South Korea's Moon Jae-in faces new pressure to revive Trump-Kim talks

South Korean leader Moon Jae-in (pictured) has repeatedly had to play the role of mediator amid escalating threats between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
South Korean leader Moon Jae-in (pictured) has repeatedly had to play the role of mediator amid escalating threats between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - As talks between United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un flourished last year, South Korean President Moon Jae-in enjoyed international praise for bringing them together. Now that they've split, he's 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 Korean leader'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 its US allies' 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.

"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, including a surprise trip north of the border to meet Mr Kim and help rescue their first summit last year in Singapore.

KIM'S OPTIONS

The failure of the Hanoi meeting on Feb 28, however, raised new doubts about what such summits will accomplish, with Mr Trump administration officials suggesting they are willing to wait out North Korea as it languishes under sanctions.

 
 

With few options, short of resuming weapons tests that might provoke Mr Trump, Mr Kim has instead signalled a willingness to threaten Mr Moon's diplomatic progress.

North Korea has directed its ire at South Korea 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 onto these sanctions is the same thing as putting shackles on its own hands," the propaganda website Uriminzokkiri said on Monday (March 25).

Last Friday, North Korean officials withdrew from a liaison office South Korea set up six months ago on the northern side of the border. While a handful of North Korean staff returned to the office on Monday, the message was delivered.

"North Korea is calling Moon out on his passive approach," said Mr Kang Joon-young, an international relations professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. "It wants South Korea to react independently from the United States."

The collapse of talks has further pushed back Mr Moon's plans to bring Mr Kim to Seoul for the first-ever visit by a North Korean leader, a trip originally planned for last year. It has also energised South Korea's anaemic opposition, fuelling critical floor speeches by conservative lawmakers and editorials by right-leaning newspapers.

"There's nothing as embarrassing as North Korea trying to 'train' our country by going back and forth with their options to leave or come back to the office," Liberty Korea Party spokesman Min Kyung-wook said on Monday.

Mr Moon's approval rate ticked up 1 percentage point to 45 per cent in a Gallup Korea poll last week, after falling to a record low of 44 per cent in the previous survey. The President himself has said little about North Korea since the immediate aftermath of the summit, when he praised Mr Kim's offer to dismantle a key nuclear production complex as an "irreversible" disarmament step, splitting with the Trump administration's assessment.

'MORE IMPORTANT'

"This is part of a process to reach a higher level of agreement," Mr Moon said on March 1. "Now our role has become even more important."

 
 
 

What Mr Moon can do to bridge the gap between Mr Trump and Mr Kim remains to be seen. Since the summit, North Korea has not responded to South Korea's repeated requests for working-level talks, let alone any one-on-one meetings.

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, as well as joint rail and energy projects.

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 Prof Kang. "North Korea needs money, but South Korea is in a place where it cannot help North Korea without Seoul changing its strategy."