President Trump will meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the White House on Thursday, as Moon attempts to get U.S. talks with North Korea back on track.
It will be the first meeting for Moon and Trump since the failed summit in Hanoi, which ended with no agreement from Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un on denuclearization.
For Moon, the summit was a setback. The South Korean leader has put his political legacy on the line in pursuit of better relations between the two Koreas.
“President Moon sees his number one objective being to regain some momentum and some flexibility in Washington to sustain diplomacy with North Korea,” said Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific security chair for the Hudson Institute.
The issue is whether there is any middle ground to be found for Washington and Pyongyang. The talks in Vietnam fell apart after Kim offered to dismantle parts of the Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for sanction relief. Trump said that was not enough to justify easing sanctions.
Since then, North Korean officials have said that Kim is considering resuming nuclear and missile tests. They also accused Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton of creating an atmosphere of “hostility and distrust.”
One possible idea that Moon may float is a smaller agreement that would allow some joint economic projects between North and South Korea to move ahead if North Korea takes certain steps toward denuclearization.
Moon will be looking for a South Korean exception to international sanctions on North Korea, said David Fields, the associate director of the Center of East Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“These are things that Moon has been wanting to do for a long time and I think he’s probably going to pitch to Donald Trump that this might be a way to get the North Koreans back to the table,” said Fields, who is author Foreign Friends, a book about the division of Korea.
So far, the Trump administration has resisted rolling back any of the economic sanctions on North Korea imposed as a part of a maximum pressure campaign. Administration officials have said Kim must first completely and permanently dismantle its nuclear program.
If joint projects are allowed to go forward, the administration would have to ensure that the money generated does not go to support weapons development, said Jung Pak, Korea chair at the Brookings Institution.
“We have seen that the revenue goes directly to the regime and not necessarily to the workers, the workers only get a small fraction,” Pak said.
It remains an open question whether the administration would be willing to take action on sanctions for something less than complete and verifiable denuclearization.
At a press conference in Hanoi after the summit wrapped up, Trump was asked whether he would accept less than full denuclearization. He responded: “I don’t want to say that to you because I don’t want to put myself in that position, from the standpoint of negotiation. But, you know, we want a lot to be given up.”
There seems to be some disagreement within the administration about how to handle negotiations going forward. Trump sent a tweet last month saying he had overruled his own administration and there would not be any ‘large scale’ additional sanctions on North Korea at this time. The tweet sparked confusion because it was not clear what sanctions Trump was referring to in the message.
“My sense is that there’s different officials within the Trump administration giving (Trump) different advice because he seems to go back and forth on the this question of how far do we need to go with these negotiations,” said Abraham Denmark, director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center.
“But, this is the president’s negotiation … so really the only opinion that matters in the U.S. government is what he believes,” Denmark said.