What emerged from Thursday’s ROK-U.S. summit in Washington
While Moon goes home largely empty-handed, he can claim some modest successes
And though Moon and his entourage also met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton the same day, it appears little has changed in the U.S. administration as a result of the high-profile South Korean visit.
This, notably, is despite numerous statements which suggested Moon would try to convince Trump to reconsider his all-or-nothing approach to become amenable to supporting limited forms of inter-Korea sanctions relief.
NK Pro analysis based on public statements in the wake of the summit shows Friday that:
- The U.S. remains committed to seeking a “big deal” on denuclearization, with no hint of interest in partial sanctions relief any time soon;
- South Korea is doing its best to keep Trump committed to top-down and ongoing engagement with Kim Jong Un, ideally to crystallize in a third summit;
- Trump continues making efforts to portray an open-door to Kim Jong Un and is amenable to another meeting, in principle;
- Despite reiterating talking points about the “ironclad alliance,” there appear to be large differences in opinion on how best to approach denuclearization diplomacy.
In the run-up to the trip, officials in Seoul had repeatedly suggested that Pyongyang should be given more incentives to denuclearize – with several referring to the need now for an “early harvest” for the North
And while the ROK never fully explained what “early harvest” references exactly meant, many believed Moon would use the visit to ask for limited sanctions relief for inter-Korean projects, something North Korean media appeared this week interested also in seeing achieved.
But while one senior Blue House source on Tuesday said the two Presidents planned to discuss such incentives in Washington, Trump’s statements during the pre-summit meeting press briefing indicated he would not be supportive of any increased flexibility towards the North.
Asked whether he would consider relaxing sanctions to help Seoul “pursue some more economic projects” with the North, for example, Trump only said he would be open to discussing “certain humanitarian things.”
Pushed on whether he would support the resumption of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), Trump said “at the right time, I would have great support,” but “this isn’t the right time.” Sanctions, he continued, should “remain in place”
And though Trump expressed potential interest in smaller deals to “keep the process going,” he described a preference for a “big deal…to get rid of the nuclear weapons”.
In addition, Trump’s unexpected and public thanks to China and Russia – for their support on unspecified issues “at the border” – may have been intended to reinforce the idea that far from being interested in sanctions relief, the White House wants existing sanctions to be implemented as fully as possible.
Even if Moon may have been unsuccessful in convincing Trump of the need for greater negotiating flexibility towards the DPRK, it appears another objective may have been to use the summit to cement American buy-in for further top-down talks with Kim Jong Un.
Though time is needed to tell whether Moon was successful in this regard, precedence and Trump’s initial response suggest the flattery tactics may have worked once again.
During multiple pre-summit briefing remarks, Moon took sometimes extravagant and public steps to underscore Trump’s wisdom and thought leadership when it came to DPRK denuclearization diplomacy.
“I have to say that this dramatic turnaround that we have witnessed is solely down to your strong leadership,” Moon said about Trump’s dialogue with Kim Jong Un.
Moon also appeared to seek to try and keep the U.S. President from considering additional pressure tactics to compel denuclearization.
“In terms of North Korean nuclear problem, all Korean people… now believe that you will be able to solve this problem through a dialogue.”
Notably, Moon also sought to lightly pressure Trump publicly on timelines, saying that a promptly scheduled third summit would be important in order to “maintain the momentum of dialogue…(and) positive outlook….to the international community.”
For Trump’s part, too, his remarks suggested a personal interest in continuing the top-down approach with Kim Jong Un.
“I enjoy the summits. I enjoy being with the Chairman. I think it’s been very productive. And it really is — it’s a step by step,” Trump said.
Furthermore, Trump pointed out that he was not seeking additional pressure.
“I didn’t want to do that because of my relationship with Kim Jong Un. I did not want to do that. I didn’t think it was necessary. As you know, a couple of weeks ago, I held (new sanctions) back.”
But when pushed on conditions that would be necessary for a third summit, Trump said “it largely depends on Chairman Kim,” suggesting it is still up to North Korea to shift its position – not Washington’s.
Overall, though, this was one area of consensus that is likely to have emerged from the Washington summit.
Moon’s efforts to cement public buy-in from Trump in a top-down approach – and Trump’s interest in proving to Kim Jong Un that he is open to more talks – showed an area of accord, even if there is no sign of when or how a third summit may emerge.
Recycling talking points
Statements issued by the White House, Blue House, and joint press availability all made efforts to rehash well-known talking points about the two countries long-standing relationship.
Talk of Moon’s visit strengthening “friendship and alliance” and Trump seeing that “coordination and cooperation (with) the ROK on North Korea (is) stronger than ever,” was always to be expected from the White House, for example.
And Pence’s reported remarks to Moon that “the door is open for dialogue” and that the U.S. is “hopeful about (its) resumption” was unsurprising for the Blue House to release to ROK domestic stakeholders.
However, the lack of a joint-statement following the meeting and Trump’s own apparent disinterest in the entire encounter suggest deep differences surrounding the best approach to North Korea diplomacy exist beneath the surface.
Despite Tweeting enthusiastically on the same day as meetings with Moon in September and May last year, Trump was in contrast completely silent on social media about his Thursday meeting with the South Korean President.
Notably, he also reserved only a short period of time to meet Moon – less than two hours – despite the South Korean President’s long-distance trip from Seoul.
And from Seoul’s perspective, even the state-owned Yonhap News Agency described the visit as “hasty,” something that “apparently confirms a gap between the U.S. and North Korea.”
With inter-Korean policy such a vital part of his portfolio, Moon’s ambitious effort to convince Washington on the need to be more flexible on DPRK diplomacy seems, largely, to have failed, indicators suggested so far.
However, Moon can be happy about two modest successes.
Firstly, he appears to have got further buy-in from Trump on the need to maintain a friendly and top-down approach, something South Korea probably values highly given the hawkish nature of remarks from senior officials like Pompeo and Bolton.
Secondly, Moon will have welcomed the fact that two Congressmen – Ro Khanna (CA-17) and Andy Kim (NJ-3) – urged Trump to support enhanced inter-Korean cooperation on Thursday.
However, that will do likely do little to change the status quo.
Absent White House support for even modest sanctions relief to facilitate a minor enhancement of inter-Korean cooperation, Moon will now have little to offer North Korea in the short-to-medium term future.
As a result, it’s increasingly difficult to see how South Korea might now be able to catalyze a route forward to a third U.S.-DPRK summit, something that has both domestic and international implications.
With the first anniversary of the Panmunjeom declaration less than two weeks away, the chances that Moon can secure an inter-Korean breakthrough any time soon now appear to be low, which if unsolved, may cause voters to turn away from his party in April 2020 National Assembly elections in South Korea.
And the longer it takes to overcome the current impasse in U.S.-DPRK negotiations, the less motivation there may be for either Trump or Kim Jong Un to seek a third summit any time soon.
With the high-stakes 2020 U.S. Presidential election on the horizon, the logic of engaging in risky high-level summit talks has, increasingly, fewer advantages for either party.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
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