The envoys then returned to Seoul with an agreement with Kim Jong Un, who had made a stunning array of concessions that touched upon virtually all major topics in inter-Korean relations. Kim Jong Un reportedly agreed in principle to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, to an inter-Korean summit next month, and to the establishment of the first-ever direct hotline between the two Koreas’ leaders. Kim also pledged not to use nuclear or conventional weaponry against South Korea, the first time a North Korean leader made such a promise. Most importantly, he agreed to begin discussions with the United States for denuclearization and suspend nuclear and missile tests during the talks.
Then South Korea’s envoys headed to Washington, where they relayed Kim’s invitation for a summit meeting—which Trump accepted immediately. In a moment of apt symbolism, it was South Korea’s Chung Eui Yong who announced the news from the White House driveway, unaccompanied by any American officials.
Of course, no one knows whether the U.S. president (or the North Korean leader, for that matter) will fulfill his end of the bargain. On Friday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said Trump “will not agree to the meeting without concrete steps and action,” fueling speculation that he wanted to leave himself an out. It’s also unclear whether Trump is prepared for a face-to-face meeting with Kim. There have been none of the low-level meetings between U.S. and North Korean officials that usually precede a summit meeting, and the Trump administration lacks the personnel to conduct them, as it has no ambassador to South Korea or permanent top diplomat for East Asia in the State Department. China could also break its relative silence and play spoiler, if it sees the talks among the U.S., South Korea, and North Korea as encroaching upon its interests.
But no matter what, in many ways, Moon Jae In has already won. Moon’s approval rating has climbed back over 75 percent, making him once again the most popular leader in the free world. He has flipped the script on North Korea’s traditional strategy of “tongmi bongnam,” (“deal with the U.S. and isolate the South”) by making the South the indispensable intermediary. And the fact that Trump’s State Department is understaffed means Seoul’s diplomats will have to take on a greater role. If the announced schedule holds, the inter-Korean summit will happen on April, followed by the U.S.-North Korea summit in May. This puts the Trump administration in the position of following South Korea’s lead.
Trump and Kim may be the ones making headlines, but it was Moon who drove the entire process. In just eight months, he kept China on the sidelines, rebuffed North Korea’s attempt to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States, pushed North Korea to put denuclearization on the table, and nudged the U.S. to step away from a preventive strike and talk to Pyongyang—to the point that Donald Trump, if he follows through on his pledge, would become the first U.S. president to hold a summit meeting with North Korea. And to the extent that giving Trump all the credit helps Moon steer him, the South Korean leader will be perfectly content to leave the spotlight to others.