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Moon's best-laid plans for North-South peace go awry

In trying to please all parties, South Korean president satisfies no one

SEOUL -- North Korea's second test of an intercontinental ballistic missile July 28 shattered South Korean President Moon Jae-in's hopes for dialogue and threw a wrench into his foreign policy revolving around a path to reconciliation.

Pyongyang announced Thursday the details of a plan to launch missiles near the U.S. territory of Guam. The South Korean military stood by Washington, warning that any such strike would face a strong and stern response, but Seoul has no desire for a confrontation with the North.

In a phone call Monday with U.S. President Donald Trump, Moon dominated the conversation, insisting that another tragedy of war cannot be allowed to occur on the Korean Peninsula. When Trump asked Moon if he had actually proposed dialogue to Pyongyang, the South Korean leader took pains to explain that the military and Red Cross talks that he had sought to no avail are different from discussion of the North's nuclear program -- a step Japan and the U.S. think is still too early to take.

Blast from past

Moon's blueprint for reconciliation is the Oct. 4, 2007, joint communique signed in Pyongyang by then-leaders Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea and Kim Jong Il of North Korea.

"The South and the North both recognize the need to end the current armistice regime and build a permanent peace regime," the statement says, referring to the agreement that ended the Korean War. It goes on to say that the two sides will work to have leaders of the relevant countries -- North and South Korea, China and the U.S. -- "convene on the Peninsula and declare an end to the war."

The communique also calls for the two sides to "implement smoothly" a 2005 joint statement that came out of the six-party talks on Pyongyang's nuclear program. In it, North Korea pledged to abandon nuclear weapons development in exchange for economic cooperation, a U.S. promise not to attack or invade the country, and Tokyo and Washington agreeing to work toward normalizing relations with Pyongyang.

This is strikingly similar to the "comprehensive solution" outlined by Moon in a speech in Berlin last month.

A potential road map that has emerged entails a North-South summit next year, followed by a meeting between the U.S. and South Korean leaders based on the results. Washington would then hold its own direct discussions with Pyongyang as a prelude to four-party talks -- bringing China into the equation -- or six-party talks including Japan and Russia.

Moon hopes to use a North-South summit as a starting point to build a bridge between Kim Jong Un and other leaders, including Trump, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping. To do so, he must avoid falling out with any of these countries. This has led to a foreign policy based on trying to avoid friction.

Losing balance

But this strategy has not worked out as hoped. South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha directly approached North Korean counterpart Ri Yong Ho ahead of a dinner Sunday at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum in Manila. A bemused Ri bluntly refused to engage, saying the South's proposals for talks "lacked sincerity."

South Korean newspapers on Monday carried photos of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi with his North and South Korean counterparts, smiling with Ri but looking far less friendly with Kang.

The Chinese diplomat was infuriated by Seoul's decision to have four more launchers deployed for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system being installed by the U.S., declaring that the decision has thrown cold water on bilateral relations. Economic retaliation over the missile defense system looks set to continue.

Moon has tried to walk a tightrope between China and the U.S. on THAAD, promising neither complete deployment nor withdrawal, in hopes of buying time to make enough progress on the North Korea situation that the system would become unnecessary. But this delicate balance is starting to break down.

When Xi and Moon met in Berlin last month, the Chinese leader referred to the "bond of blood" between Beijing and Pyongyang. He said this relationship remains fundamentally unchanged, according to the Blue House, South Korea's presidential office. Kang, who also attended the meeting, later tried to spin this by saying it was meant to describe their past ties, but Xi's use of the phrase provided a clear hint on where Beijing stands.

The state of South Korea's relationship with the U.S. is also less than ideal, with Trump demanding renegotiation of a bilateral free trade agreement and insisting that Seoul shoulder more of the financial burden of stationing American troops in South Korea.

Moon got a dose of foreign-policy realism at the Group of 20 summit in Berlin last month that served as his debut on the international stage. After returning from the meeting, he lamented "the reality that South Korea does not have the power to resolve the most pressing issue -- the situation on the Korean Peninsula."

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