Harry Kazianis: Trump summit with South Korea president could bring progress in North’s denuclearization

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President Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in will meet Thursday at the White House to discuss efforts to convince North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to get rid of his nuclear weapons and long-range missiles and forge a lasting peace with the South and the United States.

Accomplishing this won’t be easy, but it’s not impossible. Dealing with North Korea has been a foreign policy and military nightmare since Korea was split into two nations in 1948 – the communist North aligned with Russia and China, and the South aligned with the U.S.

In fact, we are still technically at war with the North. The Korean War, begun in 1950, ended in 1953 with an armistice rather than a peace treaty. Offering Kim a peace treaty as part of a deal on denuclearization could be one of several incentives to get him to give up his nation’s status as a nuclear power.


Tensions rose considerably between Washington and Pyongyang in the dark days of 2017 when Trump and Kim traded threats of military strikes. But since then the two leaders have met in two summits in a so-far unsuccessful effort to resolve their differences.

Having no diplomatic relations makes things harder, with simple messages taking days to travel between key policymakers in the U.S. and North Korea. Establishing diplomatic relations would be a big win for Kim – and could be another incentive for him to make major concessions on denuclearization.

The good news is that if President Trump is willing to take a small leap of faith, there is a clear path forward that could guarantee a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula and a real end to the Korean War, ensuring that the nuclear threats of the past remain in the history books.

The good news is that if President Trump is willing to take a small leap of faith, there is a clear path forward that could guarantee a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula and a real end to the Korean War, ensuring that the nuclear threats of the past remain in the history books.

This is where South Korea’s President Moon can make a difference.

The Moon Miracle, or what many refer to as Seoul’s strategy to facilitate a détente between the U.S. and North Korea, has been transformative.

Moon played a key role in a historically successful Winter Olympics in South Korea last year, three inter-Korean summits, a comprehensive inter-Korean military de-escalation agreement along the Demilitarized Zone, and the normalization of dialogue between the two Koreas.

These successes have done much to ensure the dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang moves forward. In engineering them, Moon has put his own legacy in clear jeopardy, while weakening his own position back home. He will be judged either a great success or an enormous failure, depending on how the North responds to his overtures.

Now we will find out if Moon’s miracle can be truly be sustained. On Thursday he will try to ascertain where President Trump stands on several key issues that could determine the future of relations with North Korea.

First, Moon will seek to figure out if Trump is really committed to a concrete diplomatic negotiation with North Korea, or only willing to deal with the Kim regime if it will surrender its nuclear weapons before getting any relief from economic sanctions.

Next, Moon must find out who is the key decision-maker on Trump’s team when it comes to dealing with North Korea. It is clear that there is not unanimity among Trump’s advisers.

It will be important for Moon to know if National Security Adviser John Bolton – a hardliner on dealing with the North – is just trying to project an image of strength, or whether he is truly the man driving the Trump administration’s negotiation strategy.

If Bolton is in the driver’s seat he will most likely demand what amounts to North Korea’s complete nuclear capitulation for any sort of concessions. A demand like this will most likely result in Kim ending any sort of talks for the foreseeable future.

Assuming Bolton is not driving administration policy, Moon needs to know if Washington is committed to absolutely no sanctions relief until full denuclearization – something that could take a decade or more to achieve – or if there is some middle ground that could be found.

If there is a middle ground, here is where Moon can truly make a difference. Moon should propose a compromise deal to provide limited sanctions relief to the North.

Under such a deal, North Korea would be required to close all facilities at its Yongbyon nuclear complex under international supervision, including a delegation of U.S. nuclear experts. In return, Pyongyang would be granted a temporary suspension of select sanctions.

Some U.N. Security Council resolutions could be suspended and the two Koreas could be allowed to work together on one or two joint economic projects under such a deal. The relaxation of sanctions on specific inter-Korean economic projects could include the linking of railways and roads across the North-South border.

This limited sanctions relief would cost the U.S. very little and be a significant boost to Moon’s separate inter-Korean reconciliation initiative. And it could accelerate the prospects of a peace agreement on the Korean Peninsula.

This play on words – calling the action “a temporary suspension of select sanctions,” matters tremendously and could be the key to a compromise deal.

President Trump would be able to say that he is not dropping any sanctions, at least not formally. Also, the Trump administration could embrace the role of the reasonable adult in the room and offer the North Koreans enough flexibility to prove that its intentions towards peace and denuclearization are more than just talk.

This would allow Washington to grant Pyongyang a key concession while throwing the ball on North Korea’s side of the court to demonstrate its sincerity.

There is, however, one catch to this agreement. The U.S. would need to insist on a snapback provision for sanctions. This way, if the Kim regime does cheat, America and South Korea can reapply sanctions quickly.


This is a deal President Trump should embrace. Now that any immediate danger from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has passed, Trump surely would love to change the media narrative and focus the American people’s gaze on something much more positive, especially with the 2020 elections right around the corner.

There is no bigger accomplishment that would allow Trump to claim a real legacy than helping bring real peace to the Korean Peninsula along with denuclearization. Here’s to hoping that the U.S. and South Korean presidents get a real shot at making history, and maybe even a Nobel Peace Prize.