Heads of South Korea and the United States will have a summit in the White House on May 22. This is the fourth meeting between them since South Korean President Moon Jae-in took office, but it has different implications this time. The meeting is going to be the last “timeout” session before the North Korea-U.S. summit where Moon will convey the thoughts of Kim Jong Un he heard at the inter-Korean summit on April 27 and review the denuclearization plan.
The denuclearization project for North Korea that has been progressing satisfactorily since Kim’s New Year address will come to a climax at the North Korea-U.S. summit. “We now have a date and we have a location. We’ll be announcing it soon,” Trump told reporters Friday. But it seems that the summit is going to be delayed. Trump said last Monday that the summit would be held “after three or four weeks.” Releasing the detained American citizens, which seemed to happen soon, has not been done yet. This means that there were a lot of disagreements in the working-level discussions even if North Korea spoke of its intention to denuclearize and accept reinforced inspection. Especially, it has been reported that North Korea and the United States are having differences in their position when it comes to the timeline of denuclearization. North Korea is reportedly arguing for gradual denuclearization, whereas the United States is insisting on completing denuclearization by the end of 2020.
What is more important than the timing of the summit is finishing the pre-work to minimize risks of negotiation failure. Unlike other summits where heads of state make final achievements after finishing working-level negotiations and preparing a joint statement, Trump and Kim who are highly-opinionated could affect the final decision on the day of the summit. That means there is a high risk of sudden changes in the meeting room while they discuss issues such as biochemical weapons and human rights of North Korean residents.
Trump and Moon also need to prevent the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) from becoming an issue again before the summit. It seems that Trump mentioned the issue of reducing the size of the USFK, bearing in mind its status and size after the peace regime is established. But it is inappropriate to discuss the USFK issue now, as it is right before the summit and establishing the peace regime is still far-off.
South Korea and the United States are in a tag match for denuclearization as one team. They need to take a belt-and-braces approach by coordinating closely and sharing everything. The role of South Korea as an adviser and an arbitrator is pivotal to achieve a great agreement in the summit. The South Korea-U.S. summit on May 22 should be a meeting for Moon and Trump to have candid talks and careful considerations without restrictions of time and issues.