks involving Beijing, with the aim of writing the declaration.

A meeting between President Trump and North Korean Gen. Kim Yong Chol at the White House last week had renewed hope for a trilateral summit and even the possibility of peace declaration.

—Charles Hutzler in Beijing contributed to this article.

Write to Andrew Jeong at andrew.jeong@wsj.com

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