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The Peninsula

Are Moon and Trump Divided on North Korea?

Published September 11, 2018
Author: Kyle Ferrier

By Kyle Ferrier

There has been growing concern a gap is emerging between Washington and Seoul over relations with Pyongyang.

Anxiety about a rift in the alliance seemed to grow after President Trump on Friday, August 31st cancelled Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s trip to Pyongyang on the following Sunday. A South Korean envoy subsequently met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang where it was announced that South Korean President Moon Jae-in would meet with Kim from September 18th to 20th. The prevailing cause for concern with this turn of events seems to be Washington could return to a hardline policy, while Moon could push ahead with opening the North on his own, creating a crisis in bilateral relations.

If this gives you déjà vu you’re not alone. Whether a rift exists between America and its allies is a perennial topic of discussion, one which South Korea often finds itself as the center of attention. Circumstances may feel different each time the conversation flares up, but one must always ask the question “is this time actually different?”

Leaders in the Blue House and White House have often had contrasting agendas on North Korea in the past, at times resulting in observable tension, though the alliance has advanced nevertheless. What may be different about the Moon-Trump dynamic is that while Moon can be compared to previous pro-engagement presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, Trump’s disruptive foreign policy is unlike any other U.S. president since the start of the alliance.

The alliance is more than personalities and political objectives, but even so there is a disconnect between how Moon and Trump are characterized and what each has actually done.

In Moon’s case, he has been dogged by criticisms that he is too optimistic and trying to push for opening North Korea too quickly, especially as it relates to inter-Korean economic projects. There is significant unease in some circles that Moon’s approach to North Korea is the return of the “Sunshine Policy” by another name and will inevitably clash with the United States.

The “Sunshine Policy” was built on the process of up front concessions to beget positive change in North Korea later down the road. This resulted in major political developments, such as the two inter-Korean summits, and economic initiatives, including the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the Mount Kumgang Tourist Region. Politically, there are clear similarities between Moon’s current approach and “Sunshine” presidents Kim and Roh. Economically, however, there has so far been a major break from his predecessors.

Moon has done summits, but even though he has been vocal about joint economic projects nothing significant has been realized to date. He has even played a role in strengthening UN sanctions that severely limiting South Korea’s options to engage with the North. Going ahead on his own with economic initiatives as some fear would incur major diplomatic costs, and consequently economic costs as well. Moon has frequently suggested that breaking ground on these projects would occur after more substantive progress on the peace and denuclearization process. He has conformed to the realities of South Korea’s situation, despite what he may want to do otherwise.

Moon’s inter-Korean economic projects are also not much different from previous South Korean presidents in recent memory, including conservatives. His plan to build an inter-Korean railroad that would link to rail networks in Northeast Asia, granting South Korea rail access to as far away as Western Europe, has been a staple of recent South Korean presidents. President Moon’s 2017 Berlin speech in which he outlined his plans for economic reconciliation with the North bears a striking resemblance to former president Park Geun-hye’s 2014 Dresden address. The biggest change with Moon is that he has a more optimistic outlook, not completely unfounded given the shift in North Korean behavior this year, but that has not yet translated into economic policy outcomes.

Trump on the other hand has been painted as a hardliner. Despite being the only president to have met with Kim Jong-un, and the only one to offer such effusive praise for the North Korean regime, Trump’s return to an aggressive stance is seemingly an ever-present threat. Though, even his most aggressive policy on North Korea falls short of the rhetoric.

Maximum pressure has been the mantra of the White House when it comes to North Korea, but it has not truly lived up to its name. The administration has certainly ramped up on the pressure on North Korea, but it is short of what it is fully capable of doing. The White House seems to be holding on to a list of potential entities and individuals to sanction, gradually enacting them with each setback, such as the September 6 sanctions over “malign cyber activities” after Pompeo’s trip was cancelled. Early in the administration’s tenure, former U.S. secretary of state Rex Tillerson said “strategic patience has ended,” but it seems as if it just has evolved under Trump, also reflecting heightened risk after North Korea’s additional ICBM and nuclear tests in 2017.

Calling Trump a hardliner may also be an oversimplification at this point. He is certainly less inhibited to take actions on his own, but he does not necessarily follow a traditionally right or left position on North Korea. Trump has had his fair share of aggressive comments on North Korea, such as “fire and fury” and those regarding a preventative strike option, but he has also taken some dovish actions, intentionally or not. While the reasoning behind the decision is highly questionable, Trump’s apparently unilateral move to suspend joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises is a softer approach to Pyongyang (though it may have only been intended to be hard on Seoul.)

As Kim Jong-un continues to lay on the charm, it seems less likely that Trump will completely scuttle the talks, particularly since there are still issues to work through, such as the return of Korean War remains, which can win political points at home. If anything, the concerns that Moon is willing to give too much to achieve short-term political objectives just as much applies, if not more so, to Trump. Understanding the real Moon and Trump will help to provide a clearer picture of the North Korea talks moving forward.

Kyle Ferrier is the Director of Academic Affairs and Research at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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