SEOUL, South Korea – The meeting next week between the leaders of the rival Koreas will be the ultimate test of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s belief that his nation should lead international efforts to deal with North Korea.
Previous summits saw beaming grins, strong handshakes and high hopes for lasting peace and flourishing trade between the war-separated rivals after decades of bad blood. There will be significantly less room for sentimentality, and much higher stakes, when the dovish Moon faces off with the decidedly un-dovish North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the border village of Panmunjom next Friday.
Moon’s job, analysts say, is to keep up positive momentum for more substantial discussions between President Donald Trump and Kim — their separate summit is anticipated in May — over the North’s nuclear disarmament.
A look at the challenges Moon faces ahead of the summit, which will be only the third such meeting between the Koreas since their 1950-53 war:
SHAKY IN THE MIDDLE?
Seoul can take credit for setting up the talks between Pyongyang and Washington. South Korean officials travelled to Pyongyang in early March and returned with word that Kim had expressed a willingness to talk about giving up his nuclear weapons with Moon and Trump, something that seemed unthinkable just months ago.
But it’s unclear how much more South Korea can control the process. Seoul’s ambitions took a hit when Kim made a surprise visit to Beijing recently for a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. That summit reintroduced China as a major player in the diplomatic push to resolve the nuclear standoff and almost certainly strengthened Kim’s leverage heading into his talks with Moon and Trump.
Analysts say Kim would have asked China, North Korea’s only major ally and economic lifeline, to soften its enforcement of sanctions aimed at the North. Kim also may have sought Chinese commitments to strongly oppose any military measure the United States might take should his talks with Trump fall apart and the North starts testing missiles again.
The Kim-Xi summit exposed South Korea’s delicate role as an intermediary between Washington and Pyongyang and raised further questions over Seoul’s claims that Kim has shown genuine interest in dealing away his nukes.
North Korea has been talking about the denuclearization of the peninsula since the 1980s, but that offer has been linked to a demand that U.S. troops leave South Korea, and that Washington halt its dispatches of nuclear-capable assets to the region during war games and guarantee that it won’t use nukes against the North. Kim has always justified his nuclear weapons development as a defence against the “hostile policies” of the United States and its allies.
Moon said Thursday that Kim isn’t asking for the removal of U.S. troops but still wants security guarantees and for the U.S. to end its “hostile” policy.
It won’t be clear until the summits occur what North Korea intends, but its closeness to China strongly indicates its traditional stance remains. Beijing has called for a “dual suspension” — of the North’s nuclear and missile activities and of the large-scale military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea.
For Washington and Seoul, denuclearization means ridding the North of its nuclear weapons.
Any ambiguity short of that meaning could pose credibility problems for Seoul, which also could be pushed aside if Washington chooses to deal more directly with China.
WHO’S IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT
At the meeting in Panmunjom, the Koreas may agree on measures to reduce tension across their heavily-armed border and regular communication on a new hotline between their leaders. They may also agree on cultural and sports exchanges.
But for South Korea, the meeting is mostly about keeping alive a positive atmosphere for the Kim-Trump talks. This means Moon must persuade Kim to OK a vision of denuclearization that’s closer to what Seoul and Washington have in mind.
Moon has been calling for a process where North Korea first declares its commitment to denuclearization and a permanent peace regime on the peninsula in exchange for the allies promising a security guarantee. The North would then enter a phased process that begins with a freeze of its nuclear weapons and missiles and ends with their complete removal. Washington and Seoul would then set up a robust verification mechanism and gradually lift sanctions and carry out the promised security measures based on Pyongyang’s fulfilment of its obligations.
Things could break down if Kim demands bigger concessions up front or asks for separate negotiations and rewards for completing each step. North Korea has always balked at allowing outside inspectors into its facilities.
Some South Korean and U.S. officials have said Kim may be looking to save an economy battered by tightening sanctions. But Patrick McEachern, a former State Department analyst currently with the Washington-based Wilson Center, said there’s no economic panic in North Korea and the country’s food prices and exchange rate remain unaffected.
“(Kim) seems to see himself as being in the driver’s seat and entering negotiations from a position of strength,” said McEachern. “Kim offered summits after declaring victory in completing his nuclear program, not any observable economic realization.”
SUNRISE OR SUNSET
Moon has vowed to build on the legacies of late liberal Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun and their so-called “Sunshine Policy,” which Moon had a hand in building. Seoul’s economic inducements resulted in two summits with the North and a temporary rapprochement in the 2000s.
Moon says the decade of hard-line conservative policies he ended when elected last year did nothing to stop Pyongyang’s weapons advancements. He has balanced his criticism of the North’s nuclear program with hints of ambitious economic promises in exchange for denuclearization. Moon’s proposals have included reconnecting an inter-Korean railway and building a gas pipeline connecting the Koreas with Russia.
But Moon is in a significantly tougher spot than his liberal predecessors, who governed when the North’s nuclear threat was nascent. It’s becoming harder to get South Koreans excited about engaging a nuclear North Korea when there’s no longer strong public interest in reunification. This means that Moon can’t reward North Korea with big economic projects without also seeing the results of a verified denuclearization.
Follow Kim Tong-hyung on Twitter at @KimTongHyung