Trump meets with Moon in crucial moment for Korea summit

Trump meets with Moon in crucial moment for Korea summit
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpTom Arnold claims to have unreleased 'tapes' of Trump Cohen distances himself from Tom Arnold, says they did not discuss Trump US military indefinitely suspends two training exercises with South Korea MORE faces a crucial juncture ahead of his planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as he prepares to sit down with South Korea’s president on Tuesday.

With North Korea threatening to walk, the White House meeting between Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in will provide an opportunity for the allies to confer on next steps.

And it could be a deciding factor in whether the Trump-Kim summit moves forward.

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“This is make-or-break,” said Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest.

North Korea threw a wrench in Trump’s plans to meet Kim next month with a series of statements last week threatening to cancel.

Right now, the summit, which would be a first between a North Korean leader and a sitting U.S. president, is scheduled to take place on June 12 in Singapore.

But in a statement last week, North Korea warned it could walk away from the table, objecting to joint U.S.-South Korean military drills that were taking place. Pyongyang also canceled a high-level meeting with officials from Seoul.

In a second statement, Pyongyang said the U.S. must drop its demand for “unilateral” nuclear disarmament and blasted national security adviser John Bolton’s suggestion of a “Libya model," referring to a denuclearization agreement the North African country entered into with the U.S. The Kim government sees the reference as a threat since Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was ousted from power and killed eight years later.

Despite the threats published in North Korea’s state news agency, Trump has said plans for the summit are moving full-steam and that his administration has not received any threats issued directly from Pyongyang. 

“Our people are literally dealing with them right now in terms of making arrangements for the meeting,” Trump told reporters Thursday after Pyongyang’s statements.

Still, The New York Times reported over the weekend that Trump is privately asking his aides and allies whether the summit should proceed.

North Korea, too, appears to be going through with its pre-summit preparations despite its declarations, including its promise to dismantle its nuclear testing facility.

Invited foreign journalists are en route to view the closing of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, scheduled to happen between Wednesday and Friday, depending on weather. U.S.-based North Korea monitor 38 North has said commercial satellite images taken May 7 and May 15 shows North Korea has already done preliminary work to close the site.

Moon has already had his own historic summit with Kim, in which the North Korean leader became the first to step foot on South Korean soil since the Korean War.

The summit ended with a joint declaration that both countries are committed to denuclearization and officially ending the war 65 years after the armistice.

Now, having staked much of his presidency on a rapprochement with Pyongyang, Moon comes to the White House with the goal of keeping U.S.-North Korean diplomacy afloat.

“The Trump administration is getting a little bit nervous that there really is no deliverable here,” said Carl Baker, director of programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Pacific Forum. “What Moon is going to try to do is try to say this is just a negotiating tactic on the part of the North.”

Kazianis suggested Moon could save the summit by getting Kim to agree to Trump’s demands on a concrete timeline for denuclearization by the end of Trump’s first term.

“For Moon, it’s mission impossible,” Kazianis said. “The challenge is the Trump administration and Kim Jong Un are just too far apart on even what the definition is on denuclearization.”

On Saturday, Moon and Trump spoke by phone for about 20 minutes to discuss “recent developments” in North Korea and agreed on continued “close coordination” ahead of the Trump-Kim summit, according to statements from the White House and South Korea’s presidential office.

Trump and Moon “agreed to closely cooperate on the success of the U.S.-North Korea summit and the upcoming Seoul-Washington summit in an unwavering manner,” according to the South Korean statement.

Though Moon and Trump have spoken, as have others in their administrations, the visit provides an opportunity for “unfiltered” talks, said Jim Schoff, a senior fellow in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Asia Program.

That’s important, Schoff said, both for Trump to clarify contradictions between what he’s said and what administration officials such as Bolton have said, and for Moon to directly tell Trump how serious he’s taking North Korea’s shift back to aggressive rhetoric.

Still, while the meeting is important for the U.S.-South Korean alliance, Schoff said he doesn’t think it is a make-or-break moment for the Trump-Kim summit.

Addressing what he thinks would make or break the summit, he said, “I think that ultimately is going to be the extent to which the Americans are flexible or willing to go into the summit open-ended or with question marks.”

Trump, too, has much at stake, having made nuclear diplomacy with North Korea his No. 1 foreign policy goal.

As such, Trump may need to be prepared to make concessions to Moon, such as shortening the U.S.-South Korean military exercises, Baker said.

He suggested that while the administration has said it’s content to continue the maximum pressure campaign should talks falter, Trump appears intent on making a deal.

“It sounds like Trump has gotten fixated a little bit more than some in the administration would like on the idea of a Nobel Peace Prize,” Baker said. “There’s some concern within the administration that he’s a little bit too attached, put too much emphasis on getting the Nobel for his maximum pressure policy and being able to make a breakthrough.”