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International relations

Moon faces dilemma over Pyongyang invitation

Glimpse of hope as Pence softens tone about talks with Kim regime

South Korean President Moon Jae-in shakes hands with Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, in Seoul on Feb. 10.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- President Moon Jae-in is facing a dilemma over whether to accept North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's invitation to Pyongyang because he needs the blessing of the U.S. that wants to apply "maximum pressure" on the isolated state.

Kim's younger sister Yo Jong officially invited Moon to Pyongyang to meet her brother in the near future, during their lunch meeting at the Blue House on Saturday. Kim Yo Jong had visited South Korea over the weekend as part of the country's high-ranking delegation to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games.

Moon tried to keep both sides happy by hedging his position with this reply: "Let us create the right environment for that [the visit] to happen," said Moon. It is understood that he was referring to the improvement in the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea.

"Early resumption of dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea is absolutely necessary for developments in inter-Korean relations as well," said Moon, urging the North to more actively engage in dialogue with the U.S., who was represented by Vice President Mike Pence at the Games.

Experts say that the inter-Korea summit could be a poisoned chalice for Moon. The best-case scenario is that it leads to denuclearization but it could also worsen bilateral relations between Seoul and Washington. Notably, Pence refused to acknowledge the presence of the North Korean delegation, a reflection of the hard stance the U.S. was taking against Pyongyang.

"President Moon knows this very well," said Park Won-kon, a professor of international relations at Handong Global University in Pohang. "That's why he replied in the way he did."

Park said that two scenarios could play out over the summit. "The first is that North Korea takes aggressive action on denuclearization. That may lead to the summit naturally. Or we think denuclearization could be on the agenda of the summit."

The Unification Ministry said that both scenarios were likely. It said that it was aiming to initiate talks between Washington and Pyongyang through improvements in North-South relations.

"The South-North relations cannot be improved only by the two sides. I think all of us know about this very well," said Baik Tae-hyun, spokesperson for the ministry in charge of affairs between the two countries. "So we are making efforts in various aspects to create a virtuous cycle which comes from improvements in South-North relations to advances in the North Korean nuclear issue."

The U.S. did not issue any official statement on the invitation, but the Washington Post quoted Pence on his way home from the visit over the weekend that Washington was open to initial talks with North Korea.

"The point is, no pressure comes off until they are actually doing something that the alliance believes represents a meaningful step toward denuclearization," Pence said, according to the Post. "So the maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify. But if you want to talk, we'll talk."

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