A familiar role for Moon: Smoothing the way for US-North Korea talks

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is visiting Washington on a familiar mission: to save the U.S.-North Korea denuclearization talks. He did this a year ago when, in the wake of North Korean anger at public comments by national security adviser John Bolton and Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceConstruction continues despite rising concerns over coronavirus Biden's pick for vice president doesn't matter much Sheldon Adelson donating 2M masks to first responders: report MORE, to the effect that Pyongyang should embrace the “Libya model” (Bolton-speak for unconditional surrender), the talks seemed in trouble. Moon met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and then with President TrumpDonald John TrumpIllinois governor says state has gotten 10 percent of medical equipments it's requested Biden leads Trump by 6 points in national poll Tesla offers ventilators free of cost to hospitals, Musk says MORE, and succeeded in encouraging all to refrain from press invectives and to come together in Singapore.  

But this time, Moon really has his work cut out for him. Despite great anticipation, the summit in Hanoi is broadly understood as a failure whose preparation and purpose, given the recriminations that followed, is hard to discern. Listening to the various accounts of what supposedly happened, the ideas that were exchanged and how each side responded to the other’s proposals, it is increasingly hard to believe the North Korean and U.S. leaders actually attended the same meeting.

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The North Koreans claimed they placed on the table the complete and permanent dismantlement of their main nuclear center in Yongbyon, both the plutonium facilities and uranium enrichment plant, with all the demolition work performed under the watchful eyes of U.S. technicians. The price: sanctions relief dating from 2017. These would include some of the most robust measures, such as those which included the energy sector.

In subsequent briefings, it appears the U.S. perspective of Hanoi was quite different than that of the North Koreans. We’ve been told the North Korean offer was vague, incremental, incomplete. For President Trump to have accepted it, he would be going down the path of previous negotiators. The North Koreans, we were also told, never identified the scope of the Yongbyon measures, nor did they offer specifics as to what precisely would be included in the permanent dismantling.   

For its part, the U.S. side apparently proposed that North Korea destroy its entire nuclear, missile and chem-bio programs and to turn over to the United States, presumably for safekeeping, all fissile material in return for sanctions relief. After all, as this replay of the “Libya model” suggests, once a country has made a “strategic decision,” a sort of secular moment of rapture, there is no reason to delay salvation a day longer. Whether the U.S. team was delusional in making this “offer” — or, more likely, just ensuring that nothing would be accomplished in Hanoi — is hard to say. It is an understatement to suggest that not everyone on the Trump team is as committed to a deal as is the president.

What should Moon do now? He might start by praising Trump for his leadership and wisdom in holding two world-watching sessions with the North Korea leader and, quoting the president back to him, suggest that denuclearization will take time and that the president is right to be patient. The North Koreans are as distrustful as they are distrusted, unlikely to do anything in one fell swoop.

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Moon then might turn to the specific issue of the North Korean offer to dismantle Yongbyon and praise the president for not leaping at the offer, given its lack of detail. He might suggest that an envoy of his own could journey to Pyongyang, with no formal negotiating role, to learn more about the proposal and report back. To the question of sanctions relief for partial denuclearization, an apparent red line for President Trump, Moon might suggest that in the meantime, the United States should look at “snap back” provisions — the concept that United Nations sanctions could be reimposed automatically in the event North Korea tried to make Yongbyon its last act of dismantling, rather than its first.  

Moon also might want to remind the president that it has been a long time since the  United States has had any personnel actually in North Korea. The prospect of getting American dismantlement verifiers on the ground would be useful, going forward. He might suggest pursuing the hearty perennial of both sides opening liaison offices in each other’s capitals, to streamline communication. It is true that the North Koreans never followed up on the idea in the 1990s, and rejected it outright in 2007, but Kim Jong Un seems to have been more receptive in Hanoi, calling it “welcome.”

For his part, President Trump might want to take the opportunity with Moon to reiterate that — despite the cacophony of voices in U.S. media, left and right, saying that North Korea will never accept denuclearization — he remains committed to addressing the North Korean threat, one way or the other. He has a number of options, but not the option of walking away or pretending that the problem is solved by North Korea’s testing moratorium. Moon needs to hear this clear message.  

Inducing a country to give up nuclear weapons is one of the greatest challenges in diplomacy. President Trump seems to have acknowledged the fundamental importance of that fact, and has thrown himself directly into the mix — perhaps, in part, an admission that his team is divided on how, or even whether, to proceed.

The greatest weakness of the Trump approach has been the lack of diplomatic architecture. China and Russia, who share a border with North Korea, remain on the diplomatic sidelines, as does Japan, despite Tokyo’s close contact with Washington. President Moon, on the other hand, has staked his own administration and legacy on the issue of North Korea. As such, he shares a foxhole with President Trump. Let’s hope they make progress together.

Christopher Hill was a U.S. diplomat in South Korea from 1983 to 1985, then returned as U.S. ambassador in 2004-2005. He became the State Department’s assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in 2006 and was the chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea, 2005-2008. In 1995 he helped to negotiate the Dayton Accords, ending the war in Bosnia, and served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, 2009-2010. He is now a professor of diplomacy and chief adviser to the chancellor for global engagement at the University of Denver. Follow him on Twitter @ambchrishill.