China said on Wednesday that it wanted to play a positive role in formally ending the war, in which an estimated three million Chinese soldiers fought. But it stopped short of endorsing the idea of a treaty, which is likely to involve extensive negotiations and would require the recognition of North Korea by the United States.
“China’s attitude is open and supportive to any peaceful means to resolve the Korean Peninsula issue through consultations,” Hua Chunying, spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said when asked at a news briefing in Beijing about supporting a possible treaty.
China has promoted the idea of a peace treaty from time to time over the past two decades, to little avail. This time, analysts said on Wednesday, Beijing’s enthusiasm for the idea is likely to be tempered by rising tensions with the Trump administration over trade and Taiwan. Chinese officials are livid over Washington’s move this week to prevent American suppliers from selling parts to the Chinese tech giant ZTE, they said.
“If the two countries cannot settle the trade issues, that will have a significant impact on China’s attitude toward helping the United States on North Korea,” said Cheng Xiaohe, a North Korea expert at the Beijing-based Renmin University. “The ongoing situation with trade is complicating and undermining cooperation.”
At the same time, Mr. Cheng said, China’s relations with North Korea have rapidly warmed in the wake of Kim Jong-un’s surprise visit to Beijing last month. That could give China leverage with North Korea against the United States as Washington works out the terms of the meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim.
South Korean officials said on Wednesday that they hoped Mr. Kim and Mr. Moon, during their meeting next week, could jointly announce a willingness to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and ban military hostilities there, as a precursor to a peace treaty.
But Mr. Cheng and other Chinese analysts expressed skepticism that a peace treaty would be signed anytime soon. “If the United States is to sign with North Korea, it needs to do several things,” Mr. Cheng said. “It has to talk to China, and the United States has to recognize North Korea diplomatically.”
Only countries with diplomatic relations can sign a treaty, he said. “A treaty is not a memorandum or a communiqué.”
Some analysts in South Korea have suggested that Mr. Moon and Mr. Kim could agree to withdraw weapons and troops from the 2.5-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone, which was created with the armistice and still divides the Koreas. Despite its name, the zone is the world’s most heavily armed border. Although the armistice allows only rifles and pistols within the area, both sides have deployed much heavier weapons and operate guard posts inside the zone.
In the past, the North’s conditions for its denuclearization have included the withdrawal of the 28,500 American troops stationed in South Korea, a demand that Washington and Seoul have adamantly rejected. But Mr. Kim has recently indicated that he could be more flexible about the American military presence in the South if his country no longer felt threatened by it, according to officials and analysts in Seoul.
“We think that North Korea is more realistic about the security environment on the Korean Peninsula,” Mr. Chung said on Wednesday, referring to Mr. Kim’s decision not to object to recent joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States. The North has typically used such drills as a pretext to conduct weapons tests and reject dialogue.
In 2000, Mr. Kim’s late father and predecessor, Kim Jong-il, told the visiting South Korean president Kim Dae-jung that he could support the American military presence as a peacekeeping force in the region, according to South Korean officials who attended their meeting.
“I am quite sure that if relations between North Korea and the United States improve, the North will not demand the withdrawal of American troops in signing the peace treaty,” Lee Jong-seok, a former South Korean unification minister, said during a forum on Wednesday.
Formally ending the war would not necessarily mean that Mr. Kim would demand that all American troops be removed, said John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. “There could be a partial withdrawal,” he said. “Remember, all this maneuvering is going on while the United States and South Korea are conducting joint military exercises.”
Still, Mr. Kim seems likely to demand at least a major reduction in troops, said Hugh White, a senior military strategist who worked at the Australian Department of Defense and is now a professor at Australian National University. One outcome, he said, could be a substantial troop withdrawal in exchange for Mr. Kim’s scrapping his intercontinental ballistic missile program.
Such an agreement could appeal to Mr. Trump with his “America First” perspective, Mr. White said. From that point of view, “it could make sense to withdraw from Korea if in return Kim Jong-un scrapped the ICBM program and thus ceased to threaten the continental United States,” he said.
That, Mr. White noted, would transform the American military presence in Asia. “It would be a big win for China,” he said.