South Korean President Moon Jae-in faces a formidable task during meetings in New York this week with Donald Trump and other world leaders: convincing skeptics that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is actually serious about giving up his nuclear weapons.
Moon was expected to meet Trump on Monday in New York, and will address the United Nations later in the week. The South Korean leader has said he will deliver a private message from Kim to Trump to push along stalled denuclearisation talks—a sea change from a year ago, when the US president called him “Rocket Man” in a UN speech.
At a summit between Moon and Kim in Pyongyang last week, North Korea said it would dismantle a major missile-engine site and possibly its Yongbyon nuclear facility if the US took unspecified “corresponding measures.” Many key details were left unclear, including whether inspectors would be allowed to verify the process.
Skeptics of North Korea saw the same old tactics from Kim that the regime has employed for decades: Dangle the possibility of a deal while moving forward with the goal of becoming a globally recognised nuclear power. Since the June summit between Trump and Kim in Singapore, North Korea has pushed for the removal of sanctions without giving up its nuclear deterrent.
But Moon and other optimists see a rare chance to strike a deal that can unwind seven decades of hostility and produce a Korean Peninsula without nuclear weapons. In their minds, Kim will move forward with denuclearisation and economic development if he has assurances the US won’t overthrow his regime—and that requires both sides to build trust.
“Moon is focussed on convincing Trump about Kim Jong-un and he may succeed,” said Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But there is a larger disconnect that will take time and evidence based on actions to overcome, and that Moon so far has not yet been focused on.” Politically, Moon has a lot riding on a deal: He said North Korea didn’t honour previous deals because conservative leaders in South Korea didn’t respect the agreements. His approval rating rebounded after last week’s summit, helping offset a recent drop due to a struggling economy. On Monday, Moon is hoping to sign a revised free-trade agreement with Trump.
North Korea watchers in the US have plenty of reason to be skeptical, however. Decades of talks only seemed to have bought the regime time to develop the capability to threaten the entire US with a nuclear attack, with North Korean negotiators repeatedly throwing up obstacles to real progress on denuclearisation.
Deals like the 1994 Agreed Framework negotiated by the Clinton administration contained detailed commitments by Pyongyang to close plutonium-producing nuclear reactors and secure spent fuel rods so they couldn’t be turned into weapons-grade fuel. But it and others fell apart, with the US accusing North Korea of reneging on the agreements and Pyongyang claiming that American administrations failed to meet commitments.
“Many people in Washington feel that North Korea has a lot to prove based on the record of failing to live up to agreements,’’ Snyder said. “North Korea may feel the same about the US.”