President Donald Trump's mixed messages to Seoul leave little doubt that there's likely to be some intense discussions behind the scenes this week during South Korean President Moon Jae-in's two-day summit in Washington.
"Both of them are going to work very hard to put a positive public face on it," said Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian Washington think tank. "But the South Koreans are quite nervous."
Moon, who took office in May, begins the summit Thursday and is likely to hear Trump's demands on renegotiating a U.S.-South Korea free-trade deal and the administration's latest approach to the nuclear and ballistic missile threat from North Korea, including ongoing efforts to get China to pressure Pyongyang. And Moon's push back on the U.S.-supplied THAAD tactical missile defense system is likely to be another hot-button issue for discussion.
At the same time, during the presidential campaign Trump indicated Seoul should spend more money on its own defense, suggesting that if they didn't he would be prepared to pull out the roughly 28,000 U.S. forces stationed in South Korea.
"The South Koreans need the United States a lot to help defend against the north," said Thomas Henriksen, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a public policy think tank at California's Stanford University. "So that tempers any sort of extreme views that the South may have toward President Trump."
Moon, a former human rights lawyer, has been seen as more liberal in his approach to North Korea than his predecessor and open to engagement with the hermit regime. The new South Korean president could turn back the clock to the days when the so-called Sunshine Policy by Seoul allowed funds to go to Pyongyang from a Kaesong joint factory complex located in North Korea.
Ironically, if Moon gets his way and reopens the Kaesong factory, it could turn back the clock to the early 2000s when Seoul had policies seen as softer to the North and had to contend with a more hardline stance from another Republican in the White House.
"We could sort of see a replay like we had when George W. Bush was president and there was more of a hardline [policy] on North Korea," said Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based conservative think tank. "That was one of our less coordinated periods of U.S.-South Korea relations."
Kaesong, a duty-free zone, opened in 2004 and at one time employed more than 50,000 North Koreans but was closed by Moon's conservative predecessor in 2016. More than 120 South Korean companies had participated in Kaesong and it represented around $2 billion in trade with North Korea.
Reopening Kaesong could put Moon at odds with the Trump administration, which has been tightening economic sanctions against Pyongyang and pushing for more action by the United Nations' Security Council.
Then again, some experts suggest the Trump administration may let Moon's more pro-engagement policy with the North to play out because Seoul may ultimately get its fingers burned in the process and then draw back to a more conservative approach in step with Washington.
"The South Korean president might get mugged by reality," said Henriksen. "The North Korean regime is very hard to deal with."
Added Henriksen, "Even though things are going along fairly smooth, then they'll [North Korea] just change their mind. They've broken so many agreements that this makes everyone a little bit wary of entering into a treaty or into some sort of deal with them."