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US reiterates maximum pressure as Moon heads to summit

President Moon Jae-in on Wednesday set out for Washington to meet with US President Donald Trump, as the South Korean leader seeks to revitalize US-North Korea dialogue.

On Thursday, Moon is to hold consecutive meetings with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, national security adviser John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence. The meetings will be followed by a one-on-one and expanded summit with Trump over a course of two hours, according to Cheong Wa Dae.

Seoul says the summit was arranged based on the shared view that Seoul-Washington cooperation is important in reviving momentum for dialogue in the wake of the Hanoi summit, as well as in maintaining a top-down approach in the denuclearization talks. 

President Moon Jae-in and First Lady Kim Jung-sook speak with aides before departing for Washington at the Seoul Air Base south of Seoul on Wednesday. Yonhap
President Moon Jae-in and First Lady Kim Jung-sook speak with aides before departing for Washington at the Seoul Air Base south of Seoul on Wednesday. Yonhap

However, facilitating US-North Korea dialogue is likely to be a tough task, with both countries appearing set on different approaches.

On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated that the Trump administration would maintain maximum pressure on North Korea until its goals are achieved.

“The outcome is a fully verifiably denuclearized peninsula and greater peace, less risk in conventional means and hopefully a brighter future for the North Korean people as well,” Pompeo said in response to a question regarding the administration’s goals on North Korea issues at a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing.

Pompeo also confirmed that the Trump administration’s stance on Pyongyang remains “maximum economic pressure.” He told the committee he considers North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to be a tyrant.

Pompeo’s statement regarding sanctions does not give room for the kind of flexibility a top South Korean official had hinted at.

Last month, Seoul’s National Security Office chief Chung Eui-yong implied that he considers some flexibility in the US position to be necessary.

While stressing that Seoul and Washington share the same denuclearization goal, Chung said the traditional approach to negotiations may be unrealistic.

“Realistically, there are difficulties in achieving complete denuclearization all at once, I think there is a need to reconsider the so-called ‘all or nothing’ strategy,” Chung told reporters at the time.

He went on to say that the allies needed to persuade the North and to make efforts to “make a small deal into a good enough deal,” hinting at some concessions in dealing with the North.

“We feel that a couple of consecutive early harvests are needed to bring about meaningful advancement in denuclearization,” he said, adding that “early harvests” would build mutual trust that could serve as the foundation for obtaining the final goal.

Meanwhile, North Korea is emphasizing economic development and self-sufficiency.

On Wednesday, the North’s Korean Central News Agency reported that Kim has urged officials to achieve the party’s strategic goals, describing the situation the country is in as “tense” at the meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party held the previous day.

“In response to today’s tense political situation, (Kim) called on the officials to fully display a high sense of responsibility and creativity, and the revolutionary spirit of self-reliance and fortitude to accomplish the new strategic line of the party,” the KCNA quoted Kim as saying.

The new strategic line is believed to be the party’s decision to concentrate on economic development -- a goal Kim has repeatedly stressed.

After the Hanoi summit, it was revealed that the meeting fell apart due to differences in the scale of denuclearization and sanctions relief demanded by the two sides. Trump said the North Korean leader had asked for effectively complete sanctions removal, which the North refuted, saying it had demanded only the lifting of sanctions affecting the economy of the people.

It has also since been reported that the US demanded the North deliver all nuclear materials and weapons to the US, similar to the denuclearization of Libya.

The KCNA said that a plenary session of the ruling party’s central committee was to be held Wednesday to “discuss and decide the direction of the struggle and measures in line with the revolutionary situation.”

The meeting’s timing, a day ahead of the Supreme People’s Assembly, has sparked speculation North Korea could reach a decision on its strategy in the wake of the Hanoi summit.

Seoul officials have reiterated on a number of occasions that Moon is trusted by both Trump and Kim and is therefore perfectly positioned to bridge the US and North Korean positions. However, the two Koreas appear to be deviating on some issues, including interpretations of the Hanoi summit.

“Rather than a failure, it is part of a long process, and it was a good opportunity, as the needs of the concerned countries and the direction that must be taken were made clear,” a high-level Cheong Wa Dae official said of the summit on condition of anonymity.

On the other hand, the North reportedly views the summit as a failure and a possible dent in Kim’s stature.

According to reports citing anonymous sources, North Korea’s ruling party has issued a gag order regarding the Hanoi summit.

The reports said party officials working near the border with China have been told not to mention the summit or to respond to questions regarding the event.

By Choi He-suk (