Whatever his mandate, Moon is scrambling to save the summit, which Trump now says might still happen, despite the “trail of broken promises” an administration official accused North Korea of leaving behind. On Sunday, in fact, American officials arrived in North Korea to proceed with summit preparations. Shortly before Trump pulled out of the summit over the North’s “open hostility” and his administration’s doubts about the North’s commitment to denuclearization, South Korea’s national-security adviser had placed the odds of the Trump-Kim meeting occurring as scheduled at 99.9 percent. Sometimes history turns on 0.1 percent probabilities.
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The story of how South Korea nearly managed to bring Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un together for an unprecedented meeting, and to help pull the American and North Korean leaders back from the precipice of war, is often told as if it begins with the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea. But the tale actually starts much earlier—and it’s still unfinished.
Moon, a child of North Korean refugees and former chief of staff to President Roh Moo Hyun, a practitioner of the liberal “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with North Korea, assumed office a year ago this month anxious to pursue rapprochement with North Korea. He was determined not to repeat the mistakes of Roh, who had been openly confrontational with the United States and held a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il at the end of his five-year term, when there was little time to implement the results.
But Moon—who became president shortly after a spell of heightened tension in April, when Trump dispatched an aircraft carrier to the Korean peninsula as the U.S. and North Korea traded threats of devastating war—was initially inhibited. The Trump administration was focused on applying economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure on North Korea in response to its missile and nuclear tests. Moon, whose liberal government wasn’t a natural partner of the conservative Trump administration, enlisted in the “maximum pressure” campaign.
“Some of his staff argued last year that because of Trump’s pressure and sanctions, inter-Korean detente is now stalemated. We have to just ignore Trump!” Kim Hyun Wook, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, which is affiliated with South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told me. “But President Moon didn’t listen to them. [He said,] ‘No that’s not true. We have to anchor the U.S.-South Korea alliance and then [undertake] inter-Korean detente all together.’”
“Sanctions and pressures are the logical response” to North Korean military provocations that violate UN Security Council resolutions, explained Chung In Moon, a special adviser to President Moon Jae In for foreign affairs and national security, when I met with him in Seoul. But they are a means to compel North Korea to negotiate, not an end in themselves. With regard to North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons, “by the very structural nature of the issue, it is between” the United States and North Korea, Moon told me, in apparent reference to the fact that the North has been developing its nuclear arsenal—particularly nuclear-capable long-range missiles—with the stated purpose of deterring a U.S. attack. (Many South Koreans doubt that North Korea would actually use its nuclear weapons and see those weapons as primarily threatening the United States.) But the South Korean president has made clear that “as to peace, stability, and prosperity on the Korean peninsula, it is we who should sit in the driver’s seat.”