A Summit Without Fireworks Over North Korea

(Photo: Cheongwadae)

Observers who expected fireworks at the first Trump-Moon summit meeting had to wait for the Fourth of July when North Korea test-launched what it said was an ICBM. Smiles rather than tweets marked the mood of the summit with both leaders determined to put on a public show of alliance solidarity and personal rapport. That display will now be put to the test in the aftermath of the North’s missile test.

The sharp differences at the summit came over trade, not North Korea, as US President Donald Trump made clear his intent to revise the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement, focusing on automobiles and steel.[1] That demand could face resistance in South Korea.

In the run-up to the summit, speculation about the coming clash over how to deal with North Korea, THAAD and other security issues dominated news reports. When that clash did not materialize, pundits concluded that South Korean President Moon Jae-in had backed down. Such mistaken assessments were based on their own flawed premises that Trump’s North Korea policy was one of pure pressure and that Seoul, not Pyongyang, was the immediate target of Washington’s strong-arming.

Moon went to great lengths to associate himself with Trump’s emphasis on the need to increase pressure on Pyongyang. He made only a passing reference to negotiations to deal with the North’s nuclear and missile programs: “[W]e agreed to work together toward a fundamental resolution of the North Korea nuclear issue based on a phased and comprehensive approach, utilizing both sanctions and dialogue.”[2]

As the summit communique stated: “Noting that sanctions are a tool of diplomacy, the two leaders emphasized that the door to dialogue with North Korea remains open under the right circumstances.” The communique endorsed Seoul’s re-engagement with Pyongyang, as well, explaining: “President Trump supported President Moon’s aspiration to restart inter-Korean dialogue on issues including humanitarian affairs.”[3]

Both presidents’ expressions of firm resolve to keep the pressure on North Korea were consistent with their public postures that now is the time for sanctions and that dialogue will come later. But in private, Washington had been negotiating with Pyongyang for months and Seoul knew it.[4] The July 4 test-launch of the Hwasong-14 lends new urgency to resuming those talks with the immediate aim of inducing North Korea to suspend its weapons programs.

En route to Washington, President Moon spoke with reporters about a two-phased nuclear negotiating process, starting with a freeze on its nuclear programs. “The most ideal solution would be to completely denuclearize North Korea in a one-shot deal. But more realistically, I believe such a deal will not be easy,” Moon began.[5] “A nuclear freeze by the North is the entry to a dialogue. And the exit of the dialogue is a complete dismantlement,” he added. As he envisioned the two phases, Moon explained: “We have to start talks with the North, and the minimum conditions I believe will be the North’s promise to stop additional nuclear and missile provocations and to freeze its nuclear program. Only then, can we have a full-scale talk about nuclear dismantlement.”[6]

Furthermore, Moon did not back away from the need for a peace process in Korea. “With the nuclear dismantlement, a peace system will be established on the peninsula,” he stated.[7] And he made clear that economic engagement with the North would resume at the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mount Kumgang with the onset of a nuclear freeze.

Sustaining Washington’s secret talks with Pyongyang will be critical to relations with both Koreas. Although Pyongyang’s propagandists have chastised Seoul for siding with Washington on sanctions, the North has refrained from conducting its sixth nuclear test. To maintain that restraint, secret talks will have to resume after a decent interval following the death of the recently returned Otto Warmbier, an American tourist who had been detained in North Korea for the past year.

Meanwhile, North Korea has continued to launch ballistic missiles and to test-fire rocket engines. Pressure alone will not compel it to stop without giving it something in return, most likely a scaling back of joint US-ROK military exercises. It is utterly unrealistic to think that the North can be compelled to suspend arming up without having some of its security concerns satisfied.

Indeed, Washington has adjusted the intensity and scope of joint exercises over time to the perceived threat from North Korea. It beefed up the size and intensity of joint exercises after the 2010 sinking of a South Korean navy corvette, the Cheonan, and resumed flying nuclear-capable B-52s into Korean airspace only after the North conducted nuclear tests. In a subtle response to the North’s recent restraint on testing, however, it substituted B-1s, which are not wired for nuclear delivery, for the B-52s in recent flights.

Indications are that a suspension of North Korean missile and nuclear testing and fissile material production may yet prove negotiable. Moving beyond a suspension to dismantle the North’s nuclear and missile programs will take much more of an effort. Past attempts at denuclearization foundered when Washington proved hesitant to move toward full political and economic normalization and Pyongyang resumed arming.

Although the September 2005 joint statement of Six Party Talks explicitly called for the parties “to negotiate a peace regime for Korea” and “to explore ways and means for promoting security cooperation in Northeast Asia,” little planning has been undertaken in allied capitals to implement those commitments. Seoul could take the lead in mapping out ways to do so and coordinate them with Washington.[8]

Many observers have convinced themselves that negotiations will go nowhere, despite hints to the contrary. The sanctions-only approach is their preferred course of action, and they were critical of the Moon administration’s lack of enthusiasm for that approach. But the latest test-launch underscores how tougher sanctions by Washington and Seoul provoke Pyongyang to step up arming unless nuclear diplomacy is resumed and the North’s security concerns are addressed.

It’s time to stop acting as if the United States and South Korea have to talk to each other and not North Korea.


  1. [1]

    David Brunnstrom and Lisa Lambert, “Trump Calls for Firm Response on North Korea, Targets Seoul on Trade,” Reuters, June 30, 2017.

  2. [2]

    “Full Transcript of President Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump,” Korea Herald, July 1, 2017.

  3. [3]

    “Joint Statement of Presidents of South Korea and the United States,” Korea Herald, July 1, 2017.

  4. [4]

    Jay Solomon, “Top North Korean Nuclear Negotiator Met with U.S. Diplomats,” Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2017.

  5. [5]

    “Moon Says Reducing Military Drills Not an Option, At Least for Now,” Yonhap, June 29, 2017.

  6. [6]

    Ser Myo-ja, “Moon Affirms Alliance at Start of His Visit,” JoongAng Ilbo, June 2017.

  7. [7]

    Ibid.

  8. [8]

    See the proposal by Morton H. Halperin, Peter Hayes, Moon Chung-in, Thomas Pickering, and Leon Sigal, Ending the North Korean Nuclear Threat by a Comprehensive Security Settlement in Northeast Asia,” NAPSnet Policy Forum, June 28, 2017.


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