Korea-watchers are relieved that the uniquely volatile combination of Moon Jae-In and Donald Trump did not cause a catastrophe at last week’s summit. If avoiding catastrophe was the objective, then mission accomplished, for now. But if the objective was to build trust between the two governments or resolve the thorniest issues between them, the two governments achieved little. They tabled the issue of THAAD and already have an emerging split on free-trade renegotiations. Difficult USFK cost-sharing talks lie ahead.
On North Korea policy, they agreed on “a phased and comprehensive approach using sanctions and dialogue,” which just about every pundit calls for, with significant variations in sequencing. They only agreed on Moon’s plans to “engage” North Korea in the vaguest possible terms:
The two leaders expressed deep concern about the well-being of the DPRK’s people, particularly in light of the egregious human rights violations and abuses committed against them by the government, and noted their intention to ensure sanctions have minimal impact on the DPRK’s vulnerable populations. President Trump expressed support for President Moon’s aspiration to restart inter-Korean dialogue on issues, including humanitarian affairs. The two leaders reaffirmed the importance of cooperating with the international community to hold the DPRK accountable for substantial progress on the deplorable human rights situation in that country. [Joint Statement of the U.S. and S. Korean governments, via the White House]
Interestingly enough, Yonhap’s version of this text contained some small-but-significant variations from the White House’s version:
The two leaders expressed deep concern about the well-being of the North Korean people, including the egregious human rights violations and abuses committed by the government, and noted their intention to ensure sanctions have minimal impact on North Korea’s vulnerable populations. President Trump supported President Moon’s aspiration to restart inter-Korean dialogue on issues including humanitarian affairs. The two leaders reaffirmed the importance of cooperating with the international community to ensure accountability and achieve substantial progress in North Korea’s deplorable human right situation. [Joint Statement of the U.S. and S. Korean governments, via Yonhap]
The phrase “issues including humanitarian affairs” is so vague as to be meaningless. It could mean anything from the exchange of baton-twirling teams to donating food aid to reopening Kaesong. Did the U.S. side agree to any such project that would violate U.N. sanctions, subsidize Pyongyang, and undercut the “maximum pressure” that Trump has just begun to apply in earnest? Almost certainly not, but Seoul may not understand it the same way.
The agreement has helped ease concerns about a possible mismatch in the allies’ approach toward the nuclear-armed North. It’s apparently one of the biggest accomplishments for Moon, a liberal president who took office in early May, in his first talks with Trump.
“With regard to our government’s resolve to resume South-North talks, it’s true that there was some burden from worries that it may undermine (international) sanctions on North Korea,” a government official said on the condition of anonymity. The summit deal, however, has dispelled such a view and laid the groundwork for the Moon government to push for its North Korea policy “with more confidence,” he added. [Yonhap]
Left-of-center South Korean pundits are still speaking of negotiating concessions for a freeze agreement, which the Trump administration has never expressed support for. It’s as if these pundits remain uninformed of the overwhelmingly negative U.S. reaction to Moon Chung-In’s trial balloons.
Nor did the visit resolve U.S. concerns over Moon’s shifting positions on security issues. One very influential person in government said to me on the last day of Moon’s visit, “I’m very worried about this South Korean president.” This letter from 18 senators of both parties, asking President Trump to push for a quick deployment of THAAD, barely masks Congress’s concerns that Moon’s delay of the deployment pending an environmental review was pretextual. Most amusing was Ambassador Nikki Haley’s episode of a politician accidentally telling the truth:
President Moon Jae-in has made “good strides” towards the United States and away from North Korea, and the communist nation is pushing the South Korean leader further away from it with a series of missile tests, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said.
Haley made the remark during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing as she talked about the deployment of the U.S. THAAD missile defense system in South Korea, which Moon has suspended pending an environmental assessment.
“He has actually made good strides towards us and away from North Korea on many levels and, you know, those missiles that continue to be tested continue to push him the other way. I do think he was trying to slow-walk THAAD to see where it was going to be,” Haley said. [Yonhap]
Unfortunately for President Moon, there is another necessary party to that dialogue, and that party isn’t pleased with the outcome of the summit at all.
North Korea on Sunday condemned the South for what it called Seoul’s “submission to the U.S.,” as leaders of the two countries joined their voices last week in urging Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambition.
The Rodong Sinmun, the North’s main newspaper, published a commentary that assessed Seoul’s senior officials as having “revealed their miserable appearance seized with sycophancy and submission to the U.S. occasioned by the chief executive’s first junket to the U.S.,” referring to South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s recent first trip to Washington.
The newspaper argued that albeit talks of alliance between the two sides, the U.S. “regards them (South Korea) as a mere puppet and colonial servant.”
The Rodong Sinmun further lashed out at the new Seoul administration, saying that its senior leadership would end up “into the rubbish heap of history” if the South “yields to the U.S” while antagonizing the North. [Yonhap]
Even mentioning the well-being of the North Korean people and their “deplorable human rights situation” was sure to quake Pyongyang into a volcanic rage. Pyongyang also unleashed this angry screed at Moon’s Foreign Minister, Kang Kyong-Hwa, calling her a “dolt.”
More fundamentally, there is an unbridgeable gap between the forms of engagement that Washington and Pyongyang would both accept. Washington’s consent is not only necessary because it is Seoul’s main security guarantor, but because it holds a vote in the U.N. Security Council and the U.N. committee that must agree to any “public or private support for trade” with North Korea, such as at Kaesong. And while Trump’s smart move would be to support Moon’s pursuit of forms of engagement that do not undercut sanctions — such as revenue-neutral athletic and cultural exchanges, and the donation of food and medicine in-kind to relieve the suffering of the North Korean people — Pyongyang has made it clear that it does not want those things; it wants cash and sanctions relief.
Worse, as tomorrow’s post will detail, Pyongyang has begun behaving like a nuclear hegemon with a right to make decisions about matters of governance inside South Korea itself.