As the week ended, there were signs of movement in Washington, Seoul and Stockholm to putting together a U.S.-North Korea summit. But there is plenty of reason to remain skeptical. Here’s a rundown what happened at the end of the week, eight days after President Trump told South Korean envoys he would meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in May.
President Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in spoke with each other for about a half hour on Friday morning U.S. time, Friday evening Korea time. The short statement from the White House made clear that North Korea was the main topic of conversation. The statement emphasized the long-stated line from the Trump White House that they don’t want to go down the same path of failed negotiations from the past. As well, it suggested Trump is not going to let up from the sanctions and other pressure the U.S. has imposed on North Korea over the past 14 months.
Of course, much of the chatter in Washington this week was about the effect that the transition in the State Department from Rex Tillerson to Mike Pompeo would have on the prospective talks. Pompeo is viewed as more hawkish than Tillerson, who frequently spoke about the need to hold discussions with the North Koreans. But also keep your eyes on Gina Haspel, Pompeo’s successor at the CIA. It is the intelligence services in the two Koreas that handle the legwork before officials on their respective sides meet. And the CIA is reportedly in back-channel communications over the latest diplomatic maneuvers. As well, Haspel was in the room when Trump was briefed by the South Koreans on March 8 and made the decision to meet Kim.
North Korea has said nothing publicly yet about the prospect of a summit between Kim and Trump. But it did send Ri Yong Ho, its foreign minister, to Sweden, the country that in Pyongyang acts as an interlocutor for the U.S., which doesn’t have formal diplomatic relations with North Korea. The three-day trip was portrayed in some news accounts as an avenue toward a summit. Swedish officials said they talked about “opportunities and challenges” to “reach a peaceful resolution to the conflict.” There was no statement from North Korea about the outcome of the meeting. KCNA on Thursday said it would cover “bilateral relations and issues of mutual concern.”
North Korea has now remained silent about the prospect of summit for the nine days since Trump and the South Koreans said he’d do it. That silence was first noted in South Korea earlier this week, including by the left-leaning Hankyoreh that has long favored engagement with Pyongyang. In the U.S., the Brookings Institution’s Jung H. Pak wrote about it on Wednesday. And by the end of the week, other commentators and reporters had zeroed in on it. North Korea’s media is not free to do what it wants, of course, and it doesn’t typically preview major events. Little, if anything, was said in North Korea media ahead of the inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007 — and little afterward, for that matter. After the South Korean envoys met with Kim Jong Un last week, Rodong Shinmun, North Korea’s major newspaper, put pictures on the front page, according to last week’s NK News podcast. It said South Korea suggested an inter-Korean summit, but it didn’t say one would take place.
The South Korean administration, meanwhile, is taking steps to get ready for President Moon’s summit with Kim Jong Un in April. While South Korea needs North Korea to take some steps to denuclearize before it can proceed with an aggressive agenda of inter-Korean cooperation, the summit between Moon and Kim could be very influential on prospects for a Trump-Kim meeting. USC’s David Kang tweeted about it several times this week:
If Moon-Kim summit goes well, it constrains and guides and sets the stage for Trump-Kim.
If Moon-Kim summit does not go well, Trump has an out. That’s how conseqential Moon-Kim summit it.
— Dave Kang (@daveckang) March 16, 2018
Separately, Trump unnerved Seoul with comments at a fundraiser this week that disparaged the U.S.-South Korea trade relationship and appeared to threaten to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea. His comments, first reported by the Washington Post, recycled and amplified his longstanding belief that the U.S. gets ripped off in trade with many countries, including allies like South Korea. He has targeted the KORUS free trade agreement for renegotiation or repeal and officials from the two countries are already looking at ways to change it. The development, while not altogether surprising, is vexing to the Moon administration because it shows Trump may bring his economic gripes into the mix in dealing with the broader Korea security issue, crossing a line that previous U.S. presidents didn’t.
A few notable moves behind the scenes: Joe Yun, who retired two weeks ago as the State Department’s envoy to the North Korea gave an interview to CNN in which he said he’d be willing to come back to help prepare for a summit. Harry Harris, the top U.S. military officer in Asia, doesn’t hold out much hope for a summit. And Trump may be considering some former leaders of the U.S. forces in South Korea, including Walter “Skip” Sharp, to become ambassador to South Korea.