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Korean unity puts more expectation, pressure on Trump

Trump will find it hard to threaten military action against a country that is extending an olive branch

Washington

US PRESIDENT Donald Trump lost no time hailing the historic nature of last Friday's meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea. But the gauzy images and vows of peace by Kim Jong Un and his counterpart from the South, Moon Jae In, have complicated Mr Trump's task as he prepares for his own history-making encounter with Mr Kim.

While the two Korean leaders pledged to rid the heavily armed peninsula of nuclear weapons, they put no timeline on that process, nor did they set out a common definition of what a nuclear-free Korea would look like. Instead, they agreed to pursue a peace treaty this year that would formally end the Korean War after nearly seven decades of hostilities. The talk of peace is likely to weaken the two levers that Mr Trump used to pressure Mr Kim to come to the bargaining table. A resumption of regular diplomatic exchanges between the two Koreas, analysts said, will inevitably erode the crippling economic sanctions against the North, while Mr Trump will find it hard to threaten military action against a country that is extending an olive branch.

To meet his own definition of success, Mr Trump will have to persuade Mr Kim to accept "complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation" of North Korea - something that Mr Kim has shown no willingness to accept in the past, and few believe that he will accede to in the future.

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"This summit has put even greater expectations, greater hype and greater pressure on Trump," said Victor Cha, a Korea scholar at Georgetown University who was considered by the Trump administration to be ambassador to Seoul. "He hyped this meeting with his tweets, and now the entire focus is going to be on his negotiating prowess." "This is a moment of his own making," Mr Cha added.

The price of failure would be high for Mr Trump. The United States could face a split with its ally South Korea, which is deeply invested in ending its estrangement from the North. Tensions could flare with China, North Korea's main trading partner, which only grudgingly signed on to the sanctions and would be likely to baulk at keeping them in place if Mr Kim is talking about peace.

There is little question, senior officials and analysts said, that the US-led sanctions, combined with Mr Trump's bellicose vows to rain "fire and fury" on North Korea if it threatened the American homeland, helped bring Mr Kim to the table. But Mr Trump is only one of three actors in this drama, and perhaps not the most crucial one.

Mr Moon, a progressive former human rights lawyer, ran for office on a platform of conciliation with the North and has moved aggressively to deliver on that promise. He, not Mr Trump, has set the pace and terms of the negotiation with the North, though US officials said that Seoul is closely coordinating with Washington.

Mr Kim, for his part, made a bold bet on diplomacy. His motives for seeking a rapprochement are open to debate. Sceptical analysts said that the advancements in North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile programme - as much as sanctions or threatened military strikes - made the timing right for an overture. Others said that he is replaying the cycle of provocation and conciliation pioneered by his father and grandfather.

Though Mr Kim made gestures of his own - a pledge not to test bombs or long-range missiles, and an end to the North's longtime insistence that US troops withdraw from the peninsula - he has not made any tangible concessions on his nuclear weapons. The language in his joint statement with Mr Moon about denuclearisation was both vague and familiar to veterans of past negotiations with North Korea. NYTIMES