The March 9 announcement of a potential late May summit between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un was greeted with surprise and even consternation by many analysts and Korea watchers. Despite the unprecedented possibility of a sitting U.S. president meeting with North Korea’s leader, many questions remain regarding Pyongyang’s possible motives and also what if anything can be achieved by such a hastily arranged summit, particularly with such an ill-prepared White House.
These doubts have only increased with the recent firing (by presdiential tweet) of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Tillerson’s replacement, CIA director Mike Pompeo, will not face Senate confirmation hearings until April. Furthermore, there is discussion that Trump’s national security advisor, General H.R. McMaster, is also on the way out, possibly to be replaced by John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush. Bolton is a well-known hardliner on North Korea, who during his time in the Bush administration referred to members of the State Department’s East Asia Bureau as the “EAPeasers” for favoring diplomacy rather than force. He has repeatedly called for the military option against Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile program.
Constant speculation about the Trump-Kim summit and the seemingly endless tumult emanating from the White House has crowded out attention on another important and far more certain event, namely, the inter-Korean summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un. The third-ever inter-Korean summit meeting is due to be held at the truce village of Panmunjom in late April.
Although the causal role of Trump’s more aggressive stance toward North Korea should not be discounted, both Seoul and Pyongyang played a significant (if not definitive) part in fostering recent talks, reducing tensions, and laying the groundwork for any future breakthrough. Consistent with its proactive diplomacy, Seoul has shifted into high gear planning for the upcoming summit.
Over the last week, following their meeting with Kim in Pyongyang and their follow-up briefing with Trump in Washington DC, Chung Eui-yong (the South Korean national security advisor) and Suh Hoon (the director of the National Intelligence Service) have made the regional diplomatic rounds. Chung visited Beijing and Moscow and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, respectively, in order to brief them on South Korea’s efforts. Meanwhile, Suh visited Tokyo and met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for the same purpose.
Yesterday, after Chung and Suh returned to Seoul, the Blue House (the South Korean presidential office) announced the main personnel and committee structure South Korea will use in preparation for the Moon-Kim summit. The Korea Times reports that Blue House chief of staff Im Jong-seok will head the committee, with the Minster of Unification Cho Myoung-gyon assisting him. Other committee members include Chung, Suh, presidential chief of staff for policy Jang Ha-sung, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, Defense Minister Song Young-moo, and Minister of the Office for Government Policy Coordination Hong Nam-ki.
The committee itself will be divided into three subcommittees. The first, headed by Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung, will focus on the agenda for the summit. The second will promote the summit and be headed by presidential chief press secretary, Yoon Young-chan. The third will organize the summit meeting and be led by NIS senior director Kim Sang-gyun. Chief of Staff Im, Minister of Unification Cho, and the three subcommittee heads will meet three to four times a week, and the entire committee will meet once a week or every other week before the summit occurs.
A Blue House official said the “committee was simplified compared to the one created for the 2007 summit, in order to deal swiftly with issues that arise.” The 2007 summit was held in Pyongyang near the end of President Roh Moo-hyun’s administration. At the time, Roh was a lame duck president and some analysts saw the summit as hastily devised and even politically motivated. Conditions have since changed. Moon is early in his term of office; he was a close observer and participant in those earlier events, and learned from them.
Yet, no matter how shrewd Moon is or how systematically his administration prepares for the summit, obvious difficulties persist. The first and most immediate is Seoul’s summit partner and the uncertainty surrounding its intent. I spoke with Christopher Green, senior adviser for the International Crisis Group (ICG) and editor at Sino-NK, to gauge the prospects for the upcoming summit.
Green noted, “North Korea treats its relations with the South as a strategic tool to access the United States… In this instance, to go around the need for prior steps toward denuclearization.” Historically, Pyongyang often pursued direct relations with Washington and attempted to sidestep Seoul in the process. Now, however, Seoul is the conduit to Washington. With Trump’s apparent acceptance of Kim Jong-un’s invitation, it appears to have worked, at least for the moment.
North Korea still sees Seoul as the illegitimate Korean “other,” but working through it may provide them the path to some sort of modus vivendi with the United States. This would bring Pyongyang the recognition and legitimacy it so desperately desires, and without having to make any prior commitment to denuclearization, which previous U.S. administrations have demanded.
What about the summit itself?
As long as relations with the United States are on an upward trajectory, the Moon-Kim summit will be cordial and North Korea will make some modest concessions and that cordiality will go on into the summer and beyond. If, however, relations with the United States falter, relations with South Korea will suffer almost no matter what the Moon administration does. But the known unknown here is the degree of North Korea’s need, and the hierarchy of its needs. Without that information, it is harder to game out how things will proceed. That is North Korea’s strong suit…North Korea will acquire economic benefits from China and South Korea long before it gets any from the United States. It knows that. So in that singular regard, relations with South Korea are decoupled from those with the United States.
In short, aside from some small concessions by Pyongyang or Seoul, any substantive progress remains a function of the United States and its relationship with both Koreas. This is the second obvious difficulty facing the Moon administration.
On the one hand, it has little ability to restrain Trump’s impetuous behavior, something even his closest advisers cannot seem to do. What if Trump suddenly decides that talks with Pyongyang are not worth pursuing? Pompeo’s appointment and Bolton’s possible selection do not indicate Trump is readily embracing a diplomatic solution. On the other hand, Trump continues to show brazen disregard for South Korea’s interests. He recently appeared to threaten to remove U.S. troops from South Korea if Seoul did not give him what he wanted on trade issues.
Despite these many severe difficulties, one thing remains clear. Moon will doggedly continue his constructive approach within a severely constrained and fraught situation.