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With North Korea outreach stalled, South Korea’s Moon looks to Trump for a way forward

South Korean President Moon Jae-in with President Trump at the White House on May 18, 2018.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in with President Trump at the White House on May 18, 2018. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
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SEOUL — When summit talks collapsed between President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in February, it was a political gut punch for South Korea’s president.

Moon Jae-in has staked enormous political capital on his outreach to the North and now needs Washington’s backing to keep it going.

On Thursday, Moon will bring his concerns directly to Trump in their first face-to-face meeting since the collapse of the U.S.-North Korea negotiations in Hanoi.

For Moon, it is a chance to reaffirm the strength of the relationship between Washington and Seoul amid mixed messages after the summit in Vietnam. Moon told South Korean officials last week that he was on the “same page” as his American counterpart.

But if South Korea and the United States are really united over the approach to Kim, they may be reading from different scripts.

In Seoul, there are numerous signs of distance from Washington’s view of the process, along with a dose of misunderstanding and mistrust, according to accounts from South Korean officials and leading experts.

South Korean officials appear to harbor general goodwill toward Trump, but that does not always extend to the rest of the American negotiating team, including national security adviser John Bolton.

In particular, confusion persists over reasons for the failure of the Hanoi summit, a breakdown that blindsided South Korean officials and forced Moon’s office to rewrite sections of a March 1 speech that anticipated an agreement.

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One senior South Korean official, who requested anonymity to speak about ongoing negotiations, said Washington had shifted the terms of denuclearization. “The United States essentially crushed North Korea with their maximalist position” by expanding demands to include biological and chemical weapons in the proposal offered to Kim in Hanoi, the official said.

North Korean military officials have not responded to South Korean requests in the weeks following the Hanoi summit to cooperate in joint searches for military remains in the demilitarized zone. That suggested it may be difficult to coax the North back into engagement after the failed talks. 

Moon Chung-in, a Yonsei University professor and an adviser to Moon who stressed he was speaking in a personal capacity, said that many in Seoul blamed the summit impasse on Bolton, a staunch opponent of diplomatic talks before joining the administration.

“We all thought there was something wrong. Our suspicions arose with John Bolton’s behavior,” Moon Chung-in said, describing how Bolton canceled a visit to South Korea ahead of the Hanoi summit.

“There is widespread understanding that Mr. John Bolton [must] have played a very, very negative role,” Moon Chung-in said.

He and other South Korean figures inside and outside the government spoke to a number of visiting reporters, including journalists from The Washington Post, as part of the Korea Journalist Fellowship Program. The trip was sponsored by the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, in partnership with the Korea Foundation.

A State Department spokeswoman, speaking on the condition of anonymity under department rules, said that multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions called on North Korea to destroy its weapons of mass destruction. “The DPRK must fulfill these obligations,” the spokeswoman said in an emailed statement, using an abbreviation for the formal name of North Korea.

A National Security Council official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that Bolton’s last-minute decision to cancel his visit to South Korea was because of events unfolding in Venezuela at that time.

Moon is left picking up the pieces after the summit

South Korea’s Moon has pushed back against critics who have suggested there is a rift with Washington. Speaking at a meeting with senior members of his government on April 1, he criticized those who attempted to “drive a wedge” between South Korea and the United States, calling such efforts “truly irresponsible.” 

Indeed, despite the failure of the talks in Hanoi, the United States appears to want South Korea to continue acting as an intermediary with North Korea. Shortly after leaving Vietnam in February, Trump called Moon and asked him to help with Kim. 

South Korean officials said several lines of communication are currently open between the pair, including messages passed indirectly through China and Russia.

Kim himself has yet to comment publicly on the outcome of the Hanoi talks, though North Korean state media wrote in early March that people “at home and abroad” were “blaming the U.S. for the summit that ended without agreement.”

Kim is expected to speak Thursday at the first meeting of North Korea’s parliament, the Supreme People’s Assembly. 

But in Washington, the South Korean president may need not only to convey Kim’s thoughts, but also to communicate his own government’s position on negotiations. 

South Korean and U.S. officials notably disagree on the role and effectiveness of sanctions on North Korea. The Hanoi talks imploded after North Korea demanded that all U.N. Security Council sanctions imposed since 2016 be lifted in return for the partial closure of a key nuclear facility, the Yongbyon compound. 

Trump has demanded complete denuclearization in exchange for the lifting of any sanctions. Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CBS News that the U.S. policy was “incredibly clear” and that sanctions would not be lifted until complete denuclearization is achieved.

But South Korea’s presidential Blue House has suggested an alternate idea: a “good enough,” phased-in deal for the United States and North Korea, in which Pyongyang would freeze its nuclear weapons production while receiving some form of sanctions relief, as a part of a gradual process toward complete denuclearization.

Lee Do-hoon, appointed by Moon to help guide talks with North Korea, told a conference on April 4 that a total emphasis on sanctions was a mistake. “Sanctions themselves cannot fundamentally resolve our problem,” Lee said.

While the Blue House views potential sanctions relief as an incentive to bring North Korea back to the negotiation table, the White House sees maintaining sanctions as a means to pressure Pyongyang to denuclearize, said Chung Jae-Ho, a professor of international relations at Seoul National University. 

In a sign of the sensitivities surrounding sanctions, the senior South Korean official joked when asked about them: “We don’t say the word ‘sanctions’ around here.” 

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