[News analysis] Moon lays down energetic drumbeat for Trump, but US president doesn’t play same tune

Posted on : 2019-09-25 16:30 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Washington appears unwilling to show cards regarding N. Korea
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump before their summit at the InterContinental New York Barclay on Sept. 23. (Blue House photo pool)
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump before their summit at the InterContinental New York Barclay on Sept. 23. (Blue House photo pool)

“When you have your third summit with Chairman Kim, [. . .] I hope that this will go down as a truly historic moment in world history. This will be a great achievement that equals a great transformation in terms of a complete denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula” — South Korean President Moon Jae-in

“Right now, people would like to see [a third North Korea-US summit] happen. I [also] want to know what’s going to be coming out of it. [. . .] We’re getting along very well with North Korea. I have a good relationship with Kim Jong-un.” — US President Donald Trump

During the 65 minutes of his ninth summit with US President Donald Trump, at the InterContinental New York Barclay on the afternoon of Sept. 23, South Korean President Moon Jae-in laid down an energetic drumbeat for Trump, but Trump didn’t play the tune Moon was hoping for.

Shortly before the working-level negotiations between North Korea and the US that will determine whether or not the two countries hold a third summit, Trump seemed unwilling to show Moon what cards he has in his hand. That’s all part of his negotiating strategy of convincing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to take more steps toward denuclearization, which he hopes can get him reelected in November 2020.

“In light of current trends, it was inevitable that this summit would be of limited significance. It’s unrealistic to expect that Trump would show his bargaining chips against North Korea to Moon, rather than Kim,” said a former high-ranking official with extensive experience in negotiations.

As expected, the summit didn’t result in some concrete “knock-out punch” that would lead to a breakthrough in the situation. But one important signal was sent, a signal that deserves our careful consideration in the Korean Peninsula Peace Process.

The significance of reconfirming spirit of Singapore summit agreement

That signal appeared in an announcement by the Blue House that Moon and Trump had “positively assessed North Korea’s recent willingness to renew dialogue and had reconfirmed the continuing validity of the agreement reached in the [first North Korea-US] summit in Singapore.” A senior official at the Blue House elaborated as follows: “President Trump confirmed that he’s strongly committed to reaching progress on denuclearization by holding negotiations based on the Singapore agreement.”

The Singapore agreement refers to a four-point joint statement released after the firstNorth Korea-US summit on June 12, 2018. In the statement, the two sides agreed to trade North Korea’s complete denuclearization (Clause 3) for resetting their bilateral relations (Clause 1) and establishing a lasting peace regime on the Korean Peninsula (Clause 2), and, as an initial confidence-building measure, for the North to return remains of American soldiers killed during the Korean War that have already been recovered and to search for the remains of other people killed or taken prisoner during the war (Clause 4).

The agreement basically outlines “a balanced approach to denuclearization and corresponding measures.” In short, the “spirit of the Singapore summit agreement” that the Blue House mentioned can be regarded as the shared view that the mutual confidence-building that appears in the text of the agreement can help achieve progress toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

While talking about “reconfirming the spirit of the Singapore summit agreement” might initially come across as bland diplomatic rhetoric, the reality is quite different. Since US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s third visit to North Korea on July 6-7, 2018, to deliberate ways of implementing the Singapore joint statement, North Korea has been vigorously criticizing the Americans for making “one-sided and gangster-like demands for denuclearization that go against the spirit of the Singapore summit” (a statement by the spokesperson of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry on July 7, 2018).

When Kim demanded a “new calculation” from the US during a speech before the Supreme People’s Assembly on Apr. 12, after the Hanoi summit ended without an agreement, he was effectively referring to the “principle of confidence-building and a step-by-step solution” (as Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho said during a press conference in Hanoi on Mar. 1). That principle can be seen as the core of the “spirit of the Singapore agreement,” as well as the shared view that emerged in that first summit.

The question, however, is what exactly the leaders of South Korea and the US think the spirit of the Singapore agreement means. A high-ranking official at the Blue House interpreted it as meaning “the search for a specific way to achieve meaningful progress.” That official also emphasized that “the leaders of South Korea and the US held an in-depth discussion about ways for the [North Korea-US] working-level talks to achieve meaningful results that could lead to a third summit.”

As it happens, Trump himself publicly stated on Sept. 18 that a new method might be good, as if he had North Korea’s request for a “new calculation” in mind. But a high-ranking official at the Blue House said that that concept didn’t come up during Trump and Moon’s summit.

There are basically two things that are being debated in the North Korea-US negotiations: first, principles of negotiations and agreements, and second, the agenda of the negotiations.

Is there a compromise between all-inclusive and step-by-step denuclearization?

The key question in regard to principles of negotiations and agreements is whether a compromise can be reached on the US’ push for an all-inclusive agreement with denuclearization as its final goal and North Korea’s insistence on a step-by-step agreement tied to the level of trust. This is a tricky issue that reflects differences not only in strategy but also in philosophy. Particularly noteworthy are US State Department Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun’s comments that “there are immediate actions that we can take” and that “both sides can quickly agree to significant actions” during a speech at the University of Michigan on Sept. 6. Biegun is the US’ chief envoy in its working-level negotiations with the North. Biegun’s remarks indicate that the US hasn’t entirely ruled out a gradual solution and that it could adjust its negotiating principles, provided that North Korea takes bold steps toward denuclearization.

The agenda of the negotiations involves a “balanced approach toward denuclearization and corresponding measures,” and the North Koreans have already proposed “the removal of threats to the safety of the regime and obstacles to development” in a Sept. 16 statement by the US affairs bureau chief at its Foreign Ministry. Decoded, that appears to be a request for a security guarantee and for the easing or lifting of sanctions.

The issue of a security guarantee is more amenable to a solution. The Blue House announced that Moon and Trump reconfirmed their pledge to “end 70 years of hostile relations, build a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, and not use force against North Korea” during their summit. Furthermore, North and South Korea agreed in principle to the ideas of setting up liaison offices and making an end-of-war declaration in their Hanoi summit. There are concerns, however, that Moon and Trump’s discussion of South Korean purchases of American weaponry during their summit could provoke a backlash from North Korea. On several occasions, Kim has harshly criticized the South Korean military for importing high-tech offensive weapons.

The obstacle presented by sanctions

The key obstacle is the question of easing or lifting sanctions. In his opening remarks at the summit, Trump said, “There’s been no lessening of the sanctions. There’s only been an increasing of the sanctions.” Furthermore, high-ranking officials at the Blue House related that “there was talk about the need to maintain sanctions” and that “no mention was made of resuming tourism to Mt. Kumgang and operations at the Kaesong Industrial Complex.” But experts say there’s no reason to take that as signaling inflexible US opposition to easing sanctions during its negotiations with North Korea. South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha’s remarks that “the US’ basic position is entering the negotiations with an open mind about matters including a security guarantee and lifting sanctions” in a New York press conference on Sept. 22 are of particular importance. A former high-ranking official and seasoned negotiator said that “the most important question is whether the question of [easing or lifting] sanctions will be put on the table during the North Korea-US negotiations.”

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

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

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