June 25, 2019 4:50PM

Previewing Trump’s Trip to Seoul: There’s Something Happening Here

President Trump’s upcoming visit to South Korea has gained new importance. Several developments over the last month suggest that something big is about to happen, though it is unclear what this “something” is precisely. Trump’s two-day summit with Moon Jae-in should provide greater clarity and help make sense of the interesting signals that the various players in North Korean nuclear diplomacy have recently sent out.

After the collapse of the second U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi four months ago, diplomacy between Washington and Pyongyang settled into a stalemate. In mid-April, Kim Jong-un gave an address to the Supreme People’s Assembly that underscored his frustration. Kim kept the door open for diplomacy, but he demanded a change in the U.S. negotiating position before the end of the year and warned of unspecified consequences should the impasse persist. Pyongyang also reversed earlier dismantlement of a satellite launching facility, flight tested a new type of short-range ballistic missile, and refused to participate in an operation to recover the remains of soldiers killed in the Korean War to signal their displeasure.

The stalemate appears to have shifted recently. June saw a flurry of interesting diplomatic activity that began with Trump receiving a “very warm” letter from Kim on June 11. Shortly after the news about Kim’s letter broke, Lee Hee-ho, first lady of South Korea from 1998-2003, passed away. Lee’s husband Kim Dae-jung made history in 2000 as the first South Korean president to visit North Korea. Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-jong went to Panmunjom, where she delivered a message of condolence signed by her brother and met briefly with senior South Korean government officials. The short conversation was the first public interaction between high-ranking North and South Korean officials since Hanoi.

South Korean president Moon Jae-in joined the fray next. During a visit to Oslo on June 12, Moon gave a speech calling for peace, saying: “The establishment of permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula means a complete dismantling of the last vestiges of the Cold War structure in Northeast Asia.” He also pushed for a “deepening of mutual understanding and trust” between the United States and North Korea and reiterated that he was ready to meet with Kim at any time.

The next major development was Xi Jinping’s visit to Pyongyang from June 20-21, the first visit of a Chinese head of state and head of the Communist Party of China to North Korea in 14 years. State media reports emphasized Xi’s support for the new strategic line that Kim first announced in April 2018 that places a premium on economic development, and said that Xi welcomed Kim’s efforts to resolve the denuclearization issue through diplomacy.

The Kim-Xi summit had two important impacts on nuclear diplomacy. First, Xi’s support for Kim should help settle debates among the North Korean elite about the value of both talking with the United States and shifting resources away from the military. Domestic politics are still important, even in a regime where so much power is concentrated in one individual. Having Xi clearly on Kim’s side should help the latter quiet any dissent about his policies.

Second, the summit reiterated the important role that China could play in breaking the current U.S.-North Korea impasse. Put differently by Stimson Center expert Yun Sun, “Xi is signaling to Trump that China cannot be marginalized in its own backyard and the United States should seek China’s cooperation in addressing an issue that it cannot solve independently.”

The final important June development occurred the day after Xi returned to China, when the Rodong Sinmun, the daily newspaper of the Workers' Party of Korea, ran a front-page story showing Kim reading a letter sent to him by Donald Trump. Kim “expressed satisfaction after reading the personal letter, saying that it contains excellent content,” and praised Trump for his “political judgement and extraordinary courage.” According to NK News, the letter was delivered before Xi’s visit, which suggests that the report was purposely delayed so it would appear after the Kim-Xi summit.

So many interesting developments involving high-level officials in such a short period of time increases the likelihood that Trump’s upcoming visit to Seoul will produce something important that moves the United States out of the post-Hanoi rut. But to repeat for emphasis: it is impossible to predict what will happen in Seoul this weekend. Trump could adopt a new negotiating position that is more to Kim’s liking, or he could expand negotiations to other topics like ending the Korean War and broader relationship building. There’s also a possibility that these promising signals are being misread and, like Stephen Biegun’s speech at Stanford before Hanoi, subsequent events will bring everyone back to a disappointing reality.  

As the Buffalo Springfield song goes: “There’s something happening here/What it is ain’t exactly clear.” Further speculation on what developments could come out of Trump's Seoul visit are unwarranted, but given all the recent activity outlined above a boring summit seems out of the question.