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International relations

Moon rushes to Trump summit to revive North Korea talks

Seoul's 'good enough' denuclearization plan unlikely to be enough for US

U.S. President Donald Trump greets his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, in New York last September. The two leaders will meet as G-20 summit takes place next month.    © Reuters

SEOUL -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in will be looking to save the North Korean denuclearization process when he meets U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington on Thursday.

With tensions once again building on the Korean Peninsula after the breakdown of Trump's summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam in February, Moon plans to propose a deal he thinks would be acceptable to both Washington and Pyongyang. But it is unclear whether the South Korean leader can bridge the gulf that opened up between Trump and Kim in Hanoi.

Diplomatic sources said the Trump-Moon summit was arranged at Seoul's request. The South Korean president clearly feels a sense of urgency: He had been scheduled to attend a celebration in Seoul on Thursday, marking the 100th anniversary of the establishment of a provisional Korean government in China during Japan's colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

Instead, he is jetting to Washington.

James Kim, research fellow at Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said the visit shows that Moon wants to play a key role in getting the U.S. and North Korea back to the negotiating table.

"Moon may want to test how much the U.S. can yield [to North Korea]," Kim said. "After his summit with Trump, he may try to contact North Korea."

North Korean moves since the failed summit have raised alarm. At the end of March, South Korean intelligence revealed that the North had rebuilt missile-launching facilities in Tongchang-ri, near its northwestern border with China. This is considered a sign Pyongyang may be preparing to resume launches of ballistic missiles it claims to be satellites.

There have been other rumblings from the North. The regime announced it was withdrawing from its joint liaison office with the South in the border town of Kaesong -- an important symbol of rapprochement -- though the North Koreans returned to the office several days later.

Since the summit collapsed, the North has openly criticized Trump's hard-line aides, including national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

In a meeting on April 1, Moon warned that if the U.S.-North Korea nuclear talks fail, the security situation on the peninsula will deteriorate. Yet, it is Moon who is in the hot seat, caught between the superpower and his recalcitrant neighbor.

North Korea's moves since Kim Jong Un's failed summit with Trump have raised concerns his regime may revert to launching missiles, like this one seen in a photo released by the Korean Central News Agency in 2017.   © Reuters

Trump, during his meeting with Kim in Hanoi, had chased an elusive "big deal." He demanded that Pyongyang completely denuclearize in exchange for lifting the sanctions that are hurting the secluded country's dilapidated economy. But Kim, insisting on an incremental approach to denuclearization, only offered to dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear complex, which houses facilities for producing weapons-grade plutonium and uranium.

Trump rejected Kim's offer and abruptly ended the summit.

South Korean officials said Trump subsequently urged Moon to talk Kim into accepting Washington's terms. South Korea then sought another North-South summit, but Pyongyang apparently refused. Now, Seoul is said to be thinking about sending a special envoy to the North.

Pyongyang, which by most accounts was shocked by the summit failure, is applying pressure on Moon. On April 2, North Korea's website for propaganda aimed at the South -- called "Woori Minjok Kkiri," or "Between our People" -- warned that if Moon tries to avoid displeasing the U.S. and conservative forces at home, he will be abandoned by all his compatriots.

Kim has already found success using Moon's government to bring the U.S. to the negotiating table. When Trump at one point canceled his first summit with Kim, the North Korean leader met with Moon in a surprise inter-Korean summit on the southern side of the Demilitarized Zone. Kim stressed his commitment to denuclearization, and the Trump summit went ahead in Singapore last June.

It is in this context that Moon is seeking to push a deal that would be "good enough," if not as ambitious as what Trump envisioned. This could involve Pyongyang agreeing to dismantle Yongbyon and some other nuclear facilities, while Washington agrees to promote North-South economic cooperation, such as the resumption of a tourism program to the North's scenic Mount Kumgang.

But this may be a non-starter. The U.S. State Department has made it clear that Washington has no intention of discussing the resumption of the Mount Kumgang program, nor the reopening of the joint North-South Kaesong Industrial Complex, according to a report by the Korea Joongang Daily newspaper.

As things stand, while Seoul is eager to move the peace process forward, the Trump administration is in no hurry.

And as Moon heads to meet Trump, another factor to watch will be the North Korean Supreme People's Assembly, which convenes this week. Kim recently became the first North Korean leader not to claim a seat in the country's rubber-stamp legislature. There are rumors he may announce organizational reforms or even a new diplomatic policy.

Nikkei staff writer Kim Jaewon in Seoul contributed to this article.

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