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South Korea Works With U.S. To Preserve Trump-Kim Meeting


Prospects for a planned U.S.-North Korea summit are shakier now since North Korea threatened last week to cancel if the U.S. keeps insisting on North Korea's swift and complete denuclearization. Late last night, President Trump got on the phone with his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in. They're trying to keep Mr. Trump's June summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on track. President Moon will visit the White House Tuesday for further consultations.

I spoke about South Korea's diplomatic role with the Wall Street Journal's Seoul bureau chief, Jonathan Cheng. I asked what advice he expects South Korea's president to give Trump.

JONATHAN CHENG: I think what Moon Jae-in is going to say to Donald Trump on Tuesday is, basically, stay the course. We've dealt with North Korea for many years. It's never an easy road. There are going to be twists and turns, and this is just one of them. But ultimately, they want a summit as much as you want a summit, as much as we, South Korea, want a summit. And this is the best path forward in terms of trying to build a peaceful sort of relationship and also to make steps towards getting rid of North Korea's nuclear arsenal.

GONYEA: And it's not just what's going on between the U.S. and North Korea. Last week, North Korea abruptly suspended the inter-Korean dialogue - a series of talks intended to improve ties between the two Koreas. Just a few weeks ago, the leaders of the North and South met at the border holding hands. What happened there? Why the sudden trouble?

CHENG: Well, it wasn't just that they canceled this one meeting. They actually issued another statement on Thursday where they called South Korea ignorant and incompetent. And these are pretty strong words even for North Korea and especially so because this administration, Moon Jae-in, is the first left-leaning, liberal, pro-engagement administration we've had here in Seoul in almost a decade. So they favor talking to North Korea, and yet, they're being called ignorant and incompetent here.

And it's hard to know exactly what's going on here. I think certainly there may be an element here of North Korea taking a page out of Donald Trump's playbook, which is to not make it easy, to threaten to walk away because that enhances your leverage.

GONYEA: So we've got this unusually strong language, but there's yet another thing - North Korea has been raising new objections to joint U.S.-South Korean military drills that are underway. Your paper, The Wall Street Journal, reported that South Korea asked not to participate in drills with American B-52 bombers because of objections from North Korea. So how much daylight is there between the U.S. and South Korea on this part of things and, generally, on this whole question of applying pressure to North Korea?

CHENG: Well, we've really seen Seoul and Washington try to really be flexible, and they have been in making all of this happen. The exercises were first supposed to happen during the Winter Olympics, which were held in South Korea. South Korea, Moon Jae-in wanted the North to come, and they did indeed come. But part of that was to get the Americans to agree to move them back. They did that. And, in fact, a similar thing happened back in February or March, where there were supposed to - the U.S. was supposed to have a nuclear submarine visit a port in South Korea, and that was quietly scrapped.

This would fall into the same sort of bucket here. You have an exercise that North Korea really doesn't like, and the Americans kind of agreed to let South Korea take the easier path here. But what's interesting is that Kim Jong Un had told South Korea, look - we don't really object to these military exercises. We understand why you need to do them. We understand they're defensive. So for them to raise these objections is a bit of a head-scratcher.

You do have people who will point out that perhaps what happened here was that Kim Jong Un was fine with the exercises in general, but when you put the B-52s in there, then that really suggests more of an aggressive posture from Pyongyang's perspective.

GONYEA: And, of course, the U.S. has this large troop presence in South Korea. Would President Moon be willing to consider having a lower number of U.S. troops in South Korea to placate Kim Jong Un? President Trump has even suggested this at times.

CHENG: Right. Well, President Moon has been very careful. His official line has been very firm and very clear, which is, this is not anything that's related to North Korea. If there is a drawdown in troops, it will be for different reasons. But you do have an adviser to the president saying in more than one occasion in the last couple of weeks that if there is peace on the Korean peninsula, we may have to reconsider the need for U.S. troops. There are 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea right now, and North Korea doesn't like their presence there.

What's interesting, of course, as you point out, is that President Trump also has questioned the wisdom of having them there. He's the first president to really push for this since Jimmy Carter, and Jimmy Carter pushed for this for very different reasons. But he backed off after a little while because his generals and his advisers convinced him it wasn't as wise a plan as he had thought.

GONYEA: That's Jonathan Cheng. We reached him in Seoul, South Korea, where he is bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal. Thanks, Jonathan.

CHENG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.