epa06058442 US President Donald J. Trump (L) and President of South Korea Moon Jae-in (R) walk away from the podiums after making joint statements in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 30 June 2017. South Korea's President Moon and US President Trump met to discuss a variety of security and trade issues during Moon's first visit to the US since becoming President. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS
US president Donald Trump and South Korean president Moon Jae-in at the White House in June 2017 © EPA

US president Donald Trump will meet his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in later this month at the UN in New York, as optimism builds for the rekindling of talks with North Korea over its nuclear weapons programme.

The meeting, announced by South Korea’s presidential office on Friday, follows a signal by the North Korean foreign ministry on Monday that Pyongyang was willing to restart negotiations with Washington this month.

Negotiations between the US and North Korea have been mostly stalled since February when the second summit between Mr Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un collapsed in Hanoi. Since May, Pyongyang has undertaken a series of missile and rocket tests, raising fears of a return to military provocations. 

A third meeting between Mr Trump and Mr Kim, at the demilitarised zone dividing the Korean peninsula in late June, resulted in a pledge by both sides to resume talks within weeks, but since then there have been few signs of progress.

Many analysts remain sceptical that the new working level talks between Washington and Pyongyang will deliver concrete progress towards North Korean denuclearisation. There is also doubt over what role Mr Moon will play in any future talks.

“Until North Korea manages to secure at least waivers and exemptions from UN and US sanctions, Kim Jong Un seems to have little interest in talking to Moon,” said a Seoul-based analyst.

Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official and now a lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington, said the key to “whether anything meaningful happens at the working level” was whether the US would abandon its policy of maximum pressure, which has been implemented through tough international economic sanctions on Pyongyang, and give up on its longer term goal of denuclearisation.

“There’s no sign of that yet,” said Mr Jackson.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said that while it was positive that the US and South Korean leaders were meeting to “co-ordinate” policy on North Korea, it was unclear whether North Korean negotiators would be “empowered to trade specific denuclearisation steps for limited sanctions relief”.

“If the North Koreans just want to arrange another [Trump-Kim] summit, that would indicate Pyongyang is playing for time and unearned concessions,” said Mr Easley.

Speaking on Thursday at the White House, Mr Trump, responding to a question, reiterated that the door was still open to another meeting this year with Mr Kim. “They’d like to meet. I think it’s something that will happen,” Mr Trump told reporters.

Mr Jackson said the fact that the US president was already talking publicly about his next meeting with Mr Kim “all but guarantees North Korea will agree to nothing meaningful at the working level”.

The renewed potential for talks comes just days after Mr Trump fired John Bolton, his national security adviser and a longtime North Korea hawk and proponent of taking a tough approach against the Kim regime.

Mr Trump on Wednesday told reporters that Mr Bolton had “set back” progress between the US and North Korea by talking about the “Libyan model” — referring to US efforts to convince Muammer Gaddafi to abandon his nuclear weapons programme in exchange for economic assistance in 2003 and the Libyan leader’s later demise at the hands of western-backed rebels in 2011.

Still, experts have diverged as to whether Mr Bolton’s departure would boost the chances of further progress in negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.

Get alerts on North Korea nuclear tensions when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article