What does Trump want from Moon?
Once again, Trump was unable to secure a nuclear deal with Kim in Hanoi. The silver lining of the failed summit is that North Korea now knows the United States will not compromise on its definition of denuclearization.
Moon’s engagement strategy has been successful in forcing dialogue with North Korea. But Trump doesn’t want Moon to outpace him. Trump may agree not to impose more sanctions on North Korea, but he can’t afford to pull back from existing sanctions as Moon wishes—unless the United States sees tangible progress toward denuclearization.
As the 2020 U.S. presidential race begins in earnest, Trump wants to secure a nuclear deal with North Korea, but time is running out. Until Trump thinks he can reach an agreement with Kim, he will ask Moon to continue to support the U.S. maximum pressure campaign. Then, if Trump is able to reach a nuclear deal with North Korea, he will argue that it is the best nuclear agreement ever—particularly since he opted out of the Iranian nuclear deal.
Although this meeting focuses on North Korea, Trump also wants Moon to pay more for defense cost sharing—a highly sensitive and charged issue in South Korea. In 2019, Seoul already has committed to pay around $920 million, but negotiations will begin soon on a multiyear cost-sharing special measures agreement, which would mean paying more. This places Moon in an awkward position vis-à-vis his most important ally.
What does Moon want to get from Trump?
Moon must focus on getting the United States and North Korea back to the negotiating table. This will be Moon’s first priority, but he will also want to secure a pathway to sanctions relief for North Korea. Moon believes that this preliminary step is critical to establishing the trust necessary to achieve peace and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. Given the U.S. position—no sanctions relief without denuclearization first—Moon will need to persuade Trump that there is still potential for North Korea to denuclearize.
Moon’s ultimate goal is to continue inter-Korean engagement and secure an “irreversible peace,” the term the Moon administration uses to describe the end goal for the peninsula. He’s put into place a number of the initiatives in the Panmunjom Declaration—his first agreement with Kim—such as the establishment of a liaison office, resumption of family reunions, and a field survey to rebuild an inter-Korean railroad.
However, these will not be enough to establish a permanent peace. Moon has reached the limits on inter-Korean projects he can put in place without sanctions relief, or without causing tension in the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Permanent peace is only possible if progress toward denuclearization can be made. So Moon has a lot riding on this meeting.
Why is now a pivotal moment for this meeting?
Moon is under far more pressure than Trump to get results from this meeting for two reasons.
First, unlike Trump, Moon’s presidential approval ratings are heavily dependent on his North Korea policy. His approval ratings reached their lowest point (46 percent) in the first quarter of 2019, according to Gallup Korea—a nearly ten-point drop from the last quarter. Of those who continue to support him, more than a quarter cite reasons related to his North Korea policy and diplomacy for their positive opinion. Most who don’t support him cited his economic policy as the reason.
The public is losing patience with Moon’s disproportionate focus on inter-Korean engagement at the expense of serious domestic issues, especially the economy. Moon’s party needs to maintain its popularity going into the 2022 presidential election to ensure continued support for engagement with North Korea after his term. With a new unification minister, Moon hopes to add momentum to inter-Korean talks, but it will be difficult to justify continued engagement if progress is not made soon.
Second, time is short. On April 27, it will be one year since the inter-Korean summit at Panmunjom. Next up is the anniversary of the June 2018 U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore. If Moon can’t show solid progress on denuclearization after a full year of engagement, the United States, North Korea, and the South Korean public will begin to lose faith in his strategy.
What will Kim be looking for?
Kim had high hopes going into his second meeting with Trump in Hanoi. But according to media reports, he came away with just a piece of paper that told him exactly what Washington meant by denuclearization. After a year of intense summitry that showed his diplomatic acumen to the world, and most importantly, to his impoverished people, Hanoi was a major political blow to Kim. North Korea’s propaganda machinery worked overtime to deflect attention after Kim went home from the Hanoi summit with nothing to show for his efforts.
Kim may hope that Moon can cajole Trump into giving North Korea some sanctions relief, but the Trump-Moon meeting in Washington is likely to be limited in substance. This means that for Kim, he has little choice but to continue to negotiate with Trump, especially if Trump is likely to be reelected in 2020. By the summer of 2020, Moon’s political influence will probably further decline in South Korea (because South Korean presidents typically lose popularity after their third year in power), so he will be less useful to Kim.
What will Chinese President Xi Jinping be looking for from the Moon-Trump meeting?
Xi will be watching the meeting closely. Like Moon, Xi is also in favor of sanctions relief for North Korea, but most importantly, he wants to strengthen China’s leverage over the two Koreas. Leading up to the meeting this week, China underscored this goal by opening a new border crossing over the Yalu River into North Korea. Much of the heavy diplomatic lifting is being done by the United States, so Xi is able to watch from the sidelines while taking steps to protect China’s core strategic interests and pull North Korea closer into its orbit.
What Beijing fears most is instability in North Korea. It hopes to promote stability by nudging Kim to undertake economic reforms. Kim does not want to become more economically dependent on China, but he has no real alternative. He wants to show China that he can make a deal with the United States, but he is unlikely to meet U.S. terms and give up his nuclear program any time soon.
If Trump doesn’t come back to the table with Kim, how far can Moon go in trying to reestablish inter-Korean relations without the United States?
Moon has probably gone as far as he can to improve engagement with North Korea and establish peace at the inter-Korean level on his own. Because China and the United States both signed the 1953 Armistice Agreement, there can be no formal peace treaty ending the Korean War without their support.
He also can’t really pursue any further inter-Korean projects. Even a field survey of the inter-Korean railroad last December was controversial—the U.S.-led UN command that oversees the demilitarized zone and enforces the armistice initially blocked the project. Inter-Korean projects have created tensions with the United States, because the pace of South Korea–North Korea engagement has been faster than that of U.S.-North Korea engagement.
What’s more, most trade and economic exchanges with North Korea are banned under UN and South Korean sanctions. Even if Moon could find more inter-Korean projects that do not undermine the sanctions regime, he’d risk straining ties further with the United States; such tensions could ultimately threaten his entire inter-Korean agenda.