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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on July 3)

All News 07:05 July 03, 2017

Moon gains limited chance to reset allies' NK policy

A collective sigh of relief was almost audible on this side of the Pacific after the summit between President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump did not degenerate into a shouting match, arms wrestling or anything embarrassing.

Rather, President Moon may feel tempted to call his summit a success _ winning Trump's backing for his dialogue-first approach. But this success, if it is that, is a work in progress with a limited window of opportunity and many conditions.

The leaders' post-summit statement states the two nations "will not maintain a hostile policy toward North Korea," while opening the door for dialogue under the right conditions. Pyongyang has called for U.S. hostility to cease as a condition for dialogue, so the two leaders have ostensibly addressed this primary North Korean concern. But it is at best a fragile proposition. If it means, for instance, that the joint ROK-U.S. exercises should be suspended, that is out of the question because the U.S. has opposed it vehemently and Moon agreed to exclude it.

"The right conditions for dialogue" was nothing new because the Trump administration had used the vague phrase. Moon has recently adopted it.

Moon gets wiggle room

At a joint press conference, Trump confirmed his negative view on the North, calling it a "reckless and brutal" regime. He also called for a "determined response" to its missile and nuclear programs. Basically, it is a repetition of his stance _ all options including force remain on the table.

Washington is giving Korea a chance to bring the North to the negotiating table, making clear that it is neither open-ended nor unconditional. Trump did not leave any doubt about it when he emphasized that the previous Obama administration's strategic patience policy failed and that he has run out of patience.

Moon stressed the summit agreement to opt for a phased, comprehensive approach to resolve the North's weapons programs. The President has been pushing for this format, calling the North's nuclear freeze as the "entry" of the denuclearization process. He may take credit for lowering the threshold for dialogue from dismantling to freeze as a condition.

But Moon's real problem lies in how to draw the North back to the negotiating table. Above all, the North has repeatedly rejected Seoul's offer for dialogue. Moon cannot afford to give Pyongyang substantial incentives such as reopening the Gaeseong Industrial Complex _ the inter-Korean flagship joint venture _ or Mount Geumgang tours.

Both projects were initiated at the peak of the late President Kim Dae-jung's "Sunshine Policy" of reconciliation, but they have been criticized as being sources of hard cash that helped the North develop weapons of mass destruction. As Moon and Trump noted, lifting the suspension would be impossible unless the North makes a significant concession in its main weapons programs.

Moon must overcome tremendous odds to persuade the North to halt its weapons programs that are close to completion. The North has conducted five nuclear tests, gaining technology to make more-powerful Hydrogen-bombs, while it is ready to test an intercontinental ballistic missile. Testing either of these would likely torpedo Moon's attempt at finding a negotiated solution to the North Korean problem.

Trump's hefty price tag

Moon has paid a heavy price not just in monetary terms but in his domestic political capital. Trump talked about two of his "favorite" issues that are not included in their joint statement _ sharing the burden of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) and renegotiating the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement (KORUS FTA).

"We will always defend our allies … we are working together to ensure fair burden sharing in support of the US military presence in South Korea," Trump said with Moon looking on. Trump referred to Korea as freeloader during his campaign, arguing that it has not paid the U.S. enough for support in its defense.

This could mean an additional demand for a contribution that could be significantly increased, if the duo's agreement on Korea's expeditious takeover of wartime control of its troops is factored in.

Their joint statement hinted that the additional bill would be for Korea acquiring the necessary hardware and software. The transfer is expected to face opposition from conservatives, who argue that it would weaken the alliance, putting pressure on Moon.

There is another price tag on the KORUS FTA. The presidential office denied there was any deal between the two presidents. Moon only said that the two countries would work to expand mutual benefits. But Trump the businessman unilaterally claimed that Korea has benefited from the FTA at the U.S. expense and that the two nations were about to sign a fairer deal. Trump applied a shrewd tactic _ sidestepping a deal-breaker such as THAAD but pressing for points on domestic crowd-pleasers such as the KORUS FTA.

The summit has left an unpleasant taste certainly in Moon's mouth and in those of many Koreans. They will remember it, although the reality for now forces them to make the best of what has been gained, however little it may be.

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