Moon-Trump talks fall short of creating fresh momentum for US-NK denuclearization talks
The latest talks between President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump showed that the two have -- for now -- few means to accelerate the US-North Korea negotiations on denuclearization.
In other words, the future developments of international efforts to disarm the rogue regime will depend on what course of action its young leader Kim Jong-un takes in the weeks or months to come.
The Moon-Trump meeting, held in Buenos Aires on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit, had drawn attention as observers speculated whether it would bring fresh momentum to deadlocked denuclearization talks between the US and the North.
The stalemate stems from an extended tug-of-war between the two sides. The US demands the North take further, substantial denuclearization actions, whereas the North insists Washington reward it for what it has already done by easing sanctions and declaring the end of the Korean War.
Details of the one-on-one meeting between Moon and Trump are unclear, but statements released after the 30-minute discussion pointed to a lack of agreement on substantial steps to get North Korea’s denuclearization process back on track.
The statements said that the two leaders agreed to maintain sanctions against the North until it takes steps for complete denuclearization. Moon and Trump also discussed plans for Kim’s visit to South Korea and a second US-North summit.
A spokesperson for Moon said that Trump reaffirmed his commitment to holding a second summit with Kim early next year. Later, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he expects the second Trump-Kim meeting to take place early next month.
Although he kept alive plans for a second meeting with Kim, Trump made it clear that his priority for now is pressuring North Korea.
Indeed, the statement released by the White House used stronger words than that by the South Korean side, saying “vigorous enforcement of existing sanctions to ensure the North understands that denuclearization is the only path to economic prosperity and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
But it is questionable whether the Moon-Trump agreement on maintaining sanctions means that the South Korean president -- whose rush to improve ties with North Korea at the risk of creating cracks in international sanctions caused conflict with both the US and Japan – has changed his position in earnest.
One can bet Moon made a concession for the sake of agreement with Trump.
On the day the agreement was made, South Korea sent six train cars to the North to conduct a joint inspection of railways as the first step in connecting cross-border transportation. The Seoul government obtained exemption from the UN sanctions for the inspection.
The railway project and other inter-Korean cooperation and exchange programs have often drawn skepticism about their impact on efforts to disarm North Korea. Moon’s obsession with Kim’s visit to the South within the year faces the same skepticism.
Given what Moon’s aides said recently, the South Korean side wants Kim to visit the South in the middle of this month as the North Korean leader had promised Moon that he would do so during their meeting in Pyongyang in September.
But Cheong Wa Dae officials now say “there are many possibilities.” In other words, this depends on what decision the North Korean leader makes. Putting too much stake on things like this weakens our position in dealing with the unpredictable partner in the North.
Moon and his aides must remember that the resumption of high- and working-level dialogue channels between the US and the North -- preliminary steps to a second Trump-Kim meeting -- is more urgent and important than the improvement of inter-Korean relations.
Even Kim’s visit to the South -- the first-ever by a North Korean leader -- would be meaningless if it is not accompanied by real progress on denuclearization.