The Korea-US summit talks are reportedly expected to be held in the US next month. During a Wednesday phone call between the two state leaders, US President Donald Trump said he would officially invite President Moon Jae-in to Washington. Moon said he would send special envoys to the US and hoped that he could visit Washington as soon as possible. The summit talks, if held in June, are late, but very welcomed.
Tension has mounted on the Korean peninsula over North Korean threats, but South Korea has had a hard time interacting diplomatically with the US, China and Japan due to the leadership void. South Korea had to look on as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping held their respective talks with Trump.
To carry out a backlog of diplomatic and security issues and to form close ties with the leaders, Moon should hurry to meet with them, beginning with Trump.
The summit talks with the US are particularly urgent, given the importance of the Korea-US alliance.
Top on the agenda will likely be their different approaches to the North Korea problem and the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense antimissile system.
Discord can happen, as conservative US news media reported, if Moon pushes for cooperation and exchanges with North Korea, going against the international community’s efforts to tighten sanctions on it.
Given his nomination of liberal figures with ties to the “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with North Korea to the posts of prime minister and spy chief, he is expected to seek to meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Spy chief nominee Suh Hoon said Moon could go to Pyongyang if the visit would help resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis. Suh was involved in arranging for inter-Korean summit talks in 2000 and 2007. Moon said, “If needed, I will fly straight to Washington. I will go to Beijing and Tokyo and, if the conditions are right, to Pyongyang also.”
The Trump administration has applied its policy of “maximum pressure and engagement,” and put the heaviest amount of pressure on Pyongyang, although he recently mentioned the possibility of dialogue.
Trump may reject Moon’s policy for two simultaneous talks on denuclearization and a peace treaty. Moon may oppose Trump’s drive to isolate the North. But considering Trump has not excluded the possibility of dialogue and that Moon has ruled out an unconditional visit to North Korea, they could find a common ground somewhere between pressure and dialogue.
The first Moon-Trump meeting will be meaningful as an occasion to clear mutual misunderstandings, if any.
The THAAD deployment, which prompted China to demand its removal and retaliate against Korea economically for hosting it, has become a touchy issue, now that the system has been installed. The US regards the system as a touchstone of its alliance with Korea. Moon seeks to negotiate with the US and China over the THAAD.
Geopolitically, South Korea is positioned at a clashing point between the national interests of the US and China, often having to pick sides depending on the nature of the issue.
The military might of the South Korean ally is unrivaled and its influence on South Korea is overwhelming in many respects. Undoubtedly, Korea should not underestimate the value of strategic partnership with China. Fortunately, Beijing is moving in step with the US to a significant extent regarding North Korean nukes.
When it sets the tone of North Korea policy, the Moon administration should remember the security of the nation is based on its alliance with the US.
What’s worrisome is the shortage of preparation time for his talks with Trump. The foreign ministry should make intensive efforts to make thorough preparations. The success of the talks will depend on how much common ground the two leaders can find.