News analysis

Moon-Trump summit allays security, trade, alliance concerns

US President Donald Trump (right) and President of South Korea Moon Jae In (left) shake hands as they make joint statements in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, on June 30, 2017.
US President Donald Trump (right) and President of South Korea Moon Jae In (left) shake hands as they make joint statements in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, on June 30, 2017. PHOTO: EPA

SEOUL - The first meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae In and his US counterpart Donald Trump was, by most accounts, a successful one with both leaders turning on their full-on charm offensive to build trust and reaffirm the Seoul-Washington alliance.

Fears of possible friction were dispelled by wide smiles and firm handshakes between the two men who met at the White House last week.

While there were no major breakthroughs, they did agree on various issues including security, bilateral trade and future partnerships.

Most notably, they put on an united front on how to deal with the North Korea issue, agreeing to seek a "phased, comprehensive approach" using both sanctions and dialogue to end the belligerent North's nuclear programme.

They also reaffirmed the US-South Korea alliance, with Mr Moon saying at a press conference at the White House Friday (US time) that they are "walking the same path towards a great alliance" - to which Mr Trump quickly added, "Our personal relationship with President Moon... is very, very good".

Analysts said Mr Moon, a liberal president elected in May after 10 years of conservative rule, managed to send a clear message to Washington that he is not a replica of the last liberal president Roh Moo Hyun, who pursued a North-friendly Sunshine Policy at the expense of US ties. Mr Moon, born to North Korean parents who fled to the South during the Korean War, was a key aide to Mr Roh during the latter's 2003-2008 term.

"Dispelling the image of (him as) a leader who is dangerously close to and sympathetic to North Korea was a huge achievement for President Moon Jae In," said Dr Bong Young Shik of Yonsei University's Institute for North Korean Studies.

"His emphasis on consolidating the US-Korea security partnership is a very important message that alleviates the anxiety that is pervasive among the conservatives in South Korea and in the United States."

Mr Moon said during his media address on Friday (US time) that he and Mr Trump agreed to work closely to strengthen their joint defence against Pyongyang threats and to give the nuclear issue top priority.

"North Korea should not underestimate our firm resolve," the South Korean leader said.

The assurances from South Korea's security guarantor, say analysts, give Mr Moon the mandate to pursue dialogue with the North, but not without conditions.

Mr Moon had said earlier that talks can be restarted if Pyongyang freezes its nuclear programme.

North Korea has ramped up missile testing in the past year, making advances in its bid to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking US mainland.

In another sign of both leaders' desire to ensure a smooth summit, the thorny issue of the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) missile shield drew no mention from either side.

"If you bring Thaad out, they cannot reach an amicable atmosphere," said political commentator David Lee, adding that Seoul has already stated it will not reverse its decision to deploy Thaad.

The two launchers that have already been deployed will remain on Korean soil, but further deployment has been halted by Mr Moon pending an environmental impact assessment on the site. The review is expected to take up to one year. Analysts say this will buy Mr Moon some time to appease China, which opposes Thaad.

During the two-day summit, the business delegation that accompanied Mr Moon pledged US$12.8 billion (S$17.6 billion) worth of investments into the US economy.

Mr Trump, who had spoken of the need to renegotiate a "fair and equitable" trade deal with South Korea, was clearly pleased.

It was reassuring, he said, to get Mr Moon's commitment to level the playing field for US companies venturing into South Korea, especially car manufacturers.

Dr Go Myong Hyun of The Asan Institute for Policy Studies warned that it remains to be seen how the negotiations over a new free trade deal will pan out. Mr Moon "did not make any firm assurance" in his public comments about a new trade deal, Dr Go said.

"In terms of security issues, US and South Korea have closed the gap on their approach to North Korea. But on the trade issue, there's still a bit of discrepancy between the two sides," he said.