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In Trump Meeting With South Korean Leader, A Chance To Reaffirm 'Ironclad' Ties

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his wife, Kim Jung-sook, wave at the Seoul military airport in Seongnam, South Korea, on Wednesday before leaving for Moon's summit meeting in Washington with President Trump.
Ahn Young-joon
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his wife, Kim Jung-sook, wave at the Seoul military airport in Seongnam, South Korea, on Wednesday before leaving for Moon's summit meeting in Washington with President Trump.

Listen closely to what U.S. officials like to say about America's long security alliance with South Korea, where 28,000 U.S. troops are stationed in bases around the country. Something in the language perpetually pops up:

"America's commitment to defending our allies ... remain[s] ironclad," Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in Seoul in February.

Then, the following month, there was Secretary of State Rex Tillerson:

"The ironclad alliance between the United States and the Republic of Korea has remained strong," he said.

And Vice President Pence said during a visit to Seoul in April:

"The United States' commitment to South Korea is ironclad and immutable."

Notice a pattern there?

"It really is ironclad, you know? You know it is ironclad," says a sardonic David Kang, who heads the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California. "You know, in some ways if you have to say it too much, that means you're a little worried about it — right?"

South Korea's President Moon Jae-in and President Trump are meeting for the first time on Thursday. Despite commitments from both Seoul and Washington that the U.S-Korea alliance is as strong as it's ever been, both leaders' administrations are new and largely untested. And while Moon, a former legislator and opposition leader, comes in with government experience that President Trump lacks, he did just take office only last month.

"The Moon administration isn't really staffed up yet. And certainly the Trump side isn't really prepared for a summit," Kang warns. "They don't really have a policy in place. The State Department doesn't have an ambassador for Korea. They don't have a lot State Department officials for East Asia in place."

On top of that, the South Korean leader takes a different tack than the U.S. (and his own predecessors) on the issue of North Korea, which is expected to dominate the summit. Moon has favored engagement with Pyongyang and is open to talks to get to a freeze on nuclear provocations.

"For too long, have we been closed off from each other," Moon said of North Korea in a speech last week. "[Our] government will find ways to restore inter-Korean relations and to reopen dialogue."

The Trump administration has so far rejected the idea of talks to get to a freeze. It instead outlined a policy of increasing sanctions and pressure on North Korea, following the same path the Obama administration took for years.

The U.S. has also begun deploying its missile defense system, THAAD, on South Korean soil. But Moon is slowing it down to conduct an environmental review first.

That could be an issue of contention — but Kang says for this first summit, appearances are the main objective.

"They just want to have a good photo op, not screw anything up and hopefully not talk about anything of substance, precisely because neither side is really ready to talk about it yet," he says.

The clock is ticking: Analysts say North Korea's weapons capabilities are getting better with each successive test. Pyongyang has conducted 10 missile tests so far this year. But whatever tensions brew below the surface, the language at this summit will likely stay the same. Expect to hear something about the U.S.-Korea alliance being — well, you can guess.

Jihye Lee contributed to this story.

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Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.
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