SEOUL - South Korean President Moon Jae-in remains optimistic about the resumption of talks between the United States and North Korea, saying that it is too early to feel disappointed as neither side has closed the door to dialogue.
However, he warned that "not much time is left" to strike a deal as the US enters full election mode this year - presidential elections are due in November - and is bogged down by a feud with nuclear-armed Iran.
Speaking at his first press conference of the year on Tuesday (Jan 14), President Moon also stressed the need to find realistic solutions to improve stalled inter-Korean ties so as to create a virtuous cycle that could also help advance US-North Korea talks.
"We should do all we can in widening inter-Korean cooperation, so as to advance US-North Korea talks and win international support for the easing of sanctions on North Korea," he said.
Inter-Korean ties have stalled since US-North Korea talks broke off in Hanoi in February last year over a lack of agreement on what denuclearisation steps Pyongyang should take in exchange for economic concessions.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Dec 31 declared the end of a nuclear moratorium and warned about the unveiling of a "new strategic weapon".
While refraining from conducting missile tests, Pyongyang has continued to exert pressure on the US and insist that Washington must cave in to its demands for sanctions relief.
President Moon on Tuesday described as a good sign the fact that US President Donald Trump made the effort to send birthday greetings twice to Mr Kim last week - via a personal letter and asking South Korea to pass the message.
The South Korean President noted that the North responded immediately to Mr Trump's well wishes, in a move that underscored the friendly relations between the two leaders.
"Despite facing turbulent issues, President Trump still sent birthday greetings to Chairman Kim. This means he regards Chairman Kim as an important counterpart in foreign affairs," said Mr Moon.
"Dialogue may be stalled but the two leaders continue to trust each other... the door to dialogue remains open," the South Korean leader added.
China can also play a crucial role in resolving North Korea's nuclear issue, said President Moon. China is North Korea's only ally and economic lifeline.
He noted that Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang are scheduled to visit Seoul separately this year - Mr Xi for a state visit and Mr Li will be attending a trilateral summit with Japan and South Korea.
"This will be an opportunity for China-South Korea relations to make a quantum leap," Mr Moon said.
US national security adviser Robert O'Brien said last Sunday that Washington has reached out to Pyongyang in a bid to resume talks. Mr Trump first met the North Korean leader in Singapore in June 2018.
But the North may not respond. Its former nuclear envoy, Mr Kim Kye Gwan, said last Saturday that the re-opening of dialogue would be possible only if the US unconditionally accepts North Korea's demands, "but we know well that the US is neither ready nor able to do so".
Now a foreign ministry adviser, Mr Kim also took aim at Seoul for having a "lingering hope" for playing a mediator role in US-North Korea relations. He was cited as saying by state-run Korean Central News Agency that it was "presumptuous" for Seoul to "meddle in the personal relations between Kim and Trump".
But President Moon on Tuesday seemed undeterred.
He said his government would continue to push to expand inter-Korean cooperation with an "optimistic" view of future prospects.
"There are things we can do within the limits of international sanctions, such as border management and individual tourism programmes. We also can collaborate in sports, such as doing a joint march-in at the Tokyo Olympics."