US President Donald Trump bids farewell to South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the White House in Washington DC, on April 11, 2019. Photo: Nicholas Kamm / AFP

Early indications are that South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s whirlwind meetings with US President Donald Trump and senior administration officials in Washington DC did little to move the two allies’ agenda on North Korea forward.

The South Korean leader met Trump on Thursday, and also managed to meet US Vice President Mike Pence and take part in a joint meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US National Security Advisor John Bolton. Bolton is seen as a major hawk on North Korea, while Moon, who has positioned himself as an intermediary between Washington and Pyongyang, takes a more nuanced approach.

The South Korean president’s intense trip follows the failure of the summit in Vietnam six weeks ago between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Moon has been anxious to re-ignite the denuclearization and peninsula peace processes.

There had been high hopes in Seoul that some agreement on denuclearization could be reached in Hanoi, to pave the way for inter-Korean economic engagement, to reinvigorate cross-border relations and give North Korea more incentive to denuclearize.

The latter issues were expected to be on Moon’s agenda with Trump on Thursday. Without a related agreement, inter-Korean ties could end up as stalled as the denuclearization process.

In a press briefing held before the two leaders went into closed-door talks, Trump said he would be discussing the issue of economic concessions for North Korea. However, the results of the bilateral talks are not yet known. Further clarity is expected once Moon returns to Seoul this weekend.

No new thinking?

Speaking in a joint press interview at the Oval Office before he and Moon went into talks, Trump offered mixed messages. Asked whether a “smaller deal” with North Korea, could be made, he said: “I’d have to see what the deal is.  There are various smaller deals that maybe could happen. Things could happen. You can work out, step by step, pieces.”

A “smaller deal” might include a more phased denuclearization process, in which sanctions are gradually lifted as North Korea offers deliverables – an approach favored by China and Russia. It might also enable economic incentives being offered toward North Korea during the process of denuclearization – a strategy that Seoul favors.

There had been widespread speculation that Moon would ask Trump for sanction exemptions in order to allow inter-Korean economic engagement to get underway.

That engagement may include the resumption of operations at the inter-Korean industrial complex at Kaesong and at the inter-Korean tourism zone on Mt Kumgang. The two sites were shuttered in 2016 and 2008, respectively, by conservative administrations in Seoul. The Moon administration is also keen to relink road and rail connections to and through North Korea – a move that would reconnect South Korea to the Eurasian landmass.

Trump appeared to stymie these hopes, saying, “At this moment, we’re talking about the big deal. The big deal is we have to get rid of the nuclear weapons.” He also noted: “We want sanctions to remain in place.”

Still, after the press briefing, Trump did say that he and Moon would be discussing the issue of economic concessions, on the condition that North Korea produces a roadmap for denuclearization. Details of these talks have yet to emerge.

According to South Korea’s presidential Blue House, the two allies also agreed that the “the top-down approach” – an apparent reference to North Korean leader-US leader summits – “will continue to be indispensable.”

While Trump expressed his amity toward North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, there are no known negotiations underway between Pyongyang and Washington at present, hence no indication of a third summit.

Moon told Trump of his plans to hold another inter-Korean summit “soon,” according to a subsequent Blue House press release, but “nothing has been decided yet on the location and timing of the inter-Korean summit.”

Following the last inter-Korean summit, held in Pyongyang in September, Kim Jong Un had been scheduled to make a historic visit Seoul in December. That visit was cancelled for reasons which remain unclear, and has not been rescheduled.

Some analysts were holding out hope that Trump would offer Moon some room.

“I think it likely that there will be some sanctions relief, especially as Trump has indicated some flexibility, albeit limited,” Columbia University Professor and Korea Society director Stephen Noerper told Asia Times. “The area most likely is in inter-Korean economic relations…. the US could justify it as in the interest of the alliance and a healthy tack with Seoul. “

Noerper added that there are good reasons for both Trump and Kim to offer Moon some movement, given the domestic challenges he faces.

“The North Koreans seem focused on sanctions relief at the moment, meaning a lack of progress without at least partial relief,” he said. “The unravelling would have a serious impact on Moon, who has seen his poll numbers drop and fierce political schisms at home… so it is imperative that Washington [and Pyongyang] afford Moon victories soon to allow necessary political space.”

Meanwhile in Pyongyang…

The Supreme People’s Assembly – the country’s rubber-stamp parliament – convened on Thursday Asia-time, prior to the Moon-Trump summit on the same day in the US.

According to North Korean media reports on Friday, the SPA re-elected Kim Jong Un as chairman of the State Affairs Commission, his official title as leader of the state. The State Affairs Commission is described in the North Korean constitution as “the supreme national guidance organ of state sovereignty” making it the country’s top decision-making body.

The Commission reportedly emerged from an earlier, military-focused body to become Kim’s de facto, personal seat of power, following the death of his father Kim Jong Il in 2011. Kim Jong Il, who promoted a “military first” policy, had held the title of Chairman of the National Defense Commission, while his own father, the late state founder Kim Il Sung holds the title of Eternal President.

In personnel changes, long-time President of the Presidium of the SPA, Kim Yong Nam, was replaced by Vice Marshal Choe Ryong Hae, who will represent Pyongyang internationally, according to the KCNA. The headship of the SPA is the titular head of state, but real power lies in the hands of Kim and his close advisers in the State Affairs Commission.

Choe is sanctioned by the US and was born in 1950, but it still a youthful compared to his predecessor – who is 91. A long-time figure in the Pyongyang elite, he has suffered purges and survived an association with Jang Song-taek, an uncle of Kim Jong Un who was executed by the latter in murky circumstances.

While the media also referred to other high-level personnel changes in the SPA, there was no information on policy direction.

In recent messages following the Hanoi summit, Kim has been calling for the country to upgrade its economic self-reliance in the face of global sanctions.

“We must deal a serious blow to the hostile forces who are mistakenly determined to bring us to our knees with sanctions by advancing the socialist construction to a high level of self-reliance that fits our circumstances and state, based on our own power, technology and resources,” Kim said, according to state news agency KCNA.

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