Asia Pacific / Politics | ANALYSIS

Could appealing to Trump’s ego be key to solving the North Korean nuclear crisis? Moon and Kim think so.

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

It’s said that flattery will get you everywhere. On Monday, South Korean leader Moon Jae-in put that old adage to the test, showering U.S. President Donald Trump with effusive praise as Seoul — and Pyongyang — seek to bring Washington back to the negotiating table and kick-start deadlocked nuclear talks.

Speaking during a bilateral meeting with the American president in New York, Moon highlighted what he said was the indispensable role Trump has played in the nuclear talks, insinuating that without him, denuclearization would be but a mere pipe dream.

“Thanks to your bold decision and new approach, we are in the process of solving a problem that no one has been able to solve in the decades past,” Moon said of Trump.

The South Korean leader went on: “Chairman Kim also repeatedly conveyed his unwavering trust and expectations for you, while expressing his hope to meet you soon to swiftly conclude the denuclearization process with you, because you are, indeed, the only person who can solve this problem.”

The laudatory words echoed remarks conveyed by Kim to South Korean officials earlier this month. The North Korean leader reportedly told those officials during a visit to Pyongyang ahead of last week’s inter-Korean summit that while he has been frustrated by questions about his willingness to denuclearize, he “still has faith” in Trump’s commitment to ending their nations’ “hostile relations.” Chung Eui-yong, Moon’s national security adviser, even noted that Kim had emphasized that he has not once talked negatively about Trump to anyone, including his closest advisers.

Trump later responded by tweeting, “Kim Jong Un of North Korea proclaims ‘unwavering faith in President Trump.’ Thank you to Chairman Kim. We will get it done together!”

And in an even clearer sign that the approach appears to be working, Trump said Monday that a second meeting with Kim would happen “quite soon” — a move that comes against the advice of some seasoned North Korea experts.

“We’ll be having a second summit with Chairman Kim in the not too distant future,” Trump said, adding that the North Korean leader “has been really very open and terrific.”

“I think he wants to see something happen,” Trump said.

The U.S. leader said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was working on putting together a summit, and the top American diplomat said the same day that he would likely be traveling to Pyongyang “before the end of the year” to continue discussions with his North Korean counterparts.

The second summit, Trump suggested, was likely to take place in a location other than Singapore, where they held their first summit in June.

Washington’s denuclearization talks with Pyongyang had hit a wall in the more than three months since that summit, but the plans for a second meeting, as well as a series of tantalizing proposals revealed by Kim at last week’s inter-Korean summit with Moon — wrapped in adulation for Trump — have injected fresh momentum into the negotiations.

“Clearly the calculation is for both Kim and Moon to continue to use flattery and praise,” said Philip Yun, a North Korea expert and executive director at the Ploughshares Fund in San Francisco. “As many foreign leaders have surmised, Trump is more inclined to move forward with you with praise and not criticism, though Trump has shown praise does not assure the results one seeks.”

Jenny Town, a Korea specialist at the Stimson Center in Washington, said this approach — coupled with “a complex combination of contextual factors and this unique cast of characters leading the relevant countries” — has created a chance to drastically reduce the threat North Korea poses to the region and the United States.

“Appealing to Trump’s ego has worked well for both Moon and Kim, encouraging his personal decisions on how to deal with North Korea, especially when those decisions are unpopular,” Town said. “But there is some truth to it as well, no matter how pandering it might come across.”

She said that while Trump may not necessarily be the only person who “can” solve this problem, he has been the only president in recent years willing to change tactics when the opportunity arises.

“I wouldn’t say Trump has more latitude but that he has less political baggage on this issue and is less deterred by criticism than some of his predecessors, especially since what he is doing has so far been well received by his political base,” Town added.

Last week’s inter-Korean leaders summit, the third this year, was also widely seen as an attempt by the two Koreas to bring the U.S. back to the negotiating table.

During those talks, the North reportedly agreed to “permanently” decommission a key missile facility under the watch of “experts from relevant countries” and said it is willing to close its main Nyongbyon nuclear complex if the United States takes “reciprocal measures.”

But, however enticing the inter-Korean summit proposals appeared, Kim has yet to directly say what commensurate actions Pyongyang might be expecting from Washington.

A spokesman for South Korea’s presidential Blue House said later Monday that Moon and Trump had discussed the issue and were “communicating closely about corresponding measures,” according to the South’s Yonhap news agency.

In a hint at a possible three-way summit involving Moon, the spokesman also said the two leaders had held in-depth discussions on the date and location of the second Trump-Kim meeting.

Moon had earlier insisted that a declaration formally ending the Korean War, a step ahead of a formal peace treaty, would be one possible reciprocal measure for the North, saying it may provide some security assurances to the Kim regime. Fighting in the 1950-53 war was halted by an armistice, which has governed the conflict ever since.

The North has in recent weeks urged the U.S. to issue such a declaration, calling one “a prerequisite for peace.”

Pyongyang has also been seeking relief from crippling U.S. and international sanctions, though Washington has said it remains too early in the process for such a move.

“Now is not the time to ease pressure,” Pompeo said Monday.

Nevertheless, any second Trump-Kim meeting is likely to take up those issues.

But such a summit would also come amid reports that the North’s nuclear production continues unabated.

In a recent report posted to the Heritage Foundation think tank website, Bruce Klingner, a Korea analyst and former CIA officer, called a second meeting “premature… without any evidence of North Korea’s commitment to abandon its nuclear arsenal.”

In an apparent attempt to underscore Kim’s seriousness and swipe away concerns of skeptics, Moon on Monday also spotlighted the inter-Korean summit last week as evidence of the North Korean leader’s commitment to giving up its nukes.

“In particular, it’s hugely significant that Chairman Kim personally expressed his commitment to denuclearization in front of the world media, and that I highlighted once again the denuclearization agreement reached with Chairman Kim in front of 150,000 citizens of Pyongyang,” Moon said, referring to a speech last Wednesday in the North Korean capital after he and Kim took in a mass games performance.

That emotional address — the first speech in the North by a president from the South — touched on reunification and even mentioned “a nuclear weapon-free and nuclear threat-free” Korean Peninsula — a reference to April’s historic Panmunjom Declaration.

“Now, North Korea’s decision to relinquish its nuclear program has been established to a degree that not even those within North Korea can reverse,” he added.

Questions, however, remain about Pyongyang’s sincerity — it has in the past issued similar vows of “denuclearization.”

The Ploughshares Fund’s Yun, who was also a member of a U.S. government working group that managed American policy and negotiations with North Korea under President Bill Clinton, disputed Moon’s insinuation that Pyongyang’s decision had made reversing course near impossible.

“North Korea has committed in the past to denuclearization, but has not followed through,” he said, noting North-South agreements in the early 1990s that had also talked of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. “These had the imprimatur of the North’s leader, as well; as did the 1994 Agreed Framework and other agreements.”

Still, he said there is significance in Kim “saying this now and so vocally.”

“We should take advantage of this and test what this really means,” Yun added.

And with his unorthodox approach, Trump — perhaps unexpectedly — may be just the man for the job.