Moon Jae-in trying to rescue US-North Korea talks

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his United States counterpart Donald Trump, seen here in a meeting in New York last year, were slated to meet at the White House yesterday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his United States counterpart Donald Trump, seen here in a meeting in New York last year, were slated to meet at the White House yesterday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SEOUL • A year ago, South Korean President Moon Jae-in was preparing to host North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on the southern side of their fortified border - a historic high-water mark that fuelled talk of a Nobel Peace Prize.

Now, he is headed back to Washington, hoping a direct appeal to United States President Donald Trump can keep all that from slipping away.

Mr Moon was slated to visit the White House yesterday in a bid to rescue talks thrown into doubt when Mr Trump walked away from his Feb 28 summit with Mr Kim in Hanoi, saying North Korea was not making sufficient commitments to give up its nuclear weapons.

Mr Moon needs a breakthrough fast. Not only would a return to provocations put Seoul back at risk, Mr Moon has staked much of his presidency on a pledge to forge a lasting peace between South Korea's closest ally and its increasingly well-armed rival.

His approval rating fell to a record low of 41 per cent last week, according to Gallup Korea, compared with 83 per cent in the wake of his first meeting with Mr Kim last April.

One US administration official said that Mr Trump liked Mr Moon, but believed that the US President and Mr Kim were best positioned to mediate their own relationship.

Mr Trump was no more convinced that the South Korean leader could bridge the divide after the collapse of the Hanoi talks, said the official, who asked not to be identified discussing the US President's thinking.

 

An immediate concern for Mr Moon is discouraging Mr Kim from any actions that could provoke Mr Trump and return the two sides to the familiar cycle of threats and counter-threats.

North Korea is planning to celebrate the birth of its founder - Mr Kim's grandfather Kim Il Sung - next Monday, an occasion that the regime has sometimes marked with shows of military might.

In the meantime, the regime has sent diplomats to potential areas of alternative support such as Moscow, fuelling speculation of a possible trip by Mr Kim to Russia.

North Korea has ignored South Korean requests for working-level talks, briefly withdrawing officials from a joint liaison office, and criticised Mr Moon's government for supporting US-led sanctions and military drills.

The moves signalled that Mr Moon's achievements since signing a joint declaration with Mr Kim in the Demilitarised Zone last year could unravel without action.

Mr Lee Do-hoon, South Korea's top envoy to talks, told a forum last Friday in Seoul that the parties were in a race against time.

Mr Moon's office has reached out to North Korea about holding another summit with Mr Kim on April 27, to mark the one-year anniversary of their first meeting, The Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported, citing an unidentified government official.

Getting talks back on track may require progress on two fronts: convincing Mr Trump to accept incremental steps short of complete denuclearisation and getting Mr Kim to agree to an end goal.

 

South Korean officials have expressed the need for a "good enough" or "early harvest" deal that can build momentum - without elaborating on what such an agreement would involve.

That is where Mr Moon risks opening a rift with Mr Trump.

While the US leader has expressed a desire to maintain his "very good relationship" with Mr Kim, his decision to leave the Hanoi meeting empty-handed signals that he needs a more significant concession than the ageing nuclear plant North Korea was prepared to give up.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 12, 2019, with the headline 'Moon trying to rescue US-North Korea talks'. Print Edition | Subscribe