Two impending events -- one in Washington and the other in Pyongyang -- are widely expected to affect the future course of the denuclearization of North Korea. It is hoped that all three major players -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in, US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un -- will turn the events into positive ones.
The summit discussions between Moon and Trump, scheduled for Thursday in Washington, draw attention because the two leaders will discuss how to tackle North Korea for the first time since the second summit between Trump and Kim fell through in Hanoi in February. Moon made it clear that he was flying to Washington to revive momentum for the US-North Korea talks.
The Moon-Trump summit coincides with the opening Thursday of the North’s Supreme People’s Assembly, at which Kim is expected to announce policy lines, including those on denuclearization. Kim’s statement will no doubt enable one to read what is on his mind regarding disarmament.
With denuclearization talks between the US and the North stalled for months, the two events raise both hopes and concerns. Part of the optimism is based on Moon’s past experience in brokering the first-ever summit between Trump and Kim last June.
Citing the North’s uncompromising attitude, Trump abruptly canceled his first meeting with Kim, but Moon intervened and disaster was averted. Moon and Kim met at Panmunjom in May after Trump’s announcement, and that meeting was followed by a telephone call between Moon and Trump. That is what saved the US-North Korea summit.
A similar meeting at Panmunjom could take place upon Moon’s return home after talks with Trump this week. There is also a chance that Moon may send a special envoy to Pyongyang to share with the North Korean leadership what he discussed with Trump.
Both Trump and Kim also seem to want to continue the negotiations. The US president ruled out additional sanctions on the North and reaffirmed that he had “a good relationship” with Kim. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed his boss’s view, saying he was confident there would be a third summit between the two leaders.
While there have been news reports about alleged violations of the international sanctions by North Korea, the Pyongyang government has not reverted to its hostile policy toward the US even after the collapse of the Hanoi talks. All these factors suggest a favorable environment for Moon’s mediating role.
But the prospects are not all bright. Most worrisome is the possibility that Moon and Trump may have different stances on how to bring the North back to the negotiation table.
While reaffirming their hope of restarting negotiations with the North, Trump and US officials, including Pompeo, made it clear that Washington would stick to sanctions for now. They also insist on the North accepting a “big deal,” for which the US demands the handover of nuclear weapons and materials and the dismantlement of weapons of mass destruction, including ballistic missiles and biochemical weapons. On the contrary, North Korea calls for “phased” denuclearization, seeking partial lifting of the sanctions that are strangling its economy.
It is against this backdrop that attention is being paid to Moon’s role -- more specifically the role of his proposal, if he has any -- in narrowing the differences between Trump and Kim or persuading either side to make concessions.
What’s worrisome is that while no tangible, serious rift has emerged between Moon and Trump, some experts and lawmakers in South Korea and the US have expressed concerns about the possibility that Moon might ask Trump to be “flexible” on sanctions. As they note, it is Kim and not Trump whom Moon needs to talk into building the environment for the resumption of denuclearization talks.
While a unified strategy is required of Moon and Trump, a more decisive element lies in the position of Kim, which is anticipated to be disclosed in his policy speech during the Supreme People’s Assembly session.
After the breakdown of the Hanoi talks, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui said Kim would soon make public the country’s future course of action regarding negotiations with the US.
Pompeo said the US side would “closely watch” the North’s parliamentary session, while expressing expectations that there would be “no surprises.”
In all, Kim’s reaffirmation of his commitment to denuclearization and its faithful implementation is essential for Moon and Trump to get the “right deal” the US president emphasized. The Moon-Trump talks should focus on how to achieve this common goal, without causing a conflict in their alliance.