UPDATE: Over the Memorial Day weekend, South Korean President Moon Jae-in held an impromptu meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and announced that Kim remains committed to the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula despite President Trump’s earlier announcement to cancel a June 12 summit to discuss the North’s nuclear program. The next day, on May 27, a team of U.S. officials crossed into North Korea to prepare for the potential summit between Kim and Trump in Singapore. Later that day, Trump suggested the meeting will go forward, tweeting, “I truly believe North Korea has brilliant potential and will be a great economic and financial Nation one day. Kim Jong Un agrees with me on this. It will happen!”
Hours before we were about to go to press, The Diplomat — like many news outlets — assumed that the widely anticipated summit between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s young dictator Kim Jong-un, scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, would go ahead, despite recent grumblings from the North. But as the old adage goes, you know what happens when you assume — especially with these two leaders.
On May 24, Trump sent Kim a letter announcing he was pulling out of the summit, citing Kim’s “tremendous anger and open hostility” in recent statements. Later, he even hinted at the possibility of a pre-emptive U.S. military strike, despite the fact that hours earlier, North Korea had invited foreign journalists to witness the destruction of an underground nuclear test site. But Trump — ever the dealmaker — also left open the possibility of a future meeting, writing, “I felt a wonderful dialogue was building up between you and me, and ultimately, it is only that dialogue that matters. Some day, I look very much forward to meeting you.”
The official response from North Korea was remarkably restrained, saying that Trump’s move goes against the “world’s wishes” and that it will give the president “time and opportunity” to reconsider.
Meanwhile, South Korea was blind-sighted. President Moon Jae-in — who had just met with Trump less than 24 hours before his announcement — said he was “very perplexed and sorry” about the abrupt cancellation. That’s putting it mildly for a man who has spent a lifetime in pursuit of peace on the Korean Peninsula — and who has essentially hinged his reputation on bringing two wildly unpredictable leaders together in an effort to avert a catastrophic nuclear confrontation.
Moon’s Wild Ride
Raised as the son of refugees who had fled North Korea during the Korean War, Moon entered office with the goal of signing a peace agreement with the North during his term. That possibility, unthinkable less than a year ago, seemed tantalizing close in recent months.
While all eyes are glued on the blinking contest between Trump and Kim, behind the scenes is Moon, a former human rights activist who is often described as a practical — and low-key — mediator. Those skills will be put to the test as he undoubtedly tries to salvage his détente.
Trump’s bellicose threats that the U.S. was “ready if necessary” to strike the North if it engages in a “foolish or reckless act” seem to have brought the war of words back to square one. Just several months ago, the U.S. president engaged in a juvenile game of name-calling with Kim, mocking him as “Little Rocket Man” and threatening to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea.
Those taunts, along with talk of a U.S. “bloody nose” strike on the North, likely prompted Moon to reach out to Kim in a bid to cool tensions and stave off a devastating war. He invited North Korea to participate in the Pyeongchang Olympic Games in February. Officials from the North and South then held a series of secret meetings before dramatically announcing that Kim was willing to meet with Trump — and that Trump had accepted. And in April, Kim became the first North Korean leader to set foot inside the South when he met with Moon along the two countries’ tense border, where they agreed to take steps toward formally ending the 1950-53 Korean War and denuclearizing the peninsula.
Ed Griffith, course leader in Asia-Pacific studies at the University of Central Lancashire in England, said it was Moon who deserves the praise. While Moon’s efforts have stalled, the South Korean president “deserves enormous credit for what he’s achieved so far,” Griffith told The Diplomat prior to Trump’s announcement.
Shihoko Goto, the senior Northeast Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Asia Program, agrees. “If anyone deserves the Nobel Peace Prize, it’s Moon Jae-in,” she told us in early May.
Speaking to us hours after Trump backed out of the summit, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said this latest twist won’t necessarily hurt Moon’s reputation.
“I think even if he can’t salvage it, he will have demonstrated that he did make progress and is seeking to produce a compromise … rather than confrontation,” he said, adding that Moon stands to benefit because both Trump and Kim will be seen as taking maximalist, extreme positions.
“Unfortunately, we have something approaching an all-or-nothing position on both sides, and we may end up with an all-and-nothing result.”
Not Entirely Surprising
Cordesman said he was not surprised by Trump’s about-face. “It was clear from the start that North Korea is going to be extremely reluctant to really give up its nuclear capabilities and that the U.S. was taking a very hard line in demanding how much it would have to give up to get any kind of concessions,” he said.
“I think this was not inevitable by any means,” he added, “but the moment that the U.S. really laid out its position and did so without much concern for diplomatic tact, it was almost inevitable that the North Koreans would react.”
They did just that. On May 15, Kim, angered by joint air force drills between South Korea and the U.S., threatened to pull out of the summit altogether. He even backtracked on the central premise of the talks: abandoning his nuclear program, saying he would not agree to “one-sided” demands. But the North directed much of its ire at John Bolton. Earlier, Trump’s hawkish national security advisor — who had worked to scuttle previous nuclear negotiations during the George W. Bush administration — made the provocative suggestion that North Korea follow the example of Libya, which shipped out its entire nuclear arsenal in 2003. But it’s not exactly a model the North would like to emulate. In 2011, just as Kim was taking power, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was brutally killed during the Arab Spring uprisings.
Vice President Mike Pence repeated the example of Libya in an interview, prompting a furious response from the North, which called Pence a “political dummy.”
Despite the heated rhetoric, many analysts speculated that Kim could have been bluffing to gain leverage ahead of the talks or to bolster his image back home. The summit, after all, was his idea. At the same time, though, the North has a history of vacillating between hostility and outreach and reneging on high-profile deals at the last minute. But in the end it was Trump — having initially brushed off the North’s diatribe — who walked away.
Trump was reportedly put off not only by Kim’s blustering, but also by the failure of North Korean representatives to show up for a prep meeting ahead of the June 12 summit. “[A]larm bells for were going off for Trump, who has often said that a negotiator must be willing to walk away to avoid looking desperate for a deal,” Brian Bennett wrote in May 24 article for Time.
The president may have also realized that getting North Korea to give up its nukes was far more complicated than the “dealmaker” had originally bargained for. Trump often appeared to be making up his strategy as he went along, and analysts feared that in his eagerness to declare victory, Trump would offer Kim concessions without anything tangible in return. The summit itself could have been interpreted as a validation of the North as an established nuclear power — a win for Kim.
“It was obvious from the president’s tweets that he had not studied the prior negotiations with North Korea,” Michael J. Green, a former Asia adviser to President George W. Bush, told Mark Landler and Eileen Sullivan for a May 24 New York Times article. “If he had spent time with anyone who had done this before, it was clear that North Korea was going for sanctions relief and de facto recognition as a nuclear weapons state.”
Many experts warned that Trump —who has sought steep cuts to the State Department and generally disdains policy advice — was woefully unprepared for a face-to-face meeting with Kim.
“It’s a complete gamble, and that’s the problem. We are flying blind, because that meeting is not embedded in any kind of expertise or strategy. So it could pay off or we could get played terribly,” Ronan Farrow, a Pulitzer-winning reporter and former government aide, told Tommy Vietor in a podcast interview weeks before Trump scrapped the summit.
“This is one of the wiliest diplomatic opponents in the world,” he added. “They have lied to us before about these very same points that they’re making sunny promises about now.”
Devil in the Details
Those sunny promises have bedeviled three past administrations.
Since the 1990s, Pyongyang has repeatedly broken promises to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for aid and security assurances. Another phased, synchronized approach — the kind Kim wants — could allow the North to drag out talks again, benefiting from sanctions relief while clinging to its nukes.
Trump, along with his North Korea point person, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, insisted that the U.S. would not seek regime change and was prepared to offer the North trade and significant capital investment if Kim fully relinquished his nukes.
But that gets to the thorny question at the heart of the current standoff: the definition of denuclearization. To the U.S., it means “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization,” a high bar.
To the North, it likely means something entirely different, as evidenced by Kim’s recent warnings that his country would not unilaterally give up its weapons program, signaling that he wanted to talk about security and economic guarantees first and disarmament second. Notably, the April summit between Kim and Moon was vague on disarmament details. A statement declared that “South and North Korea confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula” — but it avoided the phrase “nuclear-free North Korea.”
The implication is that the North wants the U.S. pull its 28,000 troops out of South Korea and remove Japan and South Korea from America’s nuclear umbrella. Even if Trump were to offer such unprecedented security guarantees and an ironclad commitment that Kim’s dynastic rule would be secured, many experts doubt Kim would ever give up a nuclear deterrent that took decades to build and that he sees as existential to his regime’s survival.
Cordesman said the prospects for finding common ground depend on two long-shot factors: “One is just how much the leader of North Korea feels he really has to make concessions to get economic assistance and cooperation. And it also depends on whether the U.S. is willing to make compromises about its requirements for dismantling the nuclear program, and willing to accept phased, tit-for-tat negotiations,” he told us. “And I think that given the history of the way the U.S. effectively killed its membership in the JCPOA [Iran nuclear agreement], it just is not clear the U.S. is prepared to do that. And in the past, North Korea has basically been willing to reduce part of its population to starvation rather than make concessions on its side.”
Even if Kim were to somehow agree to dismantle his weapons arsenal, verifying the North’s compliance — given how advanced and concealed its nuclear program is — could make the Iran nuclear deal look like a cakewalk by comparison.
Regardless, Griffith argues that it is not feasible to completely reverse Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
We “can’t get to a place where North Korea can’t make a nuclear weapon again,” he said. North Korea already has the know-how to build a nuclear weapon, he pointed out, having spent decades investing in nuclear research. This knowledge cannot be unlearned.
Blessing in Disguise?
Experts say the cancellation of the summit has its pros and cons. On the one hand, it could’ve been an embarrassment for Trump and a vindication for Kim. On the other, the possibility of a direct conflict is now back in play.
“Indeed, if the cancellation now leads to working-level talks between American and North Korean officials, that would be progress,” wrote Nicholas Kristof in a May 24 New York Times op-ed. “The risk, though, is that we’re back to confrontation.”
Trump’s decision to call off the summit “does not change the fundamental dynamics between the U.S. and North Korea: There was no way the summit could have succeeded so long as the Trump administration defined success as a North Korean agreement to total denuclearization,” Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told Axios shortly after the announcement. “Better that the summit was postponed than to have ended up in dramatic failure, which would have led some to conclude (incorrectly) that diplomacy had been tried and failed, leaving a dangerous and costly war as the only U.S. alternative.
“North Korea-U.S. relations now remain where they have long been, and where they most likely would have remained had the summit gone ahead. The central question is whether the U.S. is willing to accept a diplomatic outcome short of total North Korean denuclearization,” he added. “All-or-nothing foreign policy will lead either to failed diplomatic gambits, like this one, or, worse yet, conflict.”
Trump says that for now, he will continue his campaign of “maximum pressure” on the North. As part of that campaign, the administration galvanized international support to slap some of the toughest sanctions yet on North Korea — an economic squeeze that may have coerced Kim to the negotiating table.
Close advisers to Moon believe that Kim puts a much higher priority on growing the economy than his father did, according to a report by Jonathan Swan for Axios.
This may be why U.S. sanctions played a key role in Kim’s outreach. In February, the U.S. dramatically ramped up sanctions targeting the regime, curtailing its ability to smuggle oil and sell coal. The U.S. also aggressively pursued outside entities that were providing energy resources to the North, including shipping and energy firms in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.
“We cannot underestimate the impact of sanctions on this,” Griffith said. The sanctions had “begun to bite.”
There were small but sure signs that Kim wanted to shed his pariah status and end the North’s economic isolation. One such symbolic gesture was syncing North Korea back to the same time zone as the South, which Griffith said could be in “preparation for greater levels of economic engagement.”
He noted that Seoul’s robust economy — once labeled one of the “Asian tigers” — is just miles from the North Korean border. A peace deal that would boost trade and integration with Seoul could transform Pyongyang’s ossified economy.
That very much fits with Kim’s philosophy that the country’s pursuit of a nuclear deterrent should go hand in hand with its economic development.
Indeed, a May 6 report by Tara Francis Chan for Business Insider points to the theory that economics drove the surprise momentum for a peace deal.
South Korean news outlets reported that at their April summit, Moon gave Kim a USB drive containing an e-book and “a blueprint for economic cooperation between North Korea and South Korea,” according to Chan. The blueprint touted billions of dollars in potential trade and investment in areas such as railways and energy.
While there is a yearning among many Koreans for a deal that ultimately heals the division of their two states, “reunification is not on the immediate horizon at all,” Goto predicted.
“There is a lot of anxiety within South Korea about what peace with North Korea would mean,” she told us.
Young South Koreans in particular — who have no tangible connection to their countrymen in the North like their elders do — fear for their long-term job prospects if their country’s vibrant economy is integrated with the moribund one across the border.
Moon would have to perform another delicate balancing act as he tries to appease those who favor reunification and those who fear it. But for now, the more immediate challenge is whether the North-South rapprochement can even survive this latest Trump bump.
“The cancellation of the summit doesn’t bode well for North-South ties. North Korea has been signaling in recent days that inter-Korean progress will pay a price if there is a setback with the United States,” said Mintaro Oba, a former Korea desk officer at the State Department. “Now, North Korea will probably calculate that tying inter-Korean relations to the U.S. move to cancel the summit will heighten discontent in South Korea and deepen the divide between Seoul and Washington.”
Goto agreed that the move could cause a rift between Seoul and Washington. “A worrisome development has been less about the summit meeting being cancelled — rather, the fact that Trump reportedly did not consult U.S. allies including South Korea nor Japan was alarming,” she wrote in an email. “As Washington presses for more tariffs in the name of national security, frustration with broader U.S. policies will likely grow. Trump’s hopes should be less about Nobel prizes, but ensuring that alliances remain strong in light of increased uncertainties.”
It’s unclear if Moon will continue to offer the North economic carrots — in defiance of Washington — to keep peace talks alive. Yet the mere fact that Moon helped engineer what could still be the first meeting between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader is an impressive feat for someone who took the reins of a South Korea that seemed adrift.
Moon won the presidency in 2017 following a traumatic national trial that ended in the impeachment of his disgraced predecessor, Park Geun-hye. Moon entered office with soaring approval ratings, but many Asia-watchers questioned whether Seoul would be sidelined in regional politics, especially given the fast-moving events that put Trump and Kim on a collision course.
Less than a year into Trump’s presidency, North Korea tested its sixth and most powerful nuclear weapon and successfully launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). By late last year, experts were warning that the North could be months away from mastering the technology to mount a nuclear warhead atop an ICBM capable of striking the continental U.S.
Time was not on the side of a U.S. president who already had little patience for diplomacy — or for America’s traditional alliances.
Indeed, Trump was elected on a protectionist “America First” platform, declaring that allies — including South Korea — should pay the U.S. more for the defense it provides. He also pledged to rip up or renegotiate trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, while igniting a possible trade war with China.
But under Moon’s leadership, Seoul has been a powerful, if quiet, force in the region.
Moon’s biography is at once compelling and challenging.
Born to refugees who fled North Korea, Moon spent his early years in poverty before enlisting in mandatory military service and becoming a special forces soldier. After serving, he enrolled in law school — and was jailed for participating in pro-democracy rallies protesting the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee.
Moon then worked for two decades as a human rights lawyer, often taking on cases for students and low-wage laborers. In 2003, he left his law practice to become chief of staff to his longtime friend, Roh Moo-hyun, who as president advocated engagement with the North.
In 2012, Moon ran for president himself against Park Geun-hye, the daughter of the dictator he once denounced. Park Geun-hye, a conservative, took a more hardline approach toward the North than Moon, a liberal who favored dialogue. Moon narrowly lost that race, but following the corruption trial that led to Park’s impeachment in 2017, Moon got his second chance.
“He’s as much an activist as he is a politician,” said Goto.
Moon was elected in part to forge a more open, even conciliatory, relationship with North Korea.
In a New Year’s press conference, he said his goal “is to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem and solidify peace during my term. War must not break out on the Korean Peninsula again.”
Moon has even proposed reducing the South’s mandatory military service from 21 months to 18 month and cutting the number of troops overall — ideas that have met with resistance in light of the North’s military provocations, according to the center-right English daily The Korea Herald.
“He has a strong moral compass” at a time when many politicians are not rewarded for focusing on a singular mission, Goto told The Diplomat.
Griffith described Moon’s background as a refugee from the North as a “double-edged sword” because it could provide him with unique common ground with Kim, but it also “leaves him susceptible at home to more extremist political elements.”
Indeed, as a former peace activist, the U.S. government feared that Moon would be “too accommodating and too idealistic to not drive a hard bargain,” Goto said.
“He has peace on the agenda, but he is a realist,” Goto said.
Seoul’s security partnership with Washington is “key,” she added, and Moon has reinforced it despite opposition at home.
For instance, Moon allowed the U.S. to deploy additional launchers to the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system begun under his predecessor, despite vocal protests from many South Koreans — whom Moon might have joined in his younger years as a peace activist.
THAAD, which is designed to shoot down incoming missiles, is a linchpin of the U.S. defense umbrella in East Asia. But many South Koreans view it as a provocation to the North — and to China. Beijing vehemently opposes THAAD, fearing that its sophisticated radar capabilities could be used against China’s own missiles. Last year, Beijing slapped an economic boycott on South Korean goods to pressure Seoul into abandoning the missile system.
Moon initially held off on installing THAAD but went ahead with its deployment after North Korea stepped up its missile and nuclear testing last year.
Despite cooperation on the security front, Trump has not shied away from challenging Moon on the economic front, according to Goto, who gave credit to Seoul for “managing” the White House’s dueling demands.
Even while vowing to defend South Korea from the North’s aggressions, Trump insisted on renegotiating the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), which he had called a “disaster.”
The president’s main complaint stemmed from the nearly $28 billion trade deficit that America has with South Korea, even though the deficit is relatively small compared to other countries and most U.S. industries were perfectly content with the agreement (also see “Trump Takes Aim at U.S.-South Korea FTA, Despite Wishes of Many U.S. Industries” in the February 2018 issue).
In March, the U.S. and South Korea announced they had agreed on a “revised” version of the original trade pact signed in 2012. U.S. automakers can now double the number of cars they send to South Korea, to 50,000 annually, among other modest changes. In return, South Korea was exempted from the 25 percent tariffs that Trump threatened to impose on imported steel and aluminum from around the world (although Seoul agreed to limit its U.S. steel shipments to about 70 percent of the annual average).
The timing of the North Korean nuclear crisis played in Seoul’s favor, Goto told The Diplomat.
Under threat from Pyongyang, Seoul was “spared the wrath of NAFTA,” she said, referring to the protracted disputes between Trump and his Canadian and Mexican counterparts as they renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.
In light of security concerns on the Korean Peninsula, Moon quietly renegotiated KORUS while escaping the steel and aluminum tariffs that have angered U.S. allies such as Japan.
While Moon has proven to be a deft negotiator, Kim, too, has shown himself to be an uncanny operator.
Since the start of the New Year, when Kim made peace overtures to Moon, Kim transformed his reputation from rogue dictator to reasonable statesman seemingly overnight. Even the initial response to Trump’s announcement was shockingly conciliatory — and shrewd, putting the onus on Trump to restart talks. Of course, whether Kim continues to respond in a calm manner or he lashes out with his trademark hyperbole is anyone’s guess. Regardless, his PR prowess thus far has surprised many observers.
Griffith noted that Kim attended school in Switzerland and has been exposed to the Western way of life. While in school, Kim “obsessed over basketball,” according to a report by Dana Kennedy in the Daily Beast. He is a longtime fan of the Chicago Bulls, which helped prompt his unlikely friendship with NBA Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman.
His exposure to Western media also gave him an appreciation for the power of imagery and symbolism, according to Griffith.
“He’s caught a few people by surprise at how adept he’s been at these summits,” Griffith told us.
The April summit between Moon and Kim — including a friendly chat outside of microphone range and hand-holding as the two smiling leaders crossed the border — was made for television. Kim even joked that he would stop interrupting Moon’s sleep with overnight missile tests.
Kim also “played the perfect junior partner to China” in his showy March visit to Beijing for his first meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Griffith added.
Since taking power in 2011, Kim has had a frosty relationship with his Chinese counterpart. Many Chinese officials worry about a volatile, brutal young leader with nukes on their doorstep. But Beijing has a vested interest in keeping Kim afloat, fearing that a collapse of his regime would send an influx of poor refugees into China and install a unified Korea — and staunch American ally — on its border.
The relationship is symbiotic, with China serving as the North’s economic lifeline. As such, Kim is beholden to Beijing in any future negotiations.
In fact, Trump accused China of using its leverage to possibly sway Kim into backtracking on his promises.
“Many U.S. officials, and possibly Trump himself, will blame Beijing for interfering and possibly pushing Kim to keep its distance from the U.S.,” wrote Isaac Stone Fish, a senior fellow at the Asia Society, in a statement. “This — along with that recent bizarre case of a potential sonic attack against a U.S. diplomat in China, the trade deadlock, and growing worries about China’s stance on disputed territories in the South China Sea — may cause the U.S. to act more aggressively towards Beijing.”
On the flip side, Beijing may have been in favor of the summit, preferring long-term stability in its neighborhood. In a tweet shortly after Trump’s announcement, China’s communist-controlled Global Times newspaper denounced the cancellation.
“The decision of US President Donald Trump was announced a few hours after North Korea dismantled its nuclear test site. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un must have felt that he was tricked by Trump,” wrote editor Hu Xijin.
Kim’s reasoning — and what he’ll do next — remain indecipherable, even to Beijing. His charm offensive, coupled with Trump’s abandonment of talks, may convince China to ease up on sanctions that have severely restricted coal and other key imports to the impoverished country. But the U.S. isn’t likely to let up on its campaign of economic and military pressure — and may even escalate it.
In response, Kim could double down and restart missile and nuclear weapons testing — or at least bluff about the prospect to lure Trump back into talks. Fearing an imminent U.S. attack or more sanctions, Kim could also reverse course and extend an olive branch to the U.S. Or Kim may simply ditch negotiations altogether and bide his time, having ruthlessly consolidated his power, essentially completed his missile program and convinced everyone that he did his best to make nice with Trump.
“The world won’t countenance the U.S. using force as long as Kim is talking peace, and even less so if Trump bears responsibility for scuttling the summit,” former Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken told Axios.
In truth, nobody knows what Kim or Trump will do, other than Kim and Trump. But Joseph DeTrani, a former U.S. special envoy for six-party talks with North Korea, argues that pundits have been wrong before, so there is still hope for progress.
“Many will disagree with this assessment. Interestingly, many of these outspoken critics were in government positions previously and opted to ignore North Korea’s race to acquire a more potent nuclear and missile arsenal,” DeTrani wrote May 6 in The Cipher Brief.
While President Obama adopted a policy of “strategic patience” that bore little fruit, Trump has embraced a policy of “maximum pressure and engagement” that has significantly moved the needle on the North Korean nuclear stalemate. Whether that needle moves in the direction of peace or war remains to be seen.
But in a basketball analogy Kim would appreciate, Moon had thrown the perfect alley-oop pass. So far, Trump and Kim have failed to dunk it in the basket.
About the Author
Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat. Ryan R. Migeed (@RyanMigeed) is a freelance writer based in Boston.