Budding Moon-Kim bromance may put Trump's plan at risk

South Korean President Moon Jae In (far left) greeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un before their second summit at the truce village of Panmunjom, on Saturday, in a handout photo released by South Korea's presidential Blue House yesterday. The US-S
South Korean President Moon Jae In (left) greeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un before their second summit at the truce village of Panmunjom, on Saturday, in a handout photo released by South Korea's presidential Blue House yesterday. The US-South Korea alliance could take a hit if Mr Moon intentionally exaggerated Mr Kim's commitment to denuclearisation, says one expert.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SEOUL • When United States President Donald Trump abruptly scrapped their planned summit, Mr Kim Jong Un sought out someone he knew would come over for a chat: South Korean leader Moon Jae In.

Mr Moon's surprise meeting with Mr Kim on Saturday shows he is willing to do what it takes to keep diplomacy on track and avoid a return to threats of war over North Korea's nuclear programme. Mr Moon called the gathering a meaningful attempt to clear up "some difficulties in communication" as the two leaders shared warm words on the northern side of their border.

More significantly, Mr Moon secured the restart of minister-level inter-Korea talks on June 1, followed by a dialogue between military leaders and a Red Cross meeting to reunite families separated by the war.

Pyongyang, which cancelled the ministerial talks earlier this month in a sign of re-emerging tensions, said the two leaders agreed to "meet frequently in the future". Mr Moon pledged to visit Pyongyang later this year.

For now, Mr Moon has maintained an appearance as a neutral middleman who can bridge the gap between Mr Trump and Mr Kim, two reactive leaders who create a high risk of miscalculation. Yet over the longer term, Mr Moon's desire to cut a peace deal with North Korea during his single five-year term means Mr Trump could find it harder to enforce his "maximum pressure" campaign if talks break down again.

"There is a fine line between being an honest broker and being the North's accomplice," said Mr Ralph Cossa, president of Pacific Forum in Honolulu. "There are some in Washington who are seeing Moon as the latter and this builds upon the distrust that any progressive leader carries with him."

Mr Kim has now separately met Mr Moon and Chinese President Xi Jinping twice in the past three months, and both leaders have pledged to strengthen ties with his regime.

South Korea and China account for almost all of North Korea's land borders, so their support is essential for enforcing sanctions ramped up last year after Mr Kim declared the ability to strike the US with a nuclear weapon.

"With South Korea and China already talking to the North, it's hard for Trump to reignite his campaign at this point or after the summit fails," said Professor Young Nam Koong, who has advised South Korea's Unification Ministry and the Foreign Ministry on policy for almost 10 years.

Mr Trump's team believes the "maximum pressure" campaign to strangle North Korea's economy is working, and Mr Kim's regime will have to come to the table eventually, according to a person familiar with the administration's thinking.

Mr Trump has clashed with both China and South Korea over the best approach to dealing with Mr Kim, as well as on issues like trade.

Before cancelling the summit last week, Mr Trump said that China had eased up enforcement of sanctions on its border. Bloomberg News reported last Friday that China is still severely restricting cross-border trade.

China, South Korea and the US all back denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, but differ on how to make that happen.

Mr Moon sidestepped a question on Sunday on whether Mr Kim clearly mentioned if he would agree to the US demand for complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation, saying the two sides would need to discuss it at working-level talks.

The US-South Korea alliance could take a hit if Mr Moon intentionally exaggerated Mr Kim's commitment to denuclearisation, according to Prof Young.

"The stakes of this summit are big," he said. "If the Trump-Kim summit succeeds, Moon will win big. If it doesn't, he will lose a lot."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 29, 2018, with the headline 'Budding Moon-Kim bromance may put Trump's plan at risk'. Print Edition | Subscribe