Asia Pacific / Politics | ANALYSIS

Trump says no to eased sanctions, but South Korea's Moon keeps nuclear talks with Kim alive

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, on a mission to Washington on Thursday to kick-start nuclear diplomacy by persuading U.S. President Donald Trump to ease crushing sanctions on North Korea and gain an OK for inter-Korean projects, fell short in talks with Trump.

But is there a path forward for the U.S. and North Korea? And if so, what role could Moon play?

Trump rejected Moon’s calls for planned confidence-building economic projects with Pyongyang, dealing a blow to his efforts to restart nuclear talks with Kim Jong Un after Trump’s summit with the North Korean leader broke down in Hanoi in late February, in part over Kim’s demands for immediate sanctions relief.

Trump, speaking ahead of closed-door talks at the White House with Moon, said it “isn’t the right time” for signing off on sanctions exemptions for inter-Korean projects, including the reopening of the Kaesong industrial facility and Mount Kumgang tourism site, which Moon and Kim agreed to during their third summit in September last year.

Still, Trump did offer a qualified answer to a question on whether he would be willing to accept “smaller deals” to keep negotiations alive.

“I’d have to see what the deal is,” he said. “There are various smaller deals that maybe could happen. Things could happen. You can work out, step by step, pieces.”

But, he added, “At this moment, we’re talking about the big deal. The big deal is we have to get rid of the nuclear weapons.”

During the summit in Hanoi, Trump insisted on what officials described as “a big deal” that called for trading sanctions relief for Kim relinquishing all the North’s nuclear and other weapons programs — a bridge too far for the North Korean leader, who had instead offered to dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for the easing of some sanctions.

Frank Aum, a former senior Pentagon adviser on North Korea now with the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, said Trump appeared “open to any reasonable North Korea proposal and wouldn’t turn down a good deal just because it was a small one.”

“Trump’s apparent openness to a smaller deal is significant in the sense that President Moon can take this indication of flexibility to Chairman Kim as a way to entice North Korea back to talks,” Aum said, cautioning, however, that a smaller deal would have to be considerably in Trump’s favor — something the North Koreans would be unlikely to go for.

Vipin Narang, a North Korea expert and professor of international relations at MIT, said this interpretation is possible, but noted that Trump’s “intuition is that a small deal cannot by definition be a ‘good deal’ ” for Trump the businessman.

“My interpretation was more pessimistic than others perhaps — that he meant, ‘I’ve heard this suggestion about small step-by-step deals, but nah, I’m going to go big or go home and try to get all the nukes.’ At least for now,” Narang said.

Whatever the case, the two sides’ diplomatic outreach is now likely to gain at least some momentum after weeks of silence, with Trump reiterating Thursday that “the door remains open to dialogue,” and saying that a third summit with Kim “could happen.” Indeed, the U.S. leader reportedly asked Moon to “contact” North Korea, likely via inter-Korean summit talks, and to let him know of Pyongyang’s current stance on negotiations.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, quoting an unidentified senior Moon administration official, said that Moon would aim to meet with Kim at an early date, returning to the role of mediator after meeting Kim three times last year — in April and May at the truce village of Panmunjom and in September in Pyongyang — and helping Trump realize his two summits with Kim.

“At this point, I think President Moon will arrange a call or meeting with Chairman Kim in the near future to convey President Trump’s desire to continue negotiations and willingness to demonstrate flexibility,” Aum said.

“Given that the relationship between Trump and Kim is still good, I think Kim will be willing to give diplomacy another shot,” he said, adding that another visit to Pyongyang by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to discuss potential compromises would not be out of the question.

But Aum cautioned that the Trump administration and Kim regime would need to do their homework before any meeting because “this third summit, if it happens, will be the last shot.”

The Moon-Trump summit came as details of a meeting this week of the North’s rubber-stamp parliament emerged Friday. That event saw changes in the pecking order of its cadres and the elevation of one official who has been the target of U.S. sanctions.

North Korea replaced its longtime nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam, 91, with Choe Ryong Hae, a senior figure in both the military and ruling party. Choe was named Thursday to the role of president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, the official Korean Central News Agency reported.

The promotion solidifies Choe’s status as Kim’s No. 2 official, giving him more authority to enforce Kim’s rule over the state’s most powerful bodies. He has led departments “that perpetrate the regime’s brutal state-sponsored censorship activities, human rights violations and abuses, and other abuses in order to suppress and control the population,” according to the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which has targeted Choe with sanctions.

Even though there is no doubt about Kim’s position as the country’s supreme leader — Kim was also re-elected to his seat of power as the chairman of the State Affairs Commission on Thursday — the reclusive state has used a figurehead for decades to carry out routine functions such as receiving diplomats, with only the most important guests gaining an audience with the country’s real leader.

Information from Bloomberg added