President Donald Trump will face a difficult, potentially dangerous, decision when he meets with South Korean president Moon Jae-In at the White House today, three U.S. officials familiar with the matter tell TIME.
The U.S. intelligence community has advised the White House that Moon will ask Trump to ease some of the economic sanctions imposed on North Korea for its rogue nuclear and missile programs, the officials say.
If Trump says Yes, that could help restart diplomatic talks that have stalled since his failed Hanoi summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un last February. But even a modest concession on sanctions could solidify Pyongyang’s status as a nuclear weapons power, leaving U.S. allies in northeast Asia vulnerable and potentially launching a regional arms race.
Trump could avoid that outcome by saying No to Moon’s request. But that risks a return to the saber rattling, or worse, that marked the early days of Trump’s tenure, when fears of war with North Korea spiked. Kim recently signaled his readiness to return to confrontation, despite Trump’s public assertions that the two leaders are good friends.
The Catch-22 is the result of bad diplomacy by both Trump and Kim, the U.S. officials say.
Trump continues to believe that a combination of personal diplomacy and economic pressure will eventually get Kim to abandon his nuclear arsenal, the officials say. Trump is still ignoring the unanimous assessment of intelligence, defense and State Department officials that Kim never will.
Kim, for his part, remains wedded to the idea that Trump will accept an agreement that implicitly concedes North Korea’s nuclear status in exchange for a formal end to the Korean War after 66 years. Trump, Kim is betting, cares more about claiming credit for a diplomatic win than actually solving the problem of a nuclear North Korea.
Kim may be right. Even without a deal, Trump has taken a few small steps in Moon’s direction, including last month calling off two major joint military exercises with U.S. and South Korean forces. Trump also has claimed that he has eliminated the nuclear threat from Pyongyang. That claim that has fallen on deaf ears in Tokyo, Seoul, and U.S. forces in Northeast Asia, all of whom lie within range of a potential missile strike from North Korea.
Administration hawks worry that giving North Korea even symbolic sanctions relief now would remove some of the diplomatic pressure on Russia and China to crack down on Pyongyang. China reportedly just opened a new bridge to North Korea.
However, continuing to demand that Kim has to eat his meat before he can have any pudding, as Trump did at his summit with Kim in Hanoi, risks North Korea launching its response from the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground and ending its moratorium on missile testing, as Kim has threatened to do. That, in turn, could escalate tensions, sparking a return to Trump threats of military action and an end to the North’s moratorium on nuclear and missile testing.
Japan, whose relationship with South Korea remains troubled and whose confidence in the U.S. has been shaken by Trump’s transactional approach to international alliances, moved on Tuesday to extend its sanctions on North Korea for another two years.
There may be a way out for Trump, the U.S. officials say: punt the problem to Moon. The South Korean leader has staked his presidency on mending fences with the North. Saying neither yes nor no—that is, stalling—could buy time for Moon to cook up an interim deal that saves face for both Trump and Kim.
Even that option isn’t a solution to the problem, however. Handing the radioactive hot potato to Moon might result in better relations on the Korean Peninsula in the medium term, but it is unlikely to address the longer-term challenges that come from North Korea’s nuclear and conventional threats.
But at least, the U.S. officials say, punting to Moon would be better than conceding a nuclear North Korea, or threatening war to prevent it.