U.S. and South Korean leaders need to coordinate their now divergent approaches to North Korea before their summit meetings with Kim Jong Un, said experts on North Korea.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in is scheduled to hold a bilateral summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un late next month. U.S. President Donald Trump said he will meet Kim before the end of May. The U.S.-North Korea meeting has yet to be confirmed by Pyongyang.
Moon has been preparing for the upcoming talks as an opportunity to strike what analysts call “a grand bargain,” while Trump intends to open the process of talks by first testing North Korea’s seriousness about denuclearization as the summit opens, experts said.
“U.S. and [South Korean] interests overlap greatly but are not identical. There is a need to coordinate summit planning so that there are few surprises,” said Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Seoul and Washington need to agree on “bottom line” issues and setting “boundaries” and pursue the summit with “a common strategy” by reconciling differences in their approach toward the summit, according to Ken Gause, a director at CNA, a research organization in Arlington, Virginia. Gause is an expert on North Korea and its leadership.
“Seoul will be more willing to offer incentives up front in order to get North Korea to buy into a diplomatic process that will conclude in the future with denuclearization,” Gause said. “The U.S., on the other hand, will need to see good faith from Pyongyang on the front end.”
Getting the U.S. and South Korea aligned on approaches is only one of the summit challenges that could doom the talks. For example, the U.S. and North Korea need to reach common ground on the meaning of “denuclearization.”
The “grand” goals and visions that Moon laid out at the second meeting of the Inter-Korea Summit Preparatory Committee held last Wednesday were “to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, institute permanent system of peace on the Korean Peninsula, normalize the U.S. and North Korean relations, improve inter-Korean relations, and perhaps economic cooperation among South Korea, North Korea, and the U.S.”
Moon has voiced optimism about the summit, which Trump agreed to have with the North Korean leader by May.
“The U.S.-North Korea summit that will be held subsequent to the inter-Korea summit is a historical event, … it could be followed by a trilateral summit,” Moon said at the committee meeting.
“Although this is an untrodden path, we have clear plans as well as clear goals and visions to reach an agreement through summits among South Korea, North Korea, and the U.S,” Moon said.
“If such meetings were to go forward, I think it will only mark the opening of a process by which the U.S. and [North Korea] try to address denuclearization, and it’s unlikely to be the close,” Scott Snyder, director of the U.S.-Korea policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations told VOA Korean.
“[Trump] is going to test the sincerity of the North Korean leader,” said Dennis Wilder, former senior director of National Security Council for East Asian affairs during the George W. Bush administration. “I think that’s exactly why the president agreed to this meeting. He wants to test his sincerity,”
Any chance for further U.S.-North Korea talks seems to hinge on whether Trump believes North Korea’s sincerity about denuclearization, experts say. Otherwise, the summit could end without a plan for future talks.
“If the president and his team believe that the North Korean leader is showing some sincerity, then things will move on from the summit. If not, then they may not move on,” Wilder told VOA Korean.
Testing North Korea
John Bolton, the incoming national security adviser who is replacing H.R. McMaster, has stated his readiness to test North Korea’s willingness to denuclearize.
“Let’s have this conversation by May, or even before that, and let’s see how serious North Korea really is. … I am skeptical that they’re serious,” said Bolton, who was ambassador to the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration.
“If they’re not prepared to have that kind of serious discussion, it could actually be a very short meeting,” he said.
Bolton’s views largely reflect those of the administration. Earlier this month White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “North Korea made several promises, and we hope that they would stick to those promises. And if so, the meeting will go on as planned.”
On Monday, Kim Jong Un made a trip to Beijing, according to the state news agency Xinhua.
Ahead of the inter-Korea summit, South Korea will hold high-level talks agreed to by the North on March 29 at the Panmunjom, the truce village in their shared border, to discuss the agenda for the summit.
The prospect for the U.S.-North Korea summit opened up when Trump agreed to Kim’s proposal, which South Korean envoys delivered after visiting him in Pyongyang in early March.
This story originated with the VOA Korean Service.