Asia Pacific / Politics | ANALYSIS

South Korean leader has work cut out for him in talks with Trump on North Korean nukes

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

South Korean leader Moon Jae-in heads to Washington for a crucial summit with U.S. President Donald Trump this week in hopes of persuading the mercurial leader to give some ground in his negotiations with North Korea over that country’s nuclear arsenal.

But Moon, who has seen his influence in the negotiation process wane, faces a daunting task in his attempt to bridge the gap in the two sides’ thinking in the wake of February’s Kim-Trump summit in Hanoi.

That summit, at which the Washington and Pyongyang had been widely expected to reach some kind of agreement, ended in a failure to reconcile North Korean demands for sanctions relief with U.S. demands for Kim to give up his weapons of mass destruction.

In announcing Moon’s meeting with Trump in Washington scheduled for Thursday, South Korea’s presidential office said the two would discuss ways “to coordinate their stance on setting up a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula through complete denuclearization” — a sign that Moon will be pushing hard for more flexibility in the U.S. position.

“It is clear that President Moon would like President Trump to return to the table with Kim Jong Un, and, better yet, he would like Trump and Kim to recapture the atmosphere and momentum on display last June in Singapore,” Alexis Dudden, a professor at the University of Connecticut who specializes in the modern history of Japan and Korea, said of last year’s historic U.S.-North Korea summit.

At that summit, Kim agreed in a vaguely worded 1½-page joint statement to “work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” while Trump committed to “provide security guarantees” to the regime.

Moon’s administration has urged sanctions exemptions for inter-Korean projects, including the reopening of the Kaesong industrial facility and Mount Kumgang tourism site, which he and Kim agreed to during their third summit in September last year.

The Trump administration, however, has maintained that it will not let up on sanctions that have crippled North Korea’s economy until it first relinquishes its nuclear weapons.

Still, Dudden said that Moon will likely seek “a staged approach” in which the U.S. offers some sanctions relief in exchange for demonstrable reductions in North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, while also signing off on South Korean efforts to engage the North.

But U.S. acquiescence to inter-Korean projects already agreed to at prior North-South summits may not be enough for Pyongyang at this point, others say.

“I think one of the lessons we learned from Hanoi is that despite what the U.S./ROK might think are good ideas, the North Koreans are not willing to negotiate for things they have already been promised,” Jenny Town, a fellow with the Stimson Center think tank, said using the acronym for South Korea’s formal name, the Republic of Korea.

Town, who also serves as managing editor of the respected North Korea-watching 38 North website, noted that the inter-Korean economic projects had already been committed to in accords at the two Koreas’ summits, adding that “these are not things that North Korea considers suitable measures” in U.S.-North Korea talks.

“It’s up to Moon to negotiate with the U.S. for those exemptions, but it will be to jump-start inter-Korean relations only; it will not help move the needle on the U.S.-DPRK front,” she said, using the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The North Koreans “want something more (or something) different that is unique to the U.S.-DPRK process,” Town added.

Indeed, in the weeks since Hanoi, top-ranking Kim regime officials have hinted that some form of sanctions relief could create a path that ultimately leads to a breakthrough. Perhaps more importantly, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui reportedly claimed on March 15 that Trump had initially taken a “flexible position” on sanctions in Hanoi, provided there was a “snapback” clause if Pyongyang restarted nuclear activities.

However, she said that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton “created an obstacle” to this approach.

Shortly after the Hanoi talks, Choe had warned in an apparent threat to halt talks with the U.S. that Kim may have “lost the will” to make a deal on his country’s nuclear program. But any policy shift could also be decided at a rare meeting of the ruling party’s powerful Central Committee being held Wednesday.

Both Bolton and Pompeo have been known to hold hard-line views of North Korea, with Pompeo agreeing with the characterization of Kim as a “tyrant” during a Senate hearing Tuesday and Bolton having the dubious distinction of once being labeled “human scum and a bloodsucker” by North Korea’s state media.

On Thursday in the U.S. capital, Moon will have to put Choe’s claim to the test, confirming whether or not Trump is invested in a longer-term process while also determining once-and-for-all who the key decision-makers and policy-crafters are on his team.

But even if he is able to make these determinations, Moon must still deal with Trump.

“President Trump has made abundantly clear that ultimately he is the only one making decisions about North Korea, and he is reliably unpredictable,” the University of Connecticut’s Dudden said.