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[News Analysis] Moon seeks renewed role in inter-Korean relations amid nuclear deadlock

With denuclearization talks between the United States and North Korea showing no sign of progress, South Korean President Moon Jae-in is seeking a greater role, renewing a push for better inter-Korean ties, analysts said Tuesday.

In his New Year’s address earlier in the day, Moon emphasized the importance of inter-Korean exchanges, while expressing hope to see North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Seoul.

He also expressed commitment for resuming two major inter-Korean projects that have been halted since the North’s nuclear crisis -- the Kaesong industrial park and tours to the Kumgangsan resort -- as well as reconnecting roads and railways between the North and South.

Moon’s heavy emphasis on inter-Korean relations in the 25-minute televised speech indicates Seoul’s strong will to find ways for peace on the Korean Peninsula, with less dependency on the deadlocked US-North Korea nuclear talks.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in delivers the New Year address at Cheong Wa Dae on Tuesday. (Yonhap)
South Korean President Moon Jae-in delivers the New Year address at Cheong Wa Dae on Tuesday. (Yonhap)

Since the collapse of the summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump in Hanoi last February, Seoul has been vexed on finding a role in the stalled process toward North’s denuclearization, amid UN-led sanctions prohibiting most business projects with its Northern neighbor.

Starting off by expressing regret over stalled inter-Korean ties in recent years, Moon admitted to having prioritized the US-North Korea talks, saying he anticipated “the success of US-North Korea talks could lead to faster and wider inter-Korean cooperation.”

“The momentum of US-North Korea talks must be maintained. Show of force and threats do not help anybody. Our government will do everything it can to facilitate US-North Korea talks,” he said. “But in a time of impasse in US-North Korea talks that concerns retreat of inter-Korean relations, we are in desperate need to find practical ways to improve inter-Korean cooperation.”

He also renewed the invitation to North Korean leader Kim, saying “South and North Korea can work together so that the conditions for Kim Jong-un’s reciprocal visit can be arranged at an early date.”

The invitation refers back to September 2018, when Kim promised Moon that he would visit Seoul, during the leaders’ last summit in Pyongyang.

Analysts, however, see the chance for Kim’s visit as “highly unlikely,” as there is no political gain for Kim to come to Seoul at this time.

“During the address, Moon talked about reopening the Kaesong industrial park, and resuming tourism at Kumgangsan in the North. But unless the UN sanctions are lifted, the reopening of Kaesong (industrial park) is impossible,” Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, told The Korea Herald. “The only feasible area at this point is expanding tourism, including Kumgangsan, and sports exchanges. And that could be done without Kim’s visit to South Korea.”

“If Seoul cannot provide a good negotiating card to Pyongyang, Kim’s visit is unlikely,” he added.

“We are observing North’s reaction (following Moon’s speech),” a Unification Ministry official said on condition of anonymity. “We will monitor whether the North is willing to ‘meet repeatedly’ and whether it is possible to resume negotiations and cooperation in coordination with the related department,” the official said, referring to Moon’s remark that he is willing to “meet repeatedly and talk ceaselessly” with the North.

The North has been mum on inter-Korean relations since the halted nuclear summit with the US. In the North Korean leader’s latest New Year’s address there was no mention of South Korea or inter-Korean relations. Meanwhile, it threatened the world that it would debut a new “strategic weapon” in the near future, while signaling there is still room for dialogue with the US.

In this light, Moon’s emphasis on sports exchanges could be the most achievable at this point as practical ways to improve inter-Korean relations, according to pundits.

Moon renewed his call to jointly host the 2032 Summer Olympics with the North, saying it would show the world that the two Koreas are one people. “It’s a matter that was promised during the inter-Korean summit and we have already delivered our intention for a joint bid to the IOC,” he said. He also appealed for negotiations for the two Koreas to march together and form a joint team at the upcoming Tokyo Summer Olympics. 

Moon also expressed hope for North Korean athletes to participate in two sports events taking place in the South this year, the East Asian Weightlifting Championships in Seoul from Feb. 27-March 3 and the World Table Tennis Championships in Busan from March 22-29.

“After hearing that the North will positively consider (attending the games), we have sent an invitation and are awaiting a response,” said a Unification Ministry official.

By Ahn Sung-mi (