Korea summit: juggling a cunning enemy and an impulsive ally

Talking points

Seoul:  Moon Jae-in of South Korea has a formidable task at today's summit with his North Korean counterpart: finding a middle ground between a cunning enemy and an impulsive ally.

Then-CIA director, now secretary of state Mike Pompeo shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang at Easter.

As Moon attempts to solve the North Korean nuclear crisis and possibly broker a peace treaty to end the Korean War, aides said they were not sure who would be harder for Moon to manage: the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, or President Donald Trump.

While Moon's meeting with Kim on Friday — their first face-to-face talk — is rich with symbolism, Kim is not expected to capitulate on Trump's key demand: total and immediate nuclear disarmament.

The South Korean president favours an action-for-action strategy in which the North takes steps to dismantle its nuclear arsenal and is rewarded for each move with economic benefits and security guarantees. South Korean officials said that the entire process could take about two years.

Trump's national security team, by contrast, has insisted that North Korea must scrap its weapons programs before any relief from the sanctions that isolate the nation can be granted. And they say that "substantial dismantlement" should be completed much more quickly, perhaps in six months.

Moon sees himself less as a negotiator with Kim and more as a mediator shuttling between two men who believe that keeping others guessing gives them an edge: a volatile US president with no experience in nuclear negotiations, and a hotheaded young North Korean leader with no experience on a global stage.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

"What we can do is to try to help the North and the United States reach an agreement, helping them narrow their differences and seeking and presenting practical ideas both sides can accept," Moon said recently, adding that he may have only one shot to get it right. "This is an opportunity that will not come again."

The challenge is stark. No nation that has openly tested a nuclear device has ever surrendered its arsenal, and North Korea has conducted six underground explosions, each more powerful than the last, and has test-fired missiles that can reach the mainland United States.

But Trump and Kim have both already defied conventional wisdom about what is possible. If they meet in June — most likely in Singapore, according to US and South Korean officials — it would be the first direct encounter between the leaders of the two nations, as well as a chance to test the argument that making progress with North Korea in the nuclear standoff requires starting at the top.

Moon hopes to emerge from Friday's summit meeting with a formal but vague denuclearisation commitment from Kim and perhaps a path to negotiating a peace treaty or a plan to reduce military tensions. Some have suggested a pullback of troops from the Demilitarised Zone between the North and South is possible.

But Moon has acknowledged that there is a limit to what the two Koreas can agree on without US involvement. "Peace on the Korean Peninsula cannot be achieved by agreements between South and North Korea alone," he said in March. "It has to have American endorsement."

One measure of success will be whether Moon can persuade Kim to set a timetable for denuclearisation in his talks with Trump.

Some who have tried and failed to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear program worry that Trump, having threatened the North with nuclear annihilation, has now swung too far to the other side and may be too eager to make a deal. Having derided Kim previously as "Little Rocket Man," Trump described the North Korean leader as "very honourable" this week.

"I find it impossible to believe that Kim is prepared to give up what his father and his grandfather bequeathed to him," said Gary Samore, a veteran of negotiations with North Korea as the top arms control aide in the Clinton and Obama administrations.

A man hangs a ribbon carrying messages wishing the reunification and peace of the two Koreas on the wire fence near the border.

But he added that Kim "may now calculate he has enough of a nuclear arsenal"— and so can afford to put more on the table than in the past.

One possibility that causes consternation in the region is that Trump will settle for dismantling North Korea's small fleet of intercontinental ballistic missiles, eliminating its ability to strike the United States — but leaving South Korea and Japan vulnerable.

"It would be the 'America First' way," Samore said, referring to Trump's campaign slogan.

If scepticism is rampant in Washington, the Moon administration is somewhat more optimistic. To South Korean policymakers, Kim's recent decisions suggest that he is willing to trade his nuclear arsenal for economic growth, which the young leader may see as necessary to preserving his rule for decades.

Four North Korean soldiers and four South Korean soldiers stand at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone.

They also argue Trump's threats of military action have proved more effective at changing Kim's calculations than anticipated.

South Korean officials say they have spent far more time and energy coordinating with the Trump administration before the Friday summit meeting than with the North Koreans, an effort complicated by the White House shake-up that included the departure of Trump's former national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, and secretary of state Rex Tillerson.

The focus on Washington also reflects concern about McMaster's successor, John Bolton, who joined the administration after arguing for military strikes to destroy North Korea's nuclear arsenal, ridiculing South Korean leaders as "putty in North Korea's hands," and calling North Koreans "the biggest con men in the world."

Though Moon and Trump have outlined different approaches to negotiating with North Korea, they agree on the need to avoid the pitfalls that doomed previous rounds of talks.

One area of consensus is an attempt to more clearly establish the talks' desired outcome from the outset, giving all parties greater incentive to move forward. Previous negotiations were open-ended, without specific goals that everyone agreed on.

South Korea and the United States also want to push the North to accept a timetable that would move quickly from the suspension of weapons tests — which it announced last week — to the dismantlement of its nuclear program. Some in the Trump administration have argued for completion in six months, but that may be an opening negotiating position given the challenges involved.

Bolton has occasionally cited the example of Libya, which shipped most of its nuclear equipment to a US weapons lab in Tennessee over the course of several weeks in late 2003. But much of that equipment was still in crates; there was little to dismantle.

Iran took a bit more than six months to take apart much of its program and ship 97 percent of its nuclear material from the country. But, like Libya, it had not yet built nuclear weapons.

North Korea is believed to have 20 to 60 such weapons — US intelligence agencies cannot agree on the number — in addition to a vast infrastructure of fuel production and weapons manufacturing facilities, much of it hidden in the mountains or underground. Samore argued that the North should be asked to hand over an inventory that the United States and its allies could compare with intelligence reports and seek to verify. That process would offer a first sign of whether Kim is coming clean, but could take years to complete.

Kim has also endorsed "phased, synchronised steps" toward denuclearisation.

But White House officials have repeatedly rejected the incremental approach, saying past administrations have tried it without success.

There have been hints of friction between the Trump administration and Moon's team over the issue, with local news outlets in South Korea reporting that Bolton had pressed Seoul "not to move too far ahead" in its talks with Kim. A senior aide to Moon firmly denied the reports.

But Im Jong-seok, Moon's chief of staff, said economic cooperation would not be covered in any deal resulting from Friday's summit meeting because sanctions remained in place.

"In reality," Im said, "a major change in direction in diplomacy is difficult to make without American tolerance and agreement."

New York Times

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