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US-South Korea Summit Could Expose Strains in Alliance

  • Brian Padden

When South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump meet for the first time next week (June 28), they will almost certainly emphasize the common threat posed by the repressive and nuclear Kim Jong Un regime, but increasing differences over security and trade could undermine the show of unity.

The summit will occur in the wake of the tragic death of Otto Warmbier, the U.S. student who had been held prisoner in North Korea while in a coma for over 15 months, and finally released last week with serious and ultimately terminal brain damage.

Both leaders have cited Warmbier’s brutal treatment by the North Korean government as further reason to halt Pyongyang’s rapidly advancing nuclear and ballistic missile program.

But the two allies seem at odds on how to make that happen.

Get tough approach

The Trump administration has prioritized the short term - preventing North Korea from developing a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that can strike the U.S. mainland.

Washington has stressed the threat of military force and increased economic pressure from China, Pyongyang’s key trading partner.

After meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping in April, there were indications that a deal had been reached in which Beijing would exert a constraining influence over Pyongyang in exchange for Washington’s less critical treatment of Chinese trade practices.

However on Tuesday, Trump expressed disappointment that China’s increased efforts, which reportedly included a ban of the import of North Korean coal, had failed to restrain Pyongyang from continuing to conduct ballistic missile tests.

"While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!" Trump wrote on Twitter.

For some time now, experts who analyze satellite images say North Korea is prepared to conduct a sixth nuclear test to further its progress toward a reliable ICBM capability.

FILE - American student Otto Warmbier, center, is escorted at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang, North Korea, March 16, 2016.
FILE - American student Otto Warmbier, center, is escorted at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang, North Korea, March 16, 2016.

Outreach

The progressive South Korean leader wants to balance strong military deterrence and sanctions with dialogue and engagement to ease tensions over time.

"I believe what Kim Jong Un would want the most is to have a security guarantee for his regime. So there is a possibility that Kim Jong Un will continue to make the bluff with his nuclear weapons programs. But deep inside he is actually yearning or wanting dialogue. But in the end, the only way to find out is to have a dialogue with North Korea," said Moon.

Moon has expressed concern over talk of a possible U.S. military strike to take out the North’s nuclear and ballistic missiles sites, which would almost certainly trigger an immediate deadly retaliation against millions living in South Korea.

The president’s special envoy for security and diplomacy, Moon Chung-in, recently suggested that South Korea would be willing to scale back or suspend joint military exercises with the U.S. in exchange for Pyongyang’s agreement to freeze its nuclear program.

However on Wednesday the special envoy said his views do not represent official policy.

"What I do for the president is giving advice. Whether the president accepts my advices or not is his decision," he said.

Still President Moon’s more progressive proposals may not be well received in Washington, especially after Trump’s hardline policies have been endorsed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

“It would almost invite a type of reaction from President Trump that would look more at why South Korea is not towing a certain type of line that they are already seeing vis-à-vis the U.S.-Japan relationship,” said John Park, Director of the Korea Working Group at Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

There is also concern in Washington over Moon’s decision to delay the full deployment of the U.S. THAAD missile defense system, citing the need to conduct an environmental study. The deployment delay is seen by many as a move to accommodate China’s opposition to an American military build up in the region and THAAD’s powerful radar that can be used to monitor the entire region.

A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor is launched during a successful intercept test, in this undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Department of Defense, Missile Defense Agency.
A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor is launched during a successful intercept test, in this undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Department of Defense, Missile Defense Agency.

Trade deficit

Trump has also threatened to terminate the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement that produced a bilateral U.S. trade deficit of over $27 billion last year.

Moon will likely emphasize that South Korean companies like Hyundai have built factories in the U.S. that employ 45,000 people and contributed $138 billion to the U.S. economy.

Business leaders in Seoul advise the South Korean president to propose a $10 billion dollar “buy American” fund to boost imports of U.S. oil and other products that Trump can boast about on Twitter.

“As we know Mr. Trump loves to Tweet and his Tweets form an important part of the policy directives and the overall environment of the U.S. political and economic scene. So President Moon should plan in advance what he wants Mr. Trump to Tweet,” said Jeffrey Jones, the former chairman of the American Chamber in Korea.

Also in Asia it is being noticed as a troubling sign that the summit will happen at the White House, and not at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, where he met with the leaders of Japan and China.

Youmi Kim contributed to this report.

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