By Lee Haye-ah
WASHINGTON, April 11 (Yonhap) -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in's meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump produced some progress as Trump expressed commitment to continuing dialogue with North Korea and an openness to accepting smaller, incremental deals with Pyongyang, experts said.
Moon and Trump sat down Thursday to seek a solution to the North Korean stalemate that has resulted from the collapse of February's second summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
What has emerged from the meeting is that the two leaders remain enthusiastic about continuing dialogue with Kim -- including through additional summits -- while Trump steadfastly pursues a "big deal" on completely dismantling the North's nuclear weapons program before offering any major sanctions relief.
Catherine Killough, who focuses on the North's nuclear and missile development at Washington's Ploughshares Fund, was cautiously optimistic that the Moon-Trump summit could help create favorable conditions for negotiations going forward.
"Today's summit was good on momentum, but apparently less so on shifting President Trump's position," she said in comments to Yonhap. "It's encouraging that Trump didn't rule out the possibility of accepting smaller deals with North Korea, but his insistence on striking a 'big deal' and his refusal to ease sanctions sends conflicting messages.
"Perhaps the most important takeaway is that President Moon is actively coordinating with Trump and conveying a united front," she said. "That will go a long way to minimizing fears about U.S.-South Korea disharmony."
South Korean officials have actively sought to portray a united front with the U.S. on North Korea, saying the allies agree on the "end state" of their engagements with Pyongyang.
But many analysts see a rift over Moon's push to restart inter-Korean economic projects, including a joint industrial park in the North's Kaesong and tourism to Mount Kumgang, which he says will incentivize the North to abandon its nuclear weapons program and establish lasting peace on the peninsula.
For Moon, the top priority in his meeting with Trump was to ensure the U.S. president remains committed to continuing dialogue with the North and open to a third summit with Kim, according to Harry Kazianis, director of Korean studies at the Center for the National Interest.
"I would say by that standard Moon achieved his objective -- and then some," he said.
And Trump's stated openness to smaller, incremental deals short of the "big deal" was seen as a positive signal.
"Moon will focus all his efforts now to ensure Chairman Kim will come back to the table, and quite soon," Kazianis said, referring to a possible inter-Korean summit in the near future.
"If that were to occur, Moon could set the stage for a diplomatic breakthrough, working to bridge the gap between Washington and Pyongyang on denuclearization, but most important of all, helping create trust between both sides, something that is very much in short supply," he added.
Kazianis also called for Moon's continued role in the negotiation process.
"If one thing is clear it is that President Moon must stay engaged at all times throughout any and all negotiations between America and North Korea, to be not only the facilitator but perhaps the savior," he said. "He is the very foundation of this process, and if it weren't for his constant emergency interventions, we most likely would not have the uneasy peace we had for over a year and half."
Others were less upbeat about the possibility of restarting negotiations or attaining the ultimate goal of North Korea's denuclearization.
"I see little in the outcome of the Trump-Moon meeting that suggests any progress in reviving denuclearization talks with North Korea," said Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
"The idea of a third Trump-Kim summit makes little sense beyond its entertainment value. It makes us look desperate. The limits of top-down diplomacy have been clearly exposed. Three strikes and you're out," he said.
Moreover, according to Manning, Kim has thus far wanted everything only on his own terms.
"I think Kim may now try to cut his own deals with China and Russia as an alternative or to gain leverage," he said.
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