The process – or non-process – of North Korean denuclearization and inter-Korean relations may well be decided on Thursday when two meetings take place: North Korea’s newly-inaugurated Supreme People’s Assembly meets and later that day, South Korean President Moon Jae-in meets US President Donald Trump in Washington.
In the wake of February’s failed North Korea-US summit in Hanoi, which broke up without any agreement, experts will be watching the SPA meeting for clues toward future North Korean policy.
But more mission-critical matters will be discussed in Washington. There, South Korea’s Moon faces the sternest task. In a bid to restart stalled denuclearization talks, he is also, according to widespread reports in South Korean media, quoting unnamed government officials, going to ask Trump for sanctions exemptions.
For Moon, this may be his most critical meeting with Trump.
Without an easing of the sanctions, Moon will be unable to engage with the North economically, stymying his hopes of kick-starting inter-Korean transport linkages, commerce, tourism and industrial ventures. But absent any signal from North Korea on denuclearization, Trump – who admitted in Hanoi he could have signed a deal but decided to “walk” – looks unlikely to grant that.
“We will not and cannot go back to the past,” Moon said in an April 1 address. But a return to the past – the uneasy status quo of a divided peninsula and Pyongyang squaring off against Washington – now looks the most likely outcome over the long term.
The US demand – placed on the table in Hanoi and for a Libyan-style, one-stop solution, in which the North surrenders all its weapon of mass destruction to the United States – has already been rejected by Kim. In practical terms, any such deal looks unworkable given the depth and breadth of North Korea’s strategic weapon programs.
“What [US National Security Advisor State John] Bolton and [US Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo said about Trump handing a letter over and asking for a one-shot big deal is not possible – it is not structurally possible,” said Dan Pinkston, an international relations expert with Troy University in Seoul.
“Any agreement to address the security concerns of all parties would be a long-term process and sequencing of deliverables, not a one-shot, overnight deal.”
Moon is likely to talk with Trump without advisors in the room. But with the hawkish Bolton doing most of the administration’s talking about North Korea and apparently holding the ear of the president, it will be an uphill task for Moon to convince Trump to go softer.
“At a minimum, it is going to be Moon trying to somehow convince Trump that the US will have to back off from asking North Korea to do a big deal, and to do a small deal,” said Go Myong-hyun of Seoul-based think tank the Asan Institute.” I think he is going to say South Korea is going to entice North Korea with the Mt Keumgang and Kaesong projects, and to make this possible, North Korea is going to open and allow inspections of Yongbyon and Punggye-ri.”
That kind of smaller deal had been widely anticipated before the Hanoi summit, but Trump said then that the US side had presented the North Koreans with a range of intelligence about a very widespread strategic arms program.
Mt Kumgang and Kaesong are, respectively, a tourism zone and an industrial complex in North Korea, funded by South Korea. Both projects – flagships of inter-Korean engagement as well as hard currency bonanzas for Pyongyang – were closed by conservative administrations in Seoul.
Both Seoul and Pyongyang say they want to re-open them. Yongbyon is North Korea’s major nuclear complex, while Punggye-ri is its main nuclear test site.
Experts are glum about the prospects of Trump listening to Moon. “We know how different the two countries are. I think the US will probably emphasize the necessity for sanctions – they would emphasize the importance of one voice,” said Choi Jin-wook, a North Korea expert at Hankook University of Foreign Studies.
And few believe Kim is willing to surrender the key guarantor of his regime – nuclear arms. Denuclearization “is not going to happen unless there is a collapse of the North Korean regime,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea watcher at Kookmin University.
After the Korean War ended in 1953, it was South Korea, not the United States, which was directly threatened by North Korea. That situation ended in 2017 when North Korea tested a ballistic missile able to credibly heft atomic devices across the Pacific.
Since then, Washington’s leadership has not been able to ignore a much-ballyhooed threat to not only its South Korea ally, but also to the US homeland.
That issue – and America’s hyper-power status ≠ makes Trump, rather than Kim or Moon, the real power broker. “We know what the US wants to see and wants to get – North Korea knows it, South Korea knows it,” said Choi. “And that is the end of the story – that is great-power politics.”
Moon is also likely to seek waivers of international sanctions in order to re-open the Kumgang and Kaesong projects. His administration is also enthusiastic about the reconnection of inter-Korean transport links, which would re-connect South Korea – a political island – with the Eurasian mainland.
But without any lifting of sanctions, cross-border economic and commercial engagement will be impossible. The lack of such engagement could also deal a blow to the cultural, sportive and cultural ties that are much beloved by the Moon administration.
Absent sanctions relief, “engagement for the time being will become pretty much impossible as the North Koreans are not terribly interested in symbolic gestures which sell so well with the South Korean public,” said Lankov. “North Koreans are pragmatic and don’t care – they care about money and power and they will demand real stuff. Without real stuff, they will do nothing.”
This presents a double bind for Moon. Firstly, given how central North Korean engagement has been in Moon’s presidency, it would be a domestic setback that would “impact his ability to handle local politics – he could become a ‘lame duck’ after this,” said Asan’s Go. “It is a very important moment.”
And if he returns empty-handed from Washington, Pyongyang is also unlikely to be kind. “Why should North Korea be interested?” said Lankov. “They want him to be fried, to be uncomfortable, as they assume he will push the Americans harder.”
The Supreme People’s Assembly
In the hours ahead of his meeting with Trump, Moon is unlikely to receive a lifeline from the first meeting of Pyongyang’s 14th Supreme People’s Assembly, newly inaugurated following elections last month.
“Everybody is talking about it as if it is a big deal, but it never was in the past,” said Lankov, who has studied in North Korea. “If you look at the history of North Korea in recent decades, you discover people did not make many important statements in SPA sessions.”
While pundits will be looking for “subtle differences in titles and who sits next to whom and how many minutes are given to each presentation,” Lankov said, “there is very little of interest for the lay public.”
Pinkston agreed. “It is really a pro-forma thing,” he said. “There might be some personnel changes, they will probably announce the budget and annual reports and how much cement and how much steel they made, how much construction – that kind of stuff.”
While Pyongyang has, since February’s summit, focused on its economy, there has been no movement or announcement in the Kim regime toward significant reform. “There is no sign of a change in thinking,” said Pinkston. “If there was, it would be broadcast as they would want everyone to know.”