US-South Korea Talks: Is Everyone on the Same Page about ‘the North’?

United States President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in met for the first time in Washington, D.C. Both leaders, eyeing North Korea and its continued development of nuclear weapons and missile technology, confirmed plans to strengthen the U.S.-South Korea alliance. President Moon had previously indicated a departure from the U.S.-South Korea position over the handling of North Korea after his inauguration.

From the start, Moon, who is a president with an innovative bent, took a position of financial ease toward North Korea, and was in favor of working toward denuclearization through negotiation. During the South Korean presidential election, there was criticism of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system in South Korea, the installation of which was determined by the U.S. during the administration of the previous president Park Geun-hye. For this reason, animosity toward Moon has grown within the Trump administration.

During his visit to the U.S., Moon worked toward allaying U.S. distrust through such measures as announcing that South Korea would not scrap the THAAD installation.

There were efforts to rebuild trust in the talks by complimenting Trump, telling him that if were able to resolve the nuclear issue, he would be considered an elite president. During talks, the two leaders made an effort toward agreement for now.

However, even though they agreed to a framework for action, it is still too early to say the abyss between both sides has been bridged. This is because the two countries are still far apart in their approach to denuclearization.

Moon believes that beginning talks is possible if North Korea freezes its nuclear and missile testing. This is viewed as a two-step solution with the freeze being the entry point for negotiations and denuclearization being the exit.

On the other hand, Trump is skeptical about starting negotiations using this two-step solution. He is planning to immediately strengthen pressure on North Korea by encouraging Chinese sanctions and by dangling the possibility of military action.

As long as these differences persist, the response from countries affected by North Korea will fall short, and the efforts to exert pressure will go nowhere.

Through these talks, plans have been put into place for the U.S. and South Korea, along with Japan, to have a top-level dialogue when they meet at the Group of 20 summit in Germany at the beginning of this month.* At this juncture, the U.S., Japan and South Korea must align their strategies, and once they decide on the best role-sharing scheme for the three nations, they must piece together a process for working toward the denuclearization of North Korea.

*Editor’s note: This article was written prior to the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg on July 7 and July 8, but the editors believe its perspective is still relevant.

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