Moon Jae-in is in the midst of the G20 meeting, which started in Osaka, Japan, on Friday – but for the South Korean president, the apres summit may be more critical than the summit itself.
Moon will not be meeting US President Donald Trump, who is very likely to be the center of attention in Osaka, nor will be meeting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with whom he has an adversarial relationship.
However, Moon’s meeting with Trump will not be long in coming. The US president flies to South Korea on Saturday after the two-day G20 concludes. In Seoul, Trump is expected to hold meetings with Moon, and on Sunday, will visit the DMZ.
There, rampant rumors in Seoul have it, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may – just may – also put in an appearance.
The Moon-Trump nexus
Moon and Trump enjoy an odd relationship.
Moon is a liberal, former human rights lawyer, while Trump is a conservative ex-real estate tycoon. And Trump has not offered Moon an easy ride. He has demanded, and had, a renegotiation of the Korea-US free trade agreement and has pressed Moon to cough up more money for the upkeep of US troops in South Korea.
Their last meeting, in Washington in April, appears to have delivered little of substance. But Moon is in sync with Trump on one central issue.
Moon has made peninsula tension reduction and inter-Korean engagement the centerpiece of his policy and Trump is the first US president to directly talk to the North Korean leader.
This opens the possibility – albeit a distant one – for a positive change in the high-tension power dynamics that have dominated the peninsula since the Korean War ended uneasily in 1953.
Still Moon, as a would-be change agent and peacemaker, faces colossal challenges. Not only is he attempting to overcome decades of distrust and hostility, Pyongyang prioritizes dialog with Washington over dialog with Seoul.
Though Moon has expressed his determination to be an intermediary in talks between Pyongyang and Washington, he has been rebuffed by North Korea. A promised Kim visit to Seoul last December failed to transpire and despite repeated statements from Seoul that Moon was happy to meet Kim at any time, the response from Pyongyang has been silence.
And on June 27, Pyongyang delivered a thunderous broadside against Moon’s middle-man efforts via state media outlet the Korea Central News Agency.
The KCNA stated: “In the true sense of the word, parties to the [North Korea]-US dialogue are none other than [North Korea] and the US … the south (sic) Korean authorities have nothing to meddle in the dialogue … [North Korea]-US relations are moving forward on the basis of the personal relations between [Kim and Trump]. If we have anything to liaise with the US, it will be simply done through the liaison channel already under operation between [North Korea] and the US … Therefore, there will be no such happening where anything will go through the south (sic) Korean authorities.”
Moon, Trump – Kim?
On Sunday, Trump is expected to travel to a de rigeur US presidential destination – Panmunjom, the truce village inside the DMZ. On his last trip to South Korea, Trump’s visit there was aborted when his helicopter was unable to land in the area due to heavy ground fog.
In recent days, there has been rampant speculation in South Korean media, online communities and coffee shops that Kim may appear at Panmunjom for a photocall, or even an impromptu summit with Trump – with whom he enjoys a surprisingly amicable relationship.
Adding further fuel to these rumors is the fact that Moon had expected to join Trump on his last, abortive trip to the DMZ, and has expressed hopes for a trilateral summit. Panmunjom, with its iconic blue huts straddling the border, was the site of two inter-Korean summits last year – including one which was hastily pre-arranged.
But enticing as these possibilities appear, logic argues against it happening.
While Trump and Kim have exchanged good-natured letters, there have been no discussions between the North Korean and US working-level delegations since the bilateral summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, failed in February. And Yonhap news agency quoted a US official on Monday saying there were no plans for a Kim-Trump meeting during the latter’s Korea trip.
Moon shines on Osaka
Still, prior to Trump’s visit, Moon has much to occupy him in Osaka.
On Thursday, Moon met ethnic Koreans in Osaka – a city with a large Korean-Japanese population. He also held formal talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, where the two discussed North Korea, trade, environmental issues – South Korea suffers heavily from Chinese, as well as domestic pollution – and the contentious issue of a US anti-missile defense system in South Korea, which Beijing strongly opposes.
According to information from the South Korean presidential office, and reported in domestic news outlets, Moon, the leader of a trade-centric economy, plans to speak at a key G20 session called “Global Economy, Trade and Investment.”
Moon will also hold formal talks with his Chinese, Russian, Indonesian and Canadian counterparts, as well as “pull aside” meetings with the leaders of Argentina, India and the Netherlands.
His meetings with Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin are likely to be of particular interest to Moon, who will expect to be briefed by them on their recent summits with Kim, who Moon last met in September 2018.
Still, one leader Moon will not be meeting is the G20 host.
Looking back or forward?
Abe and Moon are strongly at odds. While Washington would like to see its two key democratic allies in Northeast Asia operating in lock-step, Abe and Moon’s relationship is grounded less in present policy, more in contrasting stances on the past.
Moon’s posture is that Tokyo is neither repentant or remunerative enough about its 1920-1945 colonial rule of the Korean peninsula. Abe maintains that ongoing demands for apologies and compensation were addressed in deals with previous Seoul governments.
There is some speculation that the two will meet and try to re-set their relationship after Abe has cleared the political hurdle of Tokyo’s upper house elections on July 21, but signals for any upcoming Seoul-Tokyo rapprochement are not positive.
“For my part, the door is always open for dialogue between our two leaders in order to advance Korea-Japan relations,” Moon said in a written interview supplied by the presidential office to foreign reporters this week. “Whether we can take advantage of the opportunity presented by the G20 summit depends on Japan.”
However, in a syndicated editorial that laid out his agenda for the G20 this week, Abe – in a section of writing that may have been aimed specifically South Korea – appeared to damp down hopes of a review of historical issues.
Quoting the slogan “If you have time to look back, then move forward instead,” Abe added: “All Japanese are continuing to move forward … I firmly believe that a self-confident Japan is a Japan that is well suited to contribute to creating Asia’s future.”