North and South Korean leaders meet as US indicates summit may yet happen

Source: The Guardian | Published on 27th May 2018, 12:09 PM | Global News |

The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, met his South Korean counterpart on Saturday, two days after Donald Trump cancelled a planned summit with Kim.

Moon Jae-in crossed into the north at the border village of Panmunjom, where the two met for the first time in April, the South Korean president’s office said. The two leaders discussed the US-North Korea summit, as well as implementing the joint statement released at the end of their earlier meeting.

The surprise meeting highlighted Moon’s efforts to get the historic US-North Korea talks back on track, and showed inter-Korea relations are in a far better state than those between Washington and Pyongyang.

The North’s state-run KCNA news agency said the two leaders agreed to “meet frequently in the future to make dialogue brisk and pool wisdom and efforts, expressing their stand to make joint efforts for the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”.

Specifically, Moon and Kim will hold “high-level talks” on Friday, the agency added.

Seoul’s presidential Blue House said in a statement: “They exchanged views and discussed ways to implement the Panmunjom Declaration [on improving inter-Korean ties] and to ensure a successful US North Korea summit.”

On Friday, Trump made a partial climbdown, saying the summit could still be held in Singapore on 12 June if conditions are right. On Saturday, press secretary Sarah Sanders said White House staffers and state department officials would still travel to Singapore for a logistics meeting, “in order to prepare should the summit take place”.

In a pair of angry tweets, Trump said there was “ZERO disagreement” within his administration about North Korea but “if there was it wouldn’t matter”. He also disputed a report in the New York Times about the issue, claiming the “senior White House official” citied in the story “doesn’t exist”.

Reporters from outlets including the Times pushed back, noting that the quote to which Trump appeared to be objecting was from a background briefing on North Korea that was fully sanctioned by the White House.

Trump has faced fierce criticism over his inconsistency as a partner in the high-stakes talks. Adam Mount, director of the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said on Saturday Moon’s “bold but risky” meeting with Kim was a “clear demonstration of how dangerous Trump’s temper tantrum was”.

 “When Kim Jong-un was allowed to split the negotiations into separate tracks with Trump and Moon, he gained leverage over both,” Mount wrote on Twitter. “Moon was sitting too alone at the table today, without the full weight of the United States.

“Trump says ‘everybody plays games’,” Mount added, referring to Trump’s response when asked about North Korea’s posture on Friday. “Moon Jae-in is not playing a game: he must keep his people safe from war. Each of Trump’s whims shakes the walls of the Blue House.”

Photos released by the South Korean presidential office showed the two leaders embracing, shaking hands and holding intimate talks, accompanied by a single aide each. Moon was expected to announce further details on Sunday.

In their first summit in April, Kim and Moon announced vague aspirations for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula and peace, which Seoul tried to sell as a breakthrough to set up the summit with Trump. But relations chilled as North Korea canceled a high-level meeting over South Korea’s military exercises with the US.

The South was caught off guard by Trump’s abrupt cancellation of the Singapore summit, citing hostility in recent North Korean comments. Moon said Trump’s decision left him “perplexed” and was “very regrettable” and urged Washington and Pyongyang to establish “more direct and closer dialogue between their leaders”.

Trump’s behaviour has fanned fears in South Korea regarding a rival intent on driving a wedge between Washington and Seoul and a US president who thinks less of a traditional alliance than his predecessors. The decision to pull out of the summit came just days after Trump hosted Moon in a White House meeting where he cast doubts on the Singapore summit and offered no support for inter-Korean progress.

In his letter to Kim cancelling the summit, Trump objected to a statement from senior diplomat Choe Son Hui, who referred to vice-president Mike Pence as a “political dummy” and said it was up to the Americans whether they would “meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at nuclear-to-nuclear showdown”.

North Korea issued an unusually restrained response, saying it was still willing to sit for talks with the US “at any time, (in) any format”.

“The first meeting would not solve all, but solving even one at a time in a phased way would make the relations get better rather than making them get worse,” vice-foreign minister Kim Kye Gwan said in a statement carried by Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency.

Notably, the statement did not appear in Saturday’s edition of Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece of the ruling party. The newspaper focused on Kim’s visit to Wonsan to inspect a beachfront tourist complex.

Analysts say Kim’s outreach after nuclear and missile tests in 2017 indicates he is eager for sanctions relief and international legitimacy. Earlier this month, Kim released three US citizens. This week, Pyongyang invited international journalists to observe what it claimed was the dismantling of its only known nuclear test site. The regime has also declared that it no longer needs to conduct tests.

There is also skepticism whether Kim will ever agree to relinquish his nuclear weapons, which analysts believe he sees as his only guarantee of survival. Comments in state media indicate Kim sees any meeting with Trump as a negotiation between nuclear states. The North has said it will not participate if it is pressured to give up its arsenal.

In Washington, a cadre of Trump’s most fervent Republican supporters in Congress have nominated the president for a Nobel peace prize. The Trump administration also issued an official but widely mocked summit commemorative coin, featuring profiles of Trump and Kim against the backdrop of their countries’ flags.

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