Tricky mediationSouth Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump in their first meeting after the collapse of the summit in Hanoi in February had a meeting in Washington and agreed to little. Moon did not get any positive response from Trump on his ideas for eased sanctions on North Korea or a third summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Trump remained steadfast. He was against any economic concessions including reopening the inter-Korea industrial complex in Kaesong as it was not “the right time” and reiterated that doing nothing is the best he can offer Pyongyang for now.
“We could always have increased them [sanctions], but I didn’t want to do that at this time,” Trump said. “Frankly, I had the option of significantly increasing them, but I didn’t want to do that because of my relationship with Kim.” He indicated a “third summit could happen,” but he made it clear that Washington will settle for nothing except for a “big deal,” which is “to get rid of the nuclear weapons.
“You can work out, step by step, pieces,” he said, suggesting he was in no rush to press for meaningful developments on North Korea.
Trump rejected Seoul’s suggestion of seeking smaller or phased “good enough” deals to keep North Korea on the path toward denuclearization.
Even though Trump was clear about his ways, the Blue House claimed that the leaders of South Korea and the United States shared the same opinion on the means to achieve denuclearization and permanent peace. The tone of the White House statement was different. It said that the two leaders agreed North Korea must commit to final and fully verifiable denuclearization (FFVD). It gave greater mention to bilateral trade issues, unlike the Blue House statement that suggested North Korea had been the main topic.
The only gain was Trump’s blessing for Moon’s continued role as mediator between him and Kim Jong-un. Trump asked Moon to inform him of North Korea’s position through any inter-Korean summit or other contact. It was an indication that Trump was still open to continued dialogue.
Still, Seoul must not be too eager. During his Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim said he was open to another summit with Trump and did not mention one with Moon. If the leaders of the two Koreas do meet for the fourth time, Seoul should coordinate the topic so that some tangible outcome could come from the talks.
Optimism should be kept at bay. Seoul must be clear in relaying Washington’s position to Pyongyang. The United States reaffirmed in recent summit talks with South Korea that nothing can move forward unless North Korea completely surrenders nuclear weapons. If another meeting between Kim and Trump ends in failure, military tensions in the Korean Peninsula may build up again.
JoongAng Sunday, April 13, Page 30