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(News Focus) Moon, Trump should coordinate closely on N. Korea, military options: experts

2017/11/04 20:16

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By Lee Haye-ah and Lee Seung-woo

WASHINGTON, Nov. 4 (Yonhap) -- When South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump meet next week, their top priority should be to closely coordinate their policies on North Korea, including military options in the event of a contingency, experts here said.

Tuesday's summit in Seoul will come at a time of growing unease over North Korea's nuclear and missile capabilities, and the possibility of a conflict triggered by a miscalculation on either side.

Trump has warned of "fire and fury" if the North continues to pursue intercontinental nuclear missiles, prompting Moon to take a stand against any kind of war on the peninsula.

"There are growing fears among U.S. Asia watchers that Trump is increasingly likely to favor a military strike, which would almost certainly escalate and bring death and destruction to South Korea and not seriously damage Pyongyang's missile or nuclear capabilities -- all risk, little reward," said Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Seoul needs to get clarity from Trump on whether the focus is on sanctions and deterrence or military force, as demonstrated in the recent deployment of aircraft carrier strike groups and bomber exercises near the Korean Peninsula, he said.

It should also seek clarity on what the U.S. means by "diplomacy" with respect to the North.

"Is it a return to the September 2005 Agreed Statement, as the U.N. Security Council resolution calls for (and China supports) or is it simply calling for North Korea to surrender and hand over their nukes (a non-starter)?" he said, referring to the now-defunct deal to denuclearize North Korea in exchange for economic concessions from five regional powers.

This photo shows South Korean President Moon Jae-in (L) and U.S. President Donald Trump during a summit on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 21, 2017. (Yonhap) This photo shows South Korean President Moon Jae-in (L) and U.S. President Donald Trump during a summit on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 21, 2017. (Yonhap)

Now may be a good time to have such discussions because it is clear the Trump administration has made Asia a top priority while China has taken steps conducive to more forward-looking talks, others said.

"I think the two leaders will have very good meetings," said Victor Cha, Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Asia has been a top priority for this administration. Already Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have been to Asia almost twice as many times -- nine trips -- as their counterparts (of the previous Obama administration), Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates -- five trips."

   Cha is reportedly Trump's pick for ambassador to Seoul, although no announcement has been made.

Alan Romberg, director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center, pointed to Seoul and Beijing's agreement to move their relations forward despite their dispute over South Korea's hosting of the THAAD U.S. missile defense system.

"The apparent fact that China and South Korea are working out their harshest differences over THAAD will help create a more constructive atmosphere for the Trump-Moon conversations," he said.

The THAAD issue has been a thorn in the two countries' bilateral relations as Beijing views the system as a threat to its own security, while Seoul and Washington insist it is a defensive tool aimed only at countering North Korean missiles.

China's role is critical in reining in the North's nuclear and missile programs because it is the regime's only major ally and trading partner. Trump will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the heels of his summit with Moon to seek Beijing's commitment to exert more pressure on Pyongyang, the White House has said.

"Moon should try to get a commitment to cooperate on more missile defense -- an iron dome-like system to protect Seoul and an Aegis ballistic missile defense system to put either on Aegis ships or Aegis Ashore, as Japan is considering," Manning said. "And there should be a commitment to in-depth, policy-level discussion on contingency plans -- for instability in the North or in the event of military actions."

   hague@yna.co.kr

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