The newly elected South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, will arrive at the White House on Thursday for his first meeting with President Trump. The meeting will center on a pressing problem that vexes both countries: North Korea.
The Trump administration calls North Korea's growing weapons capabilities its top foreign policy priority — and will try to make more headway on the issue with its partner, South Korea, which relies on some 28,000 U.S. troops for defense.
But the two leaders' approaches to North Korea differ. Moon, a veteran of the liberal former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun's administration, favors rapprochement and engagement with Pyongyang, while Trump's Pentagon and State Department leaders have rejected talks with North Korea — at least for now.
Moon's team says the trip is about establishing a relationship between the two men. Moon was elected just last month in a snap election following the historic impeachment and removal of conservative President Park Geun-hye.
"Instead of clinging to drawing results on specific issues, we will focus on building a foundation of friendship and trust," says Moon spokesman Park Soo-hyun.
The two leaders must establish their relationship even as both their policy teams are incomplete or just ramping up. There's still no U.S. ambassador to Seoul and some key posts remain empty to advise on East Asia policy at the Pentagon and State Department.
While Trump likes to call himself a "deal-maker" and Moon has been dubbed "the negotiator," the two differ sharply not only in perspective, but also in style. Moon is a veteran of the military and government, and a wonky policy expert. Trump came into the White House with no similar background or experience.
Moon supports both sanctions and dialogue leading to a suspension or freeze of North Korea's nuclear development.
"For too long, have we been closed off from each other," Moon said last week of the North. "It's not just the road that's been closed off between the North and South, but maybe our hearts as well. [Our] government will find ways to restore inter-Korean relations and to reopen dialogue."
Despite saying last month that he'd be "honored" to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un "under the right circumstances," Trump did not lay out preconditions for such a meeting. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has rejected talks toward a freeze and says the administration wants to see North Korean de-nuclearization.
But there's no sign North Korea has any intention of suspending its nuclear weapons development. Nor has there been any headway between the two Koreas toward negotiations, because North Korea has continued to launch missiles and test rocket engines all year.
The options for the Trump administration on North Korea are as bad as they were for previous administrations. The U.S. doesn't want to "reward" Pyongyang by negotiating without preconditions. Boosting sanctions hasn't been effective so far because the sanctions are not applied or enforced by all the countries that have agreed to them. And the more North Korea is isolated, the more it has innovated to get around sanctions.
The option of a pre-emptive military strike to destroy the North's weapons stores — something U.S. officials have said is a possibility — would be especially dangerous. Pyongyang has made clear that any impending attack would lead North Korea to counter-strike. Even without nuclear weapons, the majority of North Korea's artillery is already trained on Seoul, with a metro population of 20 million.
Jihye Lee and Dasl Yoon contributed to this story.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
South Korea's newly elected president is in Washington hoping to build a relationship with President Trump. This first meeting between the two leaders happens as North Korea's weapons capabilities are advancing. And for a preview of the summit, we're joined by NPR's Seoul correspondent Elise Hu. And Elise, what should we expect?
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Well, South Korean President Moon Jae-in left Seoul with dozens of South Korean business leaders who are going to talk up the ties between the two countries economically. So that's going to happen on the business side. But on overall policy, there's going to be a lot of focus on North Korea. But don't expect any substantive outcomes. The two are likely to reaffirm the longstanding security alliance between the U.S. and South Korea.
And as you mentioned, this is really more about establishing a relationship between President Trump and President Moon. And there's a big onus on the two to get along because they don't have full teams yet to manage the relationship. Six months in, there's still no U.S. ambassador to Korea, for instance, and a lot of empty posts at the top levels of State and Defense who would normally advise on Asia policy.
SIEGEL: And where does South Korean President Moon Jae-in stand on addressing North Korea's threats? And how does it compare with the U.S. policy with regard to those threats?
HU: Moon Jae-in has historically favored more engagement with North Korea in favor of talking to North Koreans. But Pyongyang's continued provocations have actually created a tough environment for that right now. The Trump administration has come out in favor of more pressure and sanctions instead of engagement. So in broad strokes, it seems like these two positions are different. But President Moon is a pragmatist.
His administration isn't going to wildly diverge from the U.S. line in the face of ongoing missile tests and possibly nuclear tests. If the ground does shift a little and North Korea does indicate a greater willingness to come to the table, that's where we may see some daylight between the two administrations. But we're not seeing any signs of that right now.
SIEGEL: Earlier this week, President Trump said that North Korea should be dealt with, and his word was rapidly. What are the options if we're doing that?
HU: They're all bad, and they're as bad as they were for the previous administrations, if not worse with the passage of time. The U.S. doesn't want to quote, "reward North Korea" by talking to them without preconditions. Sanctions haven't worked so far because they're not applied by all the countries who've agreed to them.
And you know, the more North Korea gets isolated, the more it's had to innovate to get around those sanctions. Now, of course there is an option of a military strike, but that's especially dangerous because the North has made clear any impending attack would lead them to counter-strike by unleashing, at the very least, artillery on Seoul. And that's where there's 20 million people and tens of thousands of U.S. troops. So really, Robert - no good options.
SIEGEL: Several months ago, President Trump was talking about non-nuclear countries in the Far East possibly gaining nuclear weapons. He's talked a lot about countries that run trade surpluses with us having unfair trade deals with us. Is there any sense of hostility with Donald Trump as the new president - comes here to Washington?
HU: Moon Jae-in is on a charm offensive precisely because of some of the things that President Trump mentioned on the campaign trail about the major trade surplus - surpluses, really - with a lot of East Asian economies like South Korea's, like Japan's and like China's. But what we saw after Xi Jinping and Japan's Shinzo Abe met with Donald Trump was that his rhetoric really softened after he met with the leaders. So President Moon Jae-in is hoping for some - a similar result.
SIEGEL: That's NPR Asia Correspondent Elise Hu talking to us from Seoul, South Korea. Elise, thanks.
HU: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.