South Korean President Moon Jae-in was at the White House on Thursday hoping to reignite talks on ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, after a February summit between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un yielded nothing but acrimony and confusion.
The Trump administration has had a rocky relationship with North Korea — insults, followed by a summit in June, then more insults, silence, then another summit, and now, a holding pattern of tension and paranoia. Meanwhile, South Korea has been paving a steady path with its neighbor.
Moon has met with Kim at least four times. In the last year, the two countries reopened a diplomatic hotline, opened a joint liaison office, and are restoring family reunions. Moon has also approved humanitarian aid to North Korea, and managed to get an exemption on U.N. sanctions to conduct survey work needed to build a railway between the two Koreas.
But U.S. sanctions placed on Pyongyang over its nuclear and ballistic programs could be a roadblock to progress. South Korea is hoping to resume joint economic projects with North Korea, and Moon’s Thursday meeting with Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump was aimed at finding sanctions exceptions so that it could do so.
Those hopes appeared to be thwarted, at least for the time being.
Asked by a reporter on Thursday if he would support exceptions that would allow for the resumption of a joint industrial complex shut down by sanctions, Trump replied that he would be very supportive at “the right time,” when “the right deal is made and when the nuclear weapons are gone.”
“But now is not the right time,” he added, shortly before the two presidents were heading into a private meeting.
“A third summit could happen. It’s step by step…it’s not gonna go fast,” said the president, who didn’t discount a trilateral summit including South Korea.
Kelsey Davenport, the director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, told ThinkProgress that Moon has invested “enormous capital” in progress with North Korea.
“Cooperation on critical issues of tension, including reducing guard posts in the [demilitarized zone] DMZ have eased tensions in the peninsula, paving the way for further cooperation between the two countries,” she said.
But, further progress at this point requires U.S. assistance, including sanctions exemptions that don’t appear to be in the cards. And if the U.S.-North Korea process collapses and tensions escalate, Davenport said “South Korea will be a casualty.”
“Washington’s hardline position that no sanctions relief will be granted to North Korea until the country completely denuclearizes not only risks progress on North Korea talks but could impede and possibly derail the inter-Korean dialogue as well,” she added.
The Trump administration has been inconsistent — some might say confused — in its North Korea policy.
The president appeared to surprise his own administration in March when he tweeted that he had ordered the withdrawal of announced sanctions on North Korea. He was either referring to sanctions that weren’t yet announced, or confusing North Korea sanctions with a penalty the Treasury Department imposed on two Chinese companies that had done business with North Korea.
Despite that announcement, Trump has remained consistent on one point: There will be no sanctions relief until North Korea has agreed to full denuclearization. But North Korea has asked for a more gradual, reciprocal approach.
Davenport said that negotiations will simply not advance until the administration is consistent in its messages and can propose next steps for progress. For instance, the United States could allow some limited relief earlier in the process, which could be reversible.
“North Korea is not going to give up its nuclear weapons up front…So long as the Trump administration insists on withholding sanctions relief until the end of the process, it’s very difficult to see a path forward,” said Davenport.