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Trump on Collision Course With South Korean Leader on Dealing With North

The New York Times logo The New York Times 9/05/2017 By DAVID E. SANGER
Moon Jae-in, center, declared victory Tuesday in South Korea’s presidential election. © Jung Yeon-Je/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images Moon Jae-in, center, declared victory Tuesday in South Korea’s presidential election.

WASHINGTON — The last time an American president decided to squeeze North Korea hard to abandon its nuclear weapons program, cutting off a bank in Macau where its top leaders secretly stashed their cash, the effort worked brilliantly — until South Korea’s president complained to George W. Bush that it had to stop.

That was a decade ago, when Moon Jae-in, who declared victory Tuesday in South Korea’s presidential election, served as a high official in Seoul and embraced a “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with the North. Mr. Bush’s response was that the South Korean government had “lost its nerve” and was paving the way for North Korea to become a small but significant nuclear weapons state.

Many nuclear and missile tests later, Mr. Bush’s prophecy has come to pass. And now President Trump finds himself on a collision course with Mr. Moon, who has hinted at a “Sunshine II” approach that is in direct contradiction to the path Mr. Trump has set to fulfill his vow to “solve” the North Korean nuclear problem, one way or another.

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Mr. Trump’s strategy is to apply maximum pressure on North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un — financial cutoffs, the deployment of new missile defenses and warships off the North Korean coast, and accelerated digital sabotage of its missile program — before turning to engagement. It is an approach drawn from Mr. Trump’s real-estate experience: Inflict maximum pain first, then see if the other guy wants to talk.

Rex W. Tillerson, the secretary of state, described the strategy to State Department officials last week as “a pressure campaign that has a knob on it. I’d say we’re at about dial setting 5 or 6 right now.” He described the next step as pressuring nations around the world “to fully implement the United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding sanctions because no one has ever fully implemented those.”

Mr. Moon’s strategy is the opposite: to offer an outstretched hand to the North Koreans first, in the hope of reducing tensions with the promise of economic integration. Just because that effort failed the last time it was tried, he argued during a hard-fought campaign, does not mean it will fail again as he deals with an erratic, 33-year-old leader in Pyongyang whose main interest is remaining in power.

At first glance, these are “completely divergent views on how to deal with Pyongyang,” Duyeon Kim, a longtime North Korea scholar, wrote in Foreign Affairs on Monday.

Mr. Trump, she argued, helped bring about Mr. Moon’s victory in South Korea’s election with his ill-timed insistence last week that South Korea would have to pay for the cost of installing a new American-built antimissile system, called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad, that Mr. Moon has expressed deep reservations about. That only fueled the sense in South Korea that the country was again being pushed around by its longtime protector, whom it relies upon for defense but often resents.

What the South Korean public feared, Ms. Kim wrote, was that Mr. Trump’s reliance on pressure and the vague threat of military action was leading the alliance to a cycle of miscalculation and escalation that could result in resumption of a war that was halted — with no peace treaty — in 1953.

With Mr. Moon’s election, South Korea and China are now fundamentally on the same page about how to deal with the North: Do what it takes to maintain the status quo and avoid any situation that could result in hostilities that would throw East Asia into chaos, and perhaps set off a financial panic. The Chinese, while promising some tougher sanctions against the North, hope to freeze the North Korean nuclear and missile arsenals where they are and channel Mr. Trump into a new set of negotiations that would probably take years.

So far, Mr. Tillerson and Mr. Trump have been all over the map about what they would require to open those talks. On a visit to Seoul during the presidential campaign, Mr. Tillerson insisted that the North would first have to give up its entire arsenal before talks began — even though dismantling that arsenal is the ultimate goal of those negotiations. He modified that view at the United Nations, suggesting that talks were possible once the North began moving toward disarmament, though he did not say how far. Then Mr. Trump said he would be “honored” to meet Mr. Kim, under the right conditions, which he did not define.

If this was meant to confuse allies and adversaries alike, it worked. No one seems clear what the administration’s conditions for talks are, and White House officials say they do not want to be too specific.

Mr. Moon, meanwhile, has long experience playing good cop to Washington’s bad cop. He was chief of staff to Roh Moo-hyun, his political mentor, whose approach to the North was viewed in Washington as just this side of capitulation. In fact, the move to lift the pressure on Banco Delta Asia, the small bank in Macau where Kim Jong-il, father of the current North Korean leader, kept the assets used to pay off the North Korean elite, came just months after the North’s first nuclear test, in 2006. And it occurred about the same time that North Korea was secretly helping the Syrians build a nuclear reactor, which the Israelis later destroyed in a surprise attack from the air.

During the campaign, Mr. Moon said sanctions have one goal: to bring the North Koreans back to the negotiating table. The Trump administration has said they have a different goal: to force the North to give up its entire arsenal. That is a significant difference.

Mr. Moon has many reasons to seek de-escalation, and his victory on Tuesday proved that his view is, for now, popular in the South. He fundamentally believes that the “Sunshine Policy” is the only option to avert a renewed conflict. But he also wants to end a Chinese-led boycott of some South Korean goods that was set off by the installation of the Thaad system, which Beijing says is aimed at countering its own nuclear arsenal.

So far, Mr. Moon has been careful not to threaten to dismantle the system — which the Pentagon rushed into preliminary operation last week ahead of the election — until he completes a review of the issue. He appears to be leaving himself some flexibility.

Mr. Trump has a little time to try to bridge this divide, but not much. Mr. Moon will be sworn in Wednesday. North Korea will then have to decide how it will respond — with an offer to talk, a missile launch, or a sixth nuclear test.

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