[News analysis] Before summit, South Korea and US find common ground on North Korea

Posted on : 2017-05-17 17:13 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
First summit will reportedly focus on Moon and Trump building a rapport, as many top officials in both countries not yet appointed
President Moon Jae-in shakes hands with Matthew Pottinger
President Moon Jae-in shakes hands with Matthew Pottinger

South Korea and the US’s tentative agreement to hold a summit in Washington as early as the end of June appears to mean that both sides recognize the need to fill the gap in summit diplomacy, created by the impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye, as soon as possible. At the same time, the Blue House also seems determined to quickly dispel US concerns about South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in.

On May 16, Blue House officials said that Chung Eui-yong, head of the Blue House diplomacy and foreign affairs task force, and Matthew Pottinger, senior director for East Asia at the White House’s National Security Council, had largely agreed during a meeting at the Blue House that morning to hold a summit at the end of June.

The two sides’ announcement of their agreement on “four principles for the North Korean nuclear program” appears to mean that the North Korean nuclear issue may be given top billing in the summit agenda. Not only have both leaders already been emphasizing a solution to the North Korean nuclear issue, but the statement released after Chung and Pottinger’s meeting shows that the two sides have found some common ground. Since it would be awkward for both sides if they end up disagreeing about approaches to the North Korean nuclear issue in their first summit, they are expected to do their best to reach a general agreement during this meeting that emphasizes that they are on the same page. Military action is likely to be left out of the options, and the threshold of the proper conditions for resuming dialogue with North Korea is likely to be raised or lowered according to North Korea’s subsequent actions and South Korea and China‘s skill at diplomacy and mediation.

“The fact that the US and South Korea are looking for common ground on policy suggests that this is a good opportunity to resolve Korean Peninsula issues. Holding a meeting so soon means that Seoul intends to find a way to ‘engage’ in keeping with the Trump administration’s [North Korean policy framework of] ‘maximum pressure and engagement,’” said Kim Gi-jeong, director of the School of Public Administration at Yonsei University.

In the view of Kim Jun-hyeong, professor at Handong Global University, holding an early summit probably represents the new administration‘s “judgment that it should clear up the US’s misunderstanding and anxiety that it will be different from the governments over the past nine years.”

The issue of the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system is also likely to be one of the major items on the agenda at the summit. When asked on the afternoon of May 16 whether the THAAD issue had been discussed, Pottinger avoided responding directly, remarking that he and Chung had discussed a variety of fundamental issues affecting the South Korea-US alliance. He also said he expected that dialogue would continue in the future. This was consistent with remarks made by US Defense Department spokesperson Jeff David to foreign correspondents on May 15 that discussions about THAAD would obviously continue with South Korea’s new government while noting that the THAAD deployment was a decision made by the alliance. Previous remarks by Trump suggest that he will strongly want the issue of renegotiating the South Korea-US Free Trade Agreement to be added to the agenda as well.

But considering remarks by Senior Secretary to the President for Public Relations Yoon Young-chan that “we regard this summit as an opportunity for the two leaders to develop personal ties and friendship and are preparing accordingly,” it also seems possible that this meeting (which will be Trump and Moon’s first) will be more focused on the two leaders building general rapport rather than on concrete negotiations of pressing issues.

There are too many vacancies in related posts in South Korea and the US for the two sides to move forward with detailed deliberations. Some are even concerned by the fact that a specific timeline for the summit is being discussed when the new government in Seoul has not yet appointed top officials for security and foreign affairs. “Pushing for a summit with the US at the end of June seems too early considering that key diplomacy and security appointments have yet to be made including not only the Blue House National Security Chief but also the Unification Minister, Foreign Minister and Defense Minister.

Practically speaking, the schedule seems too tight for President Moon’s preparations for the summit to cover his vision and policy agenda for sensitive issues like the North Korean nuclear program and THAAD,” said an expert in foreign policy and security who was involved with Moon’s presidential campaign.

“The agenda should be getting to know President Trump and making a good impression. Rushing into policy discussions could backfire,” suggested Kim Jun-hyeong.

By Kim Ji-eun and Jung In-hwan, staff reporters, and Yi Yong-in, Washington correspondent

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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