The White House has said it has no objections to direct North-South Korea dialogue, which will start shortly thanks to a surprise invitation to President Moon Jae-in by Kim Jong-un. But if history is any guide, the Trump administration will do nothing to facilitate, and may even seek to sabotage, inter-Korean talks. Trump’s childish but worrisome tweet that his “nuclear button” is “bigger & more powerful” than Kim’s may be the first such indicator.
The history I have in mind is George W. Bush’s reaction to South Korean President Kim Dae-jung’s “Sunshine” policy on North Korea. Kim, elected in 1997, proposed that the South recognized North Korea’s legitimate security interests, would not seek to absorb the North (unlike West Germany’s absorption of the East), and hoped for expanded South-North economic and people-to-people contacts. Kim met with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-il, in 2000, symbolizing the Sunshine policy’s aim of reducing tensions through direct talks.
When Kim visited Washington in March 2001, however, Bush made clear the Sunshine policy was unwelcome when dealing with what Bush later called the “axis of evil.” Kim had hoped Bush would pick up where the Clinton administration left off on talks with the North on missiles. Bush dashed that hope, indicating he distrusted the North’s willingness to carry out agreements (http://www.nytimes.com/2001/03/08/world/bush-tells-seoul-talks-with-north-won-t-resume-now.html). Years later, an aide to Kim Dae-jung confided that the Washington meeting had gone badly, making clear to Kim that the Bush administration would not be a partner in the search for peace on the Korean peninsula.
Moon Jae-in is a disciple of Kim Dae-jung; he subscribes to the Sunshine philosophy of inter-Korean dialogue. His quick acceptance of Kim Jong-un’s invitation is no surprise—all the more so in light of the acerbic exchanges between Kim Jong-un and Trump that have brought a nuclear war front and center. Moon, like Kim Dae-jung, values the US-South Korea alliance and supports sanctions on North Korea. He is surely well aware of North Korea’s desire to weaken the alliance. But Moon’s job is to protect his country, and he has made clear that direct talks with Kim Jong-un are necessary to preventing war. Recall that when Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury,” Moon responded that “no one should be allowed to decide on a military action on the Korean Peninsula without South Korean agreement.”
It is no secret that Trump considers Moon “weak” on North Korea and inclined toward appeasing instead of confronting the North. South Koreans, in turn, believe the US, as under previous administrations, creates impossible conditions for dialogue with North Korea by insisting on denuclearization first and in the meantime squeezing Pyongyang ever tighter with sanctions. That approach, Moon’s government believes, is a recipe for deeper tensions and a potentially disastrous miscalculation by either Kim Jong-un or Trump. Moon is out to prove that “jaw, jaw” is a better way than threats to avoid a war that would leave all of Korea in ruins. But the South Koreans have to be wary that Trump’s unpredictable behavior may at any moment detract from, if not undermine, Moon’s effort to spread sunshine.