THE contrast could not have been starker. In a picture released by his office on May 25th, Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president, looked a decade older than his 65 years. All facial features pointing downwards, he might have been about to cry. Only a day later, a fresh crop of images showed Mr Moon (on the right of the picture above) in a decidedly more upbeat mood. Smiling broadly, he shared a warm embrace with Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea, at their second meeting in less than a month.
Mr Moon’s changing expression reflects the back-and-forth of diplomacy on the Korean peninsula over the past week. On May 24th Donald Trump, America’s president, abruptly cancelled a meeting with Mr Kim that had been scheduled to take place in Singapore on June 12th, citing the North’s “tremendous anger and open hostility” towards America in its recent official language. The announcement caught both America’s allies and Mr Kim by surprise. After the initial shock, to which Mr Moon’s ashen-faced expression attested, the leaders of the two Koreas took matters into their own hands. At Mr Kim’s initiative, they made arrangements to meet in the northern part of the demilitarised zone between their countries, and did so within 24 hours. The two leaders agreed their senior officials would hold talks on June 1st—a previously arranged encounter having been cancelled by the North only a week earlier. They also made plans for military talks and reunions of families divided by the Korean war of 1950-53.
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Whoever mentioned a sea of fire?
Both leaders were keen to stress their good relationship. “It was a meeting between friends,” Mr Moon told reporters in the South. Rodong Sinmun, the North’s main newspaper, published an upbeat report of the encounter. But the chief aim of the meeting appears to have been to persuade Mr Trump to renew his efforts to meet Mr. Kim. North Korea’s leader was still committed to the goal of “denuclearisation”, claimed Mr Moon (without specifying what that meant), but was worried about how America would guarantee his regime’s security should he give up his weapons. It was therefore vital that America and North Korea keep talking to each other, said Mr Moon.
Since he became president a year ago, Mr Moon has staked much political capital on the pursuit of detente on the peninsula. So Mr Trump’s volte-face, just after the somewhat subdued reception he had given his Korean ally in Washington, was embarrassing. Most South Koreans strongly support Mr Moon’s efforts. They are alarmed by options for military action against the North that have been floated in Washington over the past year. In a poll this week, two-thirds said they felt optimistic about prospects for peace. Nearly 200,000 people have signed a petition encouraging Mr Moon to “cheer up” and keep trying to secure it. On the same day that Mr Trump cancelled the Singapore summit, Mr Moon’s other big political project—constitutional reform aimed at reducing the power of the presidency—was derailed by the opposition in the National Assembly. That defeat may have given him all the more impetus to achieve success by bringing Mr Trump and Mr Kim together.
As The Economist went to press, it looked as though Mr Moon’s efforts were paying off. On May 26th, after news broke of the second inter-Korean summit, Mr Trump sounded as if he had never called off his meeting with Mr Kim. “It’s moving along very nicely. So we’re looking at June 12th in Singapore. That hasn’t changed,” he said. On the following day, an American delegation including Sung Kim, a former nuclear negotiator and ambassador to South Korea, travelled to the demilitarised zone for talks. Another American delegation went to Singapore to discuss logistics for a Trump-Kim meeting. And on May 30th Kim Yong Chol, a vice chairman of North Korea’s ruling party, arrived in New York for talks with Mike Pompeo, America’s secretary of state, despite being technically banned from travelling to America. The diplomatic flurry suggests that Mr Trump is once again as keen on the summit as are the leaders of the two Koreas.
Yet the process remains fraught with risk. Mr Trump’s flip-flopping has cost the Americans a fair amount of leverage. America’s threat to impose “maximum pressure” on North Korea if things go awry is looking less credible given Mr Trump’s renewed enthusiasm for a summit despite things having, in his view, gone awry once already. On May 28th, in order to smooth the way for a summit, America delayed the implementation of a fresh round of sanctions against the North. Were it to push for an even tougher batch of them, America may have difficulty persuading China to agree. In recent months China has gone much further than before in its willingness to implement UN-imposed ones. It may worry that squeezing Mr Kim even harder could cause his regime to collapse.
Still worth a try
Mr Trump’s vacillation is likely to have given Mr Moon even more pause for thought about the durability of any deal that may be reached between Mr Trump and Mr Kim. There is no clear outline of the kind of agreement Mr Trump is hoping to get. America still seems to be insisting that the North give up its nuclear weapons before America makes any concessions. Mr Kim has explicitly rejected this approach. Most analysts say it will lead nowhere, and that a verifiable dismantling of the North’s nuclear arsenal and its numerous related facilities could take years. Mr Trump has not given details of what he is willing to offer Mr Kim in return, beyond promises of “economic co-operation”, a good relationship with America and “protections that will be very strong”.
The capriciousness of Mr Trump’s approach and the uncertainty surrounding his strategy, if indeed there is one, risk giving Mr Kim a moral advantage in the eyes of officials in South Korea and China, where misgivings about Mr Trump run high. Many South Koreans worry that Mr Trump is too fixated on appearing the winner in his dealings with North Korea. One example of this was a tweet in which Mr Trump appeared to boast that Kim Yong Chol’s decision to visit America was the result of the now-rescinded decision to cancel the America North Korea summit.
There is a chance of progress if the summit does now happen. Mr Kim does not want to give up all his nuclear weapons, says John Delury of Yonsei University, but he may be willing to give up some of them if America sends credible signals that it is serious about changing its hostile stance towards North Korea. Even that would be fraught with difficulty if it means the North giving up long-range nukes but not the ones that threaten South Korea and Japan—all the more so if it results in America’s scaling down its military presence in the South. But unless America makes clear what it is, or is not, prepared to give Mr Kim, says Robert Kelly of Pusan University, “the best we can hope for from Singapore is some vague declaration of intent that further kicks the can down the road.” Given the alternatives, there may be value in just keeping up a conversation.