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CWA # 96, 18 March 2019

Trump-Kim Summit & Regional Stakes
For South Korea, a costly disappointment

  Sourina Bej

What were the expectations of South Korea from the summit and why the disappointment?  What were the implications of the summit on South Korea? With a possible nuclear build-up by North Korea what does it mean for South Korea?

The Trump-Kim summit is over, but the South Korean President Moon Jae is still picking up the pieces.  The meeting between the US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ended abruptly after a disagreement over the issue of sanctions. Kim agreed to dismantle a part of the nuclear infrastructure including the Yongbyon nuclear complex but was not prepared to destroy the programme that included few uranium plants. This led US to continue the sanctions and the summit ended with a ‘no deal’.

Off the bystanders in the summit, Moon had pinned his hopes on a successful outcome from the summit and was most disappointed at the outcome. What were the expectations of South Korea from the summit and why the disappointment?  What were the implications of the summit on South Korea? With a possible nuclear build-up by North Korea what does it mean for South Korea?

A Costly Disappointment   

Since the Singapore Summit even though not much institutional groundwork was laid for a denuclearised North Korea, much progress had been made in bringing Moon and Kim together thereby bridging the gap between North and South Korean leaders and the people. It was Moon who brokered the second summit between Trump and Kim with a confidence of a breakthrough in Hanoi. So much so, that he had planned to deliver a major speech laying out his bold vision for economic cooperation with North Korea, assuming that a denuclearization deal between Trump and Kim would lift the economic restrictions thereby easing the path for an inter-Korean economic venture.

South Korea, especially Moon Jae had many expectations from the summit. At the political level Moon wanted to use the summit to formalise the progress made between him and Kim post the Singapore meet. The joint economic venture would have been one of the tools to cement the political interest of South Korea in the peninsula. In addition a successful summit would have also gone a long way in garnering tangible result for Moon to show to the people at home and the opposition party who have often criticised him to be a “naïve politician wanting to go too far to fast.”

Hence when the summit ended without a deal Moon’s press statement afterwards showed the significant social and economic impact on the domestic politics of South Korea.

Moon’s legacy would have been on the right side of history had the summit been successful. His dream of a connected Korea had been one of the election promises Moon wanted to deliver ever since he came to power.

To fulfil this, Moon has often spoken grandly of establishing road and rail links with North Korea as a first step toward building a joint economic zone starting from Kaesong in North Korea. This was his way of connecting the Korean identity. The February meeting provided the perfect historical setting for it. The date marks the 100th anniversary of a key uprising in Korea’s struggle against imperial Japan. Moon was hopeful of capitalising on the historical memory for dealing with the cross-border collaboration. But it is important to note here that Moon’s idea of a connected Korea and his method of achieving the idea doesn’t reflect the demands of the larger South Koreans who don’t trust Trump or Kim in taking tangible steps towards denuclearisation. Thus the primary reason for Moon to push for the summit is to gain the public support which has eroded over the past few years owing to his faulty economic and foreign policies.

One such significant foreign policy failure is to reach remuneration from Japan over the forced labour issue. On the economic front, Moon’s approval ratings at home have been dropping owing to his failure to bring back Seoul’s economic lifeline (investors) in track. Moon’s idea of an inter-Korean economic venture had appealed to a lot of investors which would have got South Korea its investments had the sanctions were relaxed.

Reeling under a Setback

After the summit criticisms have increased against Moon mainly from the conservative opposition, the Liberal Korea Party. Secondly, the people of South Korea were relieved to see a no deal with North Korea as a bad deal would have meant the US settling for the freezing of the Kim’s nuclear program and ICBM leaving the short and medium range missiles untouched. This would have led to defence and security concerns for South Korea. Thirdly, the economic environment has dampened the investors and the consumer sentiment in South Korea. The hope for road links and people to people connection established now stand to be jeopardised.

Internationally, Moon strategically wanted to see the summit as a way to move a little ahead off the permanent American security architecture and forge a regional identity with it being one of the important players. That’s the reason why Moon wanted to strengthen its role as a mediator and offered to broker the Hanoi summit. But the signs of the failure of the meet were there. Most of the think tanks including the Stimson Centres’ nuclear expert David Kim believe that walking away from a bad deal is best for both US and North Korea. Even though no deal cost South Korean leader of the risky economic and domestic strategy, a bad deal would have increased the security concerns for the country as a whole.

 

Nuclear build-up of North Korea: What would be South Korea’s next step?

In the aftermath of the summit, the biggest risk to the region has been the resumption of nuclear and missile tests by Kim. North Korea has started rebuilding the facilities for satellite launches and test engines, according to American military analysts and South Korean intelligence officials. Complete denuclearisation of North Korea is not something that South Korea would have assumed from the summit. The nuclear build-up puts the nuclear threat back on the table with not much to be achieved for South Korea.  

Moon Jae has now asked his officials to find out what exactly has gone awry. He aims to have a semi-official three way talks. It is unlikely whether US would want to have the talks that way. It is however certain that Moon would not be ready to let go off the progress made between the two Koreas. The South Korean Blue House official statement has confirmed a news report that South Korea is considering holding talks with North Korea in order to thaw the relation with US. A question still remains is denuclearisation in the peninsula even possible?

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