South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who swept to power in May elections after promising to defuse tensions with North Korea through diplomatic, economic, and cultural engagement, arrives in Washington on Wednesday, June 28, for his first meetings with Donald Trump and his hawkish national-security team.
Many Koreans hope the summit will clear the way for Moon to move ahead with his efforts at peace-making, which he has modeled on the “Sunshine Policy” adopted by South Korea’s last two progressive presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. According to a recent poll, nearly 80 percent of South Koreans support the renewal of dialogue with North Korea, which lies just 30 kilometers north of the capital, Seoul.
“We expect Moon will be able to ease tensions between North Korea and the United States, which will also lead to improvement of the relationship between the two Koreas,” Gayoon Baek, the international coordinator of People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD), an influential peace-and-justice organization based in Seoul, told The Nation. Her coalition, she added, is hoping that Moon will “open an unconditional dialogue with North Korea which could lead to denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
In a sign of what’s to come, President Moon last weekend welcomed a delegation of North Korean athletes to the World Taekwondo Championships in Muju, South Korea. He used the occasion to propose that North and South Korea form a unified team to compete in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, which will take place in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang. “Sports are a powerful tool to demolish walls and separation,” Moon declared.
But the new president, who spoke to The Nation in an exclusive interview two days before his election, is likely to face stiff resistance to some of his ideas in Washington at a particularly volatile time in US-Korean relations.
Two weeks ago, Moon drew Trump’s ire when he ordered his government to delay US deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense system, known as THAAD, until it conducted a full environmental review. THAAD has been the subject of fierce protests from residents in the rural town of Soseong-ri, where the first batteries were set up with the blessing of former president Park Geun-hye, who was impeached in March and later arrested for corruption and abuse of power. On June 24, several thousand demonstrators chanting “No THAAD, No Trump” gathered in downtown Seoul and later circled the US Embassy to demand THAAD’s immediate withdrawal.
Moon drew the line on THAAD after learning in late May that the Pentagon had secretly brought in four more launchers for the system into the country, and that his own defense chief—a holdover from the Park government—had failed to inform him of this. (When the system is finally deployed, it will include at least six rocket launchers, “with 48 rockets designed to intercept aerial threats flying over the peninsula,” The Korea Herald has reported.)
“The failure to provide critical information regarding South Korea’s security rightly incensed Moon, and ensured he will clean house,” Scott Snyder, the director of the Program on US-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote after the incident. He added that the delay was inevitable given Moon’s “longstanding criticisms that the previous administration had failed to manage the THAAD decision and deployment in a transparent manner.”
But the deep gap between Moon’s government and the United States on this issue was thrust into relief when Senator Dick Durbin, a liberal Democrat and the minority whip in the Senate, met with Moon in early June and defended the Pentagon. “It isn’t that we were sneaking in to put [THAAD] in place,” he told Korean reporters. “I don’t think there has been any effort by the U.S. in any way to mislead the Koreans about what we are proposing.”
Meanwhile, on the eve of Moon’s visit, his foreign minister, Kang Kyung-wha, assured Washington that the THAAD review doesn’t mean the US deployment will be canceled altogether. “My government has no intention to basically reverse the commitments made in the spirit of the ROK-US alliance,” she said in a conciliatory address in Seoul. Moon and Trump, she added, “see eye to eye on North Korea nuclear and missile issues.”
The discussions won’t be easy, however. Last week, US officials were seething over North Korea’s treatment of an American tourist, Otto Warmbier, the Virginia college student who was imprisoned for 17 months by the Kim Jong-un government and suddenly returned to the United States in mid-June in a coma. He died a few days later, sparking emotional denunciations from the Trump administration and Congress, which in response may soon pass an outright ban on US citizen visits to North Korea.
“North Korea has to be held accountable,” Representative Rob Portman, the Ohio Republican, promised CNN after Warmbier’s funeral last Friday. “There will be more of that later.” Christopher Hill, a former high-ranking diplomat who led the US delegation to the six-party talks with North Korea from 2005 to 2009, took to The New York Times to oppose further visits by Americans. “Given the danger to United States citizens in the country, it is time to take the unusual step of imposing a ban,” he said.
North Korea, according to the Associated Press, was aware of Warmbier’s condition a year ago and failed to relay the information to the US government during months of sporadic negotiations about him and three other Americans being held by the North. But while the student’s doctors dismissed North Korean claims that his coma was induced when he contracted botulism and then took a sleeping pill, they did not find any evidence of brutalization or torture. “When asked whether [the brain damage] could be the result of beating or other violence while in prison, [doctors] said that Warmbier did not show any obvious indications of trauma, nor evidence of either acute or healing fractures,” The Washington Post reported.
The mystery of how Warmbier got his brain injury may not be easily solved. After his death, his family asked that no autopsy be performed. “No conclusions about the cause and manner of Mr. Warmbier’s death have been drawn at this time,” the Warmbier family’s medical examiner in Ohio said afterward. In an official statement on June 23, North Korea’s foreign ministry denied any mistreatment, saying that “we provided [Warmbier] with medical treatments and care with all sincerity on a humanitarian basis until his return to the U.S., considering that his health got worse.”
Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor who has helped get several prisoners released from North Korea, told NPR that Warmbier was probably the victim of an interrogation that went wrong. “It affected his brain [and] he then went into a coma,” he said. “I don’t think they’re foolish enough to engage and torture a 21-year-old boy who just stole a political banner.” In any case, US activist groups seeking to end the standoff through dialogue and engagement expressed hope that Congress would not ban US citizens from visiting North Korea.
“While we do not know the full account of what happened during his imprisonment in North Korea, we believe Otto should not have been detained—nor lost his life,” Women Cross DMZ, the women’s peace group that visited North and South Korea in 2015, declared. “Rather than use Otto’s case to continue a policy that further cuts off communication, we call for improved channels of dialogue between North Korea and the United States.”
That idea has currency in Washington. On Monday, at the same Seoul forum where the foreign minister spoke, James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, proposed that the United States and North Korea establish interest sections in each other’s capitals to “help prevent miscalculations stemming from a lack of communication” and establish conditions for direct negotiations, according to The Korea Herald.
Yet even as President Moon was expressing sorrow and anger over Warmbier’s death, Moon and his foreign-policy advisers were portrayed by the US media as undercutting American policy. The coverage was epitomized by a visit to Seoul by CBS reporter Norah O’Donnell, who spent two years of her youth living with her Army family at Yongsan, the sprawling headquarters of the US military command in South Korea.
In a televised interview with Moon that received front-page coverage in South Korea, O’Donnell offended many Koreans by telling the former human-rights lawyer that it’s “not clear” whether President Trump “will agree to allow you to negotiate with the North Koreans without any preconditions.”
Moon replied politely. “I have never mentioned a dialogue with no preconditions whatsoever,” he informed O’Donnell. “I believe that first we must vie for a freeze of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. And then, as a second phase, try to achieve the complete dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program. And I believe there are voices supporting such a step-by-step approach even within the United States.” He was referring to recent statements from former officials such as William Perry, who negotiated directly with North Korea in the 1990s as President Clinton’s defense secretary.
Two weeks ago, Perry made several appearances in Washington, where he said a North Korean freeze of its missile tests, combined with a reduction in US-South Korean military exercises, were ideas “worth considering” as a way to restart negotiations with the North. He also told a seminar on North Korea sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee and the Korea Peace Network that the United States should respect the Moon government’s wishes to remove THAAD, arguing that the system was of “little use” in defending against North Korean missile attacks.
Even the RAND Corporation, long known for its hawkish stance on Korea, recently endorsed the idea of negotiating a peace treaty with North Korea to end the state of war. Clapper backs the idea as well. “At least engaging in discussions leading to a peace treaty would relieve [North Korea’s] fear of attack, and also deflate one of their major assertions they use to instill fear among their people to justify their grotesque commitment of resources to their military,” he said on Monday.
Taking note of the shifting tone in Washington, The New York Times’s David Sanger reported on June 21 that the Trump administration “has come under growing pressure” to open negotiations on a temporary freeze of North Korean missile tests in exchange for reductions in US military exercises on the peninsula.
But President Moon was clearly rattled by O’Donnell’s audacious assumption that he needed permission from President Trump to talk to the North. “Resumption of dialogue with North Korea may need to be pursued in close cooperation and consultation with the United States, but South Korea does not need to be allowed by the U.S. to do so,” Moon’s chief spokesman told Yonhap News, the country’s official news agency, within hours of his CBS interview.
The public should expect similar fireworks during this week’s summit, predicted Christine Ahn, the founder and spokesperson for Women Cross DMZ. She recalled the disastrous 2001 meeting between the late Korean president Kim Dae-jung and former President George W. Bush, when she said Bush “humiliated” Kim by publicly rejecting his policies of engagement. “Like Emmanuel Macron [France’s new president], Moon should be prepared to push back,” she said.