[Robert Fouser] Changed political landscape and North Korea

By Robert J. Fouser
  • Published : Aug 14, 2018 - 17:04
  • Updated : Aug 14, 2018 - 17:04

Thursday is “malbok,” the day that traditionally marks the end of the summer heat. Temperatures at night will soon drop and fall will be in the air. Vacations will end, and schools will start; people will get busy again.

The end of summer also means a start in the next phase of diplomacy between South Korea, North Korea, and the United States. Plans are going forward for a third summit, this time in Pyongyang, between President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. There is also talk of both leaders speaking at the UN General Assembly in September.

Talks between the US and North Korea have not gone well since the Singapore summit between President Trump and Kim in June. The main points of disagreement between the two sides are the speed of denuclearization and the timetable for easing sanctions. The US wants denuclearization before it eases sanctions, while North Korea wants the easing of sanctions to occur in stages during denuclearization.

President Moon hopes to use the upcoming summit in Pyongyang as a chance to get talks between the US and North Korea moving again. He also hopes that the summit and a possible joint appearance at the UN General Assembly will advance the process of denuclearization. President Moon and South Korean diplomats were instrumental in getting the US and North to begin talks that led to the Singapore summit.

The problem for President Moon and President Trump is that the political landscape has changed during the heat of summer. According to Gallup Korea, President Moon’s approval rating has fallen from 79 percent in early June to 58 percent in the most recent poll. Concern over a sluggish economy is the main cause of the drop, but it will also affect how the public views his approach to North Korea. All Korean presidents have seen their popularity erode further once the second-year drop begins, and there is little evidence to suggest that President Moon will be any different.

On the other side of the ocean, President Trump has seen his popularity hold steady at about 43 percent all summer. His popularity declined steadily through 2017 but has recovered in 2018. Unlike Korea, fluctuations in popularity in the US are the norm. Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, for example, saw their popularity dip during the first several years in office, but later won re-election in landslides.

The problem for Trump is upcoming midterm elections. A 43 percent approval rating is not enough to prevent the president’s party from avoiding losses. A lower approval rating would ensure a way that would give the Democrats control of both houses of Congress. A higher approval rating would help the Republicans keep both houses. Unless there is a major change in Trump’s popularity, the most likely outcome is a narrow Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and continued Republican control of the Senate.

Why does this matter to Kim? He knows that Moon’s popularity will continue to decline and that he will become a lame duck. At some point, conservatives will regroup and rise again, which will make it harder for North Korea to get anything from the South. He knows the clock is ticking.

Kim no doubt has a harder time figuring out Trump, as do many other world leaders. But he knows that Trump needs positive news before the midterm elections to boost Republican chances, which gives him leverage. Kim may think that he can drag out denuclearization talks in exchange for another summit or concessions.

So what does Kim want? In a perfect world, he would like to drive a wedge between South Korea and the US in the hope of precipitating the withdrawal of US troops. This has been North Korea’s hope since the end of the Korean War. Nuclear weapons offer great leverage but are subsidiary to this goal.

The world isn’t perfect, though, and Kim is struggling to come to terms with that fact. Trump could decide -- perhaps in a tweetstorm -- that he is tired of giving peace a chance and go back to his hard line of 2017. That would prompt President Moon’s supporters to rage in the streets and on social media, but with Moon’s popularity on the wane, the rage would have limited reach. In future meetings with Kim, President Moon should remind him that North Korea has the most to lose if the current window for peace closes.

Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at robertjfouser@gmail.com. -- Ed.