It is not rare for South Korean presidents returning from important summit talks with foreign leaders to blow their own trumpet over the outcome.
President Moon Jae-in also listed several achievements from his summit with US President Donald Trump in Washington last week.
Among other things, Moon highlighted the success in building personal friendship with Trump, reaffirming the South Korea-US alliance and support for his reconciliatory approach toward North Korea.
Trump also mentioned “good relations” and “great chemistry” after meeting Moon. The summit’s joint statement noted the importance of the alliance, the US’ commitment to the defense of South Korea and a joint policy on North Korea.
An upbeat Moon said on his return that South Korea secured US support for it to lead the “resolution of the Korean Peninsula problem through dialogue.”
Prior to his departure from Washington, Moon even said, “We will be in the driver’s seat and will not rely on neighboring countries in dealing with inter-Korean affairs.”
On the surface, it is not entirely wrong to say that Moon and Trump generally agreed to work together on North Korea, despite lingering thorny issues such as the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system in South Korea and the revision of the Korea-US free trade agreement.
The joint statement that summed up the two leaders’ discussions confirmed “South Korea’s leading role” in fostering an environment for peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula. It also said Trump supported Moon’s aspirations to restart inter-Korean dialogue on issues including humanitarian affairs.
But is this enough to claim that -- as Moon insisted -- Trump gave full backing to the South Korean leader’s wish to take the driver’s seat in a car whose imminent destination should be the denuclearization of North Korea?
A deeper look at the joint statement itself suggests otherwise.
It did say that the door to dialogue with the North remained open. But what should be noted is that a condition was attached -- “under the right circumstances.” Given past comments and the way they differed over the THAAD and FTA issues, you would not be able to exclude the possibility that Moon and Trump could have different views of what the right circumstances should be.
There is another point that suggests Moon is overstating Trump’s position on dialogue with North Korea. By mentioning “on issues including humanitarian affairs,” the joint statement obviously sought to limit the scope of dialogue with the North.
In fact, a key clause of the joint statement put more weight on sanctions than dialogue, as it called on the two sides to “fully implement existing sanctions and impose new measures designed to apply maximum pressure on North Korea to compel it to cease its provocative actions and return to sincere and constructive talks.”
The statement definitely emphasizes sanctions as a means to pressure the North Korean regime to give up its nuclear and missile provocations and return to the negotiation table. In other words, it prescribes sanctions first and dialogue later or dialogue as a result of the North giving in.
One more roadblock for Moon’s pursuit of dialogue is the North’s scornful rejection of the series of overtures made by him since his inauguration in May.
Moon has expressed his hope to hold a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un within this year. He also authorized at least 15 civilian aid programs for the North and asked Pyongyang to participate in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics next February.
North Korea has spurned all of them. Even Chang Ung, the North Korean member of the International Olympic Committee who Moon met during the recent taekwondo championships here, virtually nixed the president’s proposal, citing the lack of time.
North Korea test-fired what it claimed an intercontinental ballistic missile Tuesday, two days after Moon returned from Washington. The latest provocation -- the sixth of its kind since Moon took office in May – only adds to the skepticism toward Moon’s call for dialogue.