Ahead of his trip to the US, President Moon Jae-in’s role in resolving North Korean issues is once again in the spotlight as Pyongyang reaches out to Washington for a dialogue.
The South Korean president is set to head to the US to attend the UN General Assembly and hold a summit with US President Donald Trump on Sunday.
“The unchanging trust among the leaders of the South, the North and the US and resolve for peace will be the power that drives the Korean Peninsula peace process forward,” Moon said at a meeting with senior aides Monday.
The Korean Peninsula peace process refers to the Moon administration’s drive to engage North Korea and bring about denuclearization.
Highlighting that establishing peace on the peninsula is his reason for attending the UN meeting, Moon said he would strive to use it as an opportunity to increase international cooperation on the issue.
Moon also stressed his administration’s support for US-North Korea dialogue, saying he will support negotiations between the two through his meeting with Trump.
Despite the president’s continued emphasis on denuclearization talks and Seoul’s role, Moon’s role in the issue appears to have diminished greatly since last year.
Early on in Seoul and Washington’s engagement with Pyongyang, Moon emphasized the need for South Korea to take a leading role, describing it as the “driver” of the situation on the peninsula.
For a while, Moon seemed to be nearing the goal, setting new precedents in inter-Korean relations.
In 2018, he held three summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the span of five months, and the two Koreas issued a number of declarations and agreements, including the Sept. 19 Military Agreement.
All the Moon-Kim meetings were seen as groundbreaking in their own way. The first saw Kim become the first North Korean leader to set foot in the South, and the second was held less than a month later and at Kim’s request.
The third summit, held in Pyongyang, saw Moon becoming the first South Korean president to address the North Korean public, and the military agreement signed on the trip was considered by some as effectively being a declaration of the end of hostilities.
With the US directly engaging the North, the term “driver” was used less frequently and was eventually replaced with the use of “arbitrator” of the US-North Korea dialogue.
However, with little progress in inter-Korean and US-North Korean dialogue, Pyongyang has reverted to criticizing Moon.
Pyongyang’s language has become increasingly barbed, with expressions such as “ridiculous person” and “uncommonly shameless” being used to describe Moon in official statements.
The North has also stated on several occasions that it will deal only with the US, saying that the South should not attempt to meddle in its affairs.
Experts say the current situation dictates that South Korea should seek to play the role of an arbitrator through the North rather than the US.
“South Korea should persuade the North if we are to play the role of an arbitrator. President Trump removed Bolton, and he has a very strong drive to make some sort of a deal with the North ahead of the presidential election,” said Kim Hyun-wook, a professor at the National Korea Diplomatic Academy.
Kim was referring to removal of US national security adviser John Bolton, whom the North had attacked on many occasions claiming that he was detrimental to the denuclearization talks.
Adding that the North is communicating with the US and has cut out the South, while seeking to increase China’s role in dealing with the US, Kim went on to say that Moon’s role as an arbitrator is limited at present.
According to Kim, Washington’s position that sanctions will remain until complete denuclearization is achieved, and security guarantees from the US having limited merits, will make working-level negotiations between the two countries difficult.
“The North has shut its doors (to South Korea). We could create an opportunity to arbitrate (between US and North Korea) by taking measures that appeal to the North, but the likelihood is not high.”
By Choi He-suk (firstname.lastname@example.org