As President Trump prepares to meet with new South Korean President Moon Jae-in for the first time, the White House said Wednesday that the U.S. has only begun to exert serious pressure on North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons program and faulted the Obama administration for not imposing stronger sanctions against Pyongyang.
Mr. Trump and his advisers say there is much more that the U.S. and South Korea can do together to get North Korea’s attention, including greater economic isolation. But that could make for some awkward moments in Thursday’s talks with the dovish Mr. Moon, a onetime human rights lawyer and a longtime backer of the “Sunshine Policy” that includes a softer approach and enhanced ties with the North.
“We are adding pressure and have really only begun to do so,” a senior White House official said. “It’s really the one approach that we haven’t tried yet: acute economic pressure on North Korea. That campaign is only now gathering momentum. And the president is determined to follow through with that and to see how it works.”
Mr. Moon spoke often on the campaign trail against U.S. military posturing around North Korea, and has raised questions about the Pentagon’s move to install an anti-missile system known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, which targets North Korea but has also alarmed China and Russia. But, with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe already having been given warm welcomes by Mr. Trump, the South Korean leader is likely to take a far more conciliatory approach during his meeting at the White House.
Mr. Moon’s four-day Washington visit will include dinner with Mr. Trump on Thursday night and formal talks Friday at the White House, as well as talks with U.S. business leaders and a Washington think tank.
While Mr. Moon was given a strong mandate in May by South Korean voters who saw the THAAD anti-missile system as an unwanted escalation with the North, analysts say he will temper his views in front of Mr. Trump. In pre-summit interviews in Seoul, he repeatedly stressed that he and Mr. Trump shared the same goals in dealing with security issues on the Korean Peninsula.
There is no chance that it will be the “get-THAAD-out-of-[South Korea]” Mr. Moon who shows up at the White House, said Byoung-Joo Kim, an analyst on South Korean foreign policy at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.
“Moon will try hard to put the best possible friendly face on the THAAD issue,” Mr. Kim told The Washington Times. “He will do his best for being shown to be on the same page with the U.S. on security and economic issues.”
The North Korean regime has nuclear weapons and is working on development of an intercontinental ballistic missile, which the U.S. views as a direct threat. Mr. Moon said he is willing to restart direct talks with the North only if the Pyongyang regime halts its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, but his government has said it does not need Mr. Trump’s permission to restart such talks.
North Korea conducted about 30 missile tests last year and detonated two nuclear devices. The Trump official said President Obama didn’t begin to apply serious pressure on Pyongyang until his final year in office.
“It was only really over the course of 2016 that our prior administration began to apply acute pressure through those U.N. sanctions, Security Council resolutions,” the official said. “To say that pressure has not worked, it’s a little early to say that. There is plenty more pressure that could be brought to bear on North Korea in the form of U.N. sanctions, Security Council resolutions and also unilateral sanctions.”
Mr. Trump “has instructed his government to look carefully at a whole range of potential sanctions targets for his consideration,” the official said. “He will move forward potentially with additional sanctions when he chooses.”
Tensions over THAAD
As the two leaders meet face to face, there is a clear undercurrent of tension over the U.S. military presence in South Korea. Mr. Moon surprised the Pentagon this month by suspending the deployment of THAAD until his administration could complete an environmental impact assessment.
The suspension could be read as a concession to China, which has expressed outrage over THAAD and says the real reason behind Washington’s deployment is to spy on and contain Chinese — not North Korean — military assets.
U.S. officials say the Chinese complaints over THAAD’s powerful X-band radar are unfounded and have alternatively pushed on China, which is North Korea’s main ally and trade partner, to pressure Pyongyang into abandoning its nuclear weapons and missile provocations.
Mr. Trump has pressed China’s Mr. Xi to exert more economic pressure on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to scale back his nuclear program and said he even backed off on economic sanctions on Beijing over its trading practices in a bid to get China to cooperate. But Mr. Trump has said recently that China’s efforts, including curtailing purchases of North Korean coal, have not worked.
The White House aide said China could be doing much more.
“China is still falling far short of what it could bring to bear on North Korea in terms of pressure,” the official said. “Coal is only one component of that. We very much want to see China do more than it’s willing to do, while we do recognize that China is doing more than it has done in the past.”
Mr. Trump is even weighing tougher action against China over the North Korean issue, Reuters reported, based on conversations with three senior administration officials who said the president is contemplating trade sanctions against Chinese steel imports.
But China has been applying economic pressure on South Korea since the Obama administration reached an agreement last year with Mr. Moon’s predecessor to allow for THAAD’s deployment. Among other actions, Beijing has put a cap on Chinese tourism, triggering significant losses to the South Korean economy.
Mr. Moon promised on the campaign trail to order a review of THAAD, arguing that the system’s deployment failed to take into consideration the potential fallout for South Korea.
Mr. Moon, a onetime human rights lawyer, faces his own pressures in his first trip to Washington as president. China, not the U.S., is the country’s biggest trading partner, and Mr. Trump on the campaign trail was a sharp critic of the 2012 U.S.-South Korean free trade agreement approved under Mr. Obama. Seoul was also considering joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal when Mr. Trump killed it this year.
Mr. Moon’s refusal to rule out seeking new talks with Pyongyang — and possibly restarting joint North-South business and cultural ventures — clashes with the harder line in Washington.
“The critical question is which President Moon will come to D.C.,” said Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington, who advised U.S. diplomats on multinational talks with North Korea prior to the collapse of the negotiations in 2009.
“Is it the one who recognizes the growing threat from North Korea? Or is it one who is intent on engaging North Korea regardless of Pyongyang’s continued provocations?” he asked in a conference call with reporters.
Mr. Ruggiero said that “the question really here is, given China’s sanctions on South Korea because of the deployment of THAAD, how can Trump and Moon cooperate to get THAAD operational and to help the South Korean government counter China’s sanctions?”