Although the media praised it as a trilateral summit, in fact Moon Jae-in only played host to the summit meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Therefore, there were two separate summit meetings.
The Trump-Moon summit was bound to happen after the May scandal, when a diplomat at the South Korean embassy in Washington leaked the contents of a phone conversation between Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump, during which Moon allegedly begged Trump for a meeting in South Korea to raise his rating. The South Korean authorities first said it had never happened, but then the diplomat was charged with the disclosure of confidential information. Therefore, Moon needed a visit by Trump as a face-saver.
However, the South Korean part of Trump’s visit was overshadowed by his meeting with Kim in the demilitarized zone and the subsequent events. There are many problems in relations between Washington and Seoul, but hopes to present Trump’s visit as an event that helped settle some of them have not materialized.
First, Washington and Seoul differ over the denuclearization of the North. Second, Washington wants Seoul to take a firmer stand in the US trade war with Beijing, even though the meeting between Xi Jinping and Donald Trump in Osaka has put the war on hold. Finally, there are problems with the payment for the deployment of US troops in South Korea.
Trump met with the executives of top South Korean companies, and that meeting received broad coverage. Therefore, Trump played a relatively nasty trick on Moon, who is mounting pressure on the oligarchs as part of his populist campaign and has simultaneously pushed them against the wall by saying that each company is free to make a decision on cooperation or otherwise with Chinese partners.
The presumably spontaneous nature of that summit is open to debate, although there were serious doubts about the success of the meeting, which is why the Americans first confirmed and then denied the rumors about the planned visit to the demilitarized zone. Ultimately, it looked like a made-for-TV spectacle. First Trump wrote in his Twitter: “While there [in South Korea], if Chairman Kim of North Korea sees this, I would meet him at the Border/DMZ just to shake his hand and say Hello(?)!” Kim saw this and accepted the invitation, which is fresh evidence of friendly relations between the two presidents.
Trump and Kim talked behind closed doors, and the media was only told that they had agreed to designate negotiators to resume talks. The American team will be headed by the State Department’s special representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun. It so far remains unclear who would be on the North Korean side; some of the experts I know are divided between the “executed” or “purged” North Korean diplomats and somebody else. The Chosun Ilbo reported that Kim’s negotiating team at the DMZ, including the interpreter, differed from the one he had in Hanoi. The newspaper concluded that responsibility for talks with the United States could be shifted from the Democratic Front for the Reunification of Korea Department at the Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee to the Foreign Ministry’s American Department.
The New York Times was more outspoken. According to its sources, the sides reached an agreement based on the North Korean proposals made in Hanoi: North Korea would shut down the Yongbyon complex and possibly disclose its other nuclear facilities, while the United States would ease sanctions and tacitly accept the North as a nuclear power.
Nothing of the kind has been announced officially, and considering The New York Times’ political position, this item can be interpreted as anti-Trump rhetoric regarding rumors of the US president making yet another unacceptable concession.
The important thing is that the Trump-Kim meeting has formally demonstrated the two countries’ resolve to resume dialogue. Moreover, Trump’s remark that he and Kim were “not looking for speed” has confirmed that the important thing for the two leaders is not the speed of the process but its vector.
Anyway, it was an event that benefitted all the three sides. Kim and Trump have shown that their movement towards a settlement did not stop at Hanoi. Trump can boast that Kim has responded to his tweet, while Kim can boast that a US president has stepped into North Korea. As for President Moon, although his involvement was minor, he will be praised for making the Trump-Kim meeting possible. Although Washington and Pyongyang could come to terms on the working groups without arranging a summit, it is a case where the PR effect is predominant. After all, the international community, including Russia, wants the process of de-escalation on the Korean Peninsula to last as long as possible.