Moon faces new pressure to revive Trump-Kim talks

South Korean President Moon Jae-in (left) and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a parade in Pyongyang on Sept 18 last year. Mr Moon is a long-time advocate of reconciliation with Pyongyang.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in (left) and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a parade in Pyongyang on Sept 18 last year. Mr Moon is a long-time advocate of reconciliation with Pyongyang.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL • As talks between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un flourished last year, South Korean President Moon Jae-in enjoyed global praise for bringing them together. Now that they have split, he is facing pressure to get them back to the table.

Mr Trump's decision to walk away from his Hanoi summit with Mr Kim continues to reverberate a month later in Seoul, where Mr Moon has come under fire from the conservative opposition for accepting the North's disarmament pledges.

The Kim regime has hit him from the other side, withdrawing staff from a new joint liaison office last week and criticising South Korea as "cowardly" for backing the US' stance against easing sanctions.

"The ball is now in Moon's court to meet Kim Jong Un, get exactly which sanctions North Korea wants lifted in response to exactly what type of denuclearisation measures the US wants to see," said Mr Cheong Seong-chang, vice-president of research planning at the Sejong Institute, adding: "Moon has been cornered into having to persuade Kim Jong Un to sign up for 'a big deal'."

Mr Moon has repeatedly had to play the role of mediator since he took office in May 2017 amid escalating threats of war between Mr Trump and Mr Kim. The long-time advocate of reconciliation with North Korea has staked much of his presidency on his ability to put the two men on the path to peace.

The failure of the Hanoi meeting on Feb 28, however, raised new doubts about what such summits will accomplish. With few options short of resuming weapons testing that might provoke Mr Trump, Mr Kim has instead signalled a willingness to threaten Mr Moon's diplomatic progress.

Pyongyang has directed its ire at Seoul in a string of commentaries since the summit, accusing it of undermining the cooperation agreements Mr Kim and Mr Moon signed in April and September. "South Korea holding on to these sanctions is the same thing as putting shackles on its own hands," the propaganda website Uriminzokkiri said on Monday.

Mr Kim could be holding out for some signal that Mr Moon will either press Mr Trump for concessions or take his own unilateral steps to restore economic ties.

South Korea has been pressing for the resumption of two inter-Korean projects in North Korea - a joint factory park and a mountain resort - that have been frozen due to political acrimony. But such steps are unlikely because it would undermine South Korea's alliance with the US, which has guaranteed the country's security for almost 70 years.

"Time is not in North Korea's favour," said international relations professor Kang Joon-young of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. "North Korea needs money, but South Korea is in a place where it cannot help North Korea without Seoul changing its strategy."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2019, with the headline 'Moon faces new pressure to revive Trump-Kim talks'. Print Edition | Subscribe