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International relations

South Korea eager to play peace broker ahead of Trump visit

Moon's continued push for reconciliation with North draws ire at home

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is eager to broker talks between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.    © Reuters

SEOUL -- South Korea is again playing the middleman for the U.S. and North Korea, hoping to leverage President Donald Trump's visit to Seoul to reopen nuclear talks. But its singular focus on the North could backfire at home and abroad.

Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in will meet in the South Korean capital on Sunday after the Group of 20 summit in Osaka. Moon is considering using this opportunity to send a message urging Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table.

But the North does not appear interested in the South's overtures so far. And Moon's unflagging commitment to improving ties with Pyongyang has alienated some voters at home while other pending diplomatic issues, such as the issue of forced labor during World War II involving Japan, have taken a backseat.

As the two sides weigh a visit by Trump to the demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas, Moon apparently tried to invite Northern leader Kim Jong Un there as well. Both Washington and Seoul have denied this but they still see an opportunity to nudge the North back to the negotiating table. The U.S. State Department will dispatch Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun to the South on Thursday.

Brokering talks between the U.S. and North Korea is a top priority for the Moon administration. This is because without progress on the nuclear talks, reconciliation between Seoul and Pyongyang will not move forward.  

Seoul intends to "focus available diplomatic capacity toward a speedy resumption" of talks between Washington and Pyongyang, the South's Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told the national parliament Tuesday.

Though Kim has shown a willingness for dialogue, such as by praising a letter he received from Trump, the North Korean leader insists on U.S. concessions in order to resume talks. Washington, in turn, remains committed to maintaining economic sanctions against the North until Pyongyang completely dismantles its nuclear arsenal, leaving little room for progress.

In a June 14 speech, Moon said that if Pyongyang made a "sincere effort," the international community would lift sanctions and guarantee the North's safety, a statement apparently aimed to encourage Kim to break the deadlock.

South Korea has already decided to provide the North about $8 million in humanitarian aid and 50,000 tons of rice through international institutions. But Pyongyang has yet to express gratitude, nor has it accepted Moon's invitation for a bilateral summit this month. Washington is pumping the brakes on inter-Korean economic cooperation that would give the South powerful leverage.

As such, the Moon administration finds itself with few cards to play while the public has grown critical of its approach. The Maeil Business Newspaper daily published survey results Tuesday showing 76% of respondents not expecting the North to give up its nuclear weapons, and just 27% supporting Seoul's no-strings-attached donation of rice.

This sentiment was illustrated by reaction to a June 15 incident in which a North Korean fishing vessel with four people arrived at a port in the South's eastern province of Gangwon, and some of the crew made it onto land.

Suspicions arose that the government, including the presidential Blue House, tried to conceal the incident, leading some in parliament and the media to decry what they viewed as "complete devotion" to reconciliation with the North.

Relations with neighboring countries also have stalled. A response to lawsuits against Japanese companies on behalf of South Koreans forced to work during World War II has been put on the back burner.

The South has invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit, but Xi decided to visit the North first.

The South's right-leaning, opposition Liberty Korea Party has voiced concerns that the government is "betting everything on Kim Jong Un" and neglecting ties with the U.S., China, Japan and Russia, leaving Seoul prone to being passed over diplomatically.

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