Can Trump get Moon's help to rein in North Korea?

President Donald Trump (left) will get a first taste of this less friendly landscape today, when he hosts South Korea's newly elected President Moon Jae In to dinner at the White House.
President Donald Trump (left) will get a first taste of this less friendly landscape today, when he hosts South Korea's newly elected President Moon Jae In to dinner at the White House. PHOTOS: AFP

S. Korean leader's visit to US comes at time when Washington is disillusioned with China

WASHINGTON • President Donald Trump's campaign to rein in North Korea is about to get a lot more complicated, as a progressive new leader in South Korea and fraying ties with China leave the US with fewer partners to press North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on his nuclear or missile programmes.

Mr Trump will get a first taste of this less friendly landscape today, when he hosts South Korea's newly elected President Moon Jae In to dinner at the White House. The two leaders will have a meeting at the Oval Office tomorrow.

Mr Moon, who campaigned on an independent-minded foreign policy, is more interested in engaging with the North than Mr Trump's hawkish advisers are.

He has also halted the deployment in his country of a US-made anti-missile system.

White House officials hope to defuse any tensions by trying to build good personal rapport between Mr Trump and Mr Moon, a 64-year-old human rights lawyer who served a previous South Korean leader, Mr Roh Moo Hyun, known for clashing with the United States over North Korea.

As he tries to win over Mr Moon, Mr Trump already is pivoting to a harsher approach to China, according to administration officials.

Washington has demanded that Beijing crack down on Chinese banks and companies that do business with Pyongyang. And it also plans to move ahead soon with tariffs on steel imports that are aimed partly at China.

In its latest human trafficking report, issued on Tuesday, the State Department also downgraded China to the worst category, saying it was guilty of using forced labour from North Korea.

The tough new tone comes after Mr Trump expressed disappointment with China's President Xi Jinping for his failure to do more to pressure North Korea to stop its provocative behaviour.

Mr Trump had earlier soft-pedalled his grievances in return for Mr Xi's help on North Korea. But with China not stepping up, senior officials said, he will feel less constrained about confronting China on trade and other areas of dispute.

With North Korea, as with other foreign policy challenges, Mr Trump has tended to personalise the issue, emphasising his rapport with leaders and his ability to strike deals. The question is whether he will have better luck with Mr Moon than he has had with Mr Xi.

"This is going to be a more difficult relationship than we've had for a few years," said Mr Jeffrey Bader, who was a top Asia adviser to former president Barack Obama.

Mr Moon, he predicted, would seek to restore trade with North Korea, and visit Pyongyang during his five-year term.

But, Mr Bader added: "At the outset, he wants a good relationship with Trump."

The White House clearly wants the same. The two-day visit, officials said, would include ceremonies - including a wreath-laying and a visit to the Korean War Veterans Memorial - that are intended to celebrate the alliance between the US and South Korea.

Ahead of Mr Moon's visit, the US Chamber of Commerce said scrapping the US-South Korean Free Trade Agreement or Korus would be a rash mistake.

In an interview in April, Mr Trump had called the five-year-old Korus "horrible" and "unacceptable", and said he would either renegotiate or terminate it.

US Chamber of Commerce executive vice-president Myron Brilliant said American exports to South Korea had not risen as much as expected and the US trade deficit had grown, but these are not reasons to end the agreement. "Such a rash move would be a mistake," he said.

NYTIMES, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2017, with the headline 'Can Trump get Moon's help to rein in N. Korea?'. Print Edition | Subscribe