Time running out for US-North Korea deal, says South Korea President Moon

South Korean President Moon Jae-in (pictured) said US President Donald Trump's recent letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was a good sign. PHOTO: AP

SEOUL (AFP, AP) - Time is running out for Washington and Pyongyang to reach a deal on North Korea's nuclear weapons, warned South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who brokered their talks process.

"It is clear there is a lull in talks," Moon acknowledged in his annual New Year press conference on Tuesday (Jan 14). "Since a prolonged lull in dialogue can set back the situation, it is not desirable."

The two sides did not have "much time to spare", he added. "Once a full-scale presidential race begins, it may not be easy for the US to make time for talks with North Korea."

But despite the stand-off, he insisted that further discussions were still possible. "North Korea is showing that it is leaving the door to dialogue open and that it wants to talk."

Moon has long championed engagement with Pyongyang and used the South's 2018 Winter Olympics to build a diplomatic rapprochement that climaxed with the first landmark summit between North Korean leader KimJong Un and US President Donald Trump in Singapore.

But negotiations have been deadlocked since their second summit collapsed in Hanoi last year over sanctions relief and what the North would be willing to give up in return.

Pyongyang has since ended its moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests and says it will not return to talks unless Washington first meets all its demands in full.

It has also suspended virtually all inter-Korean cooperation and said it had "nothing to talk" about anymore with Seoul.

Moon also said on Tuesday that he could push for exemptions of UN sanctions placed on North Korea as a way to achieve an expansion of inter-Korean ties that he says would help restart nuclear negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington.

He has previously made similar comments, despite outside worries that any lifting of sanctions would weaken US-led efforts to eliminate North Korea's nuclear arsenal.

His latest overture came about two weeks after Kim threatened to bolster his nuclear deterrent in the face of what he called "gangster-like'' US pressure and sanctions.

"If exceptions from UN sanctions are necessary for South-North cooperation, I think we can make efforts for that," Moon said. "I think there is a heightened need for South and North Korea to dial up their cooperation a little bit and promote North Korean-US talks, rather than just looking at North Korea-US talks."

Moon acknowledged that efforts to boost inter-Korean ties would have limits because of the UN sanctions. But he said exchanges in sports and South Korean tours to North Korea are among the areas where the two Koreas can cooperate without violating the UN sanctions.

It was unclear how North Korea would respond to Moon's comments. The North recently has ignored his calls for dialogue and pressed South Korea not to meddle in negotiations with the US.

Inter-Korean relations have suffered big setbacks since the breakdown of Kim's second summit with Trump in February 2019 in Vietnam.

The development was a blow to Moon, a liberal who espouses greater reconciliation with North Korea. He shuttled between Kim and Trump in 2018, facilitating the early parts of US-North Korean diplomacy such as the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore.

Some experts say North Korea is angry with the South because it believes Moon's push led it to waste time and make too many concessions in negotiations with the US.

During a key ruling party meeting late last month, Kim expressed deep frustration over the deadlocked diplomacy and pledged to bolster his nuclear arsenal.

He also said he would unveil a new "strategic weapon" soon and no longer be bound by a weapons test moratorium that he placed at the start of his diplomacy with Trump.

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