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N Korea at crossroads

Kim Jong Un's fury stems from his blaming Moon for Hanoi debacle

Lacking bargaining chips with US, North Korea turns aggressive toward South

After blowing up a joint liaison office with Seoul on June 16, Pyongyang then directed profanity at the South Korean president. (Source photos by Reuters)

SEOUL -- The tensions that are ratcheting up on the Korean Peninsula are traceable to South Korean President Moon Jae-in's advice to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a meeting two years ago that left Kim underprepared for a summit with U.S. President Donald Trump.

After blowing up a joint liaison office with Seoul on June 16, Pyongyang then directed profanity at the South Korean president. In a piece carried in the June 17 edition of the Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of Kim Jong Un and first vice department director of the WPK's Central Committee, was full of indignation toward Moon.

The South Korean president had given a speech two days earlier in which he called for settling bilateral issues through dialogue. Kim Yo Jong damned the speech as "sickening" and "bald-faced sophism to dodge responsibility."

North Korea had earlier vented its anger after anti-Pyongyang leaflets were ballooned to the North by defectors in the South. But the incident was merely a trigger, and the real target of the outburst was Moon, experts said after analyzing the newspaper column.

Moon is responsible for leading relations between the two Koreas, Kim Yo Jong said in the Rodong Sinmun. But Moon, she wrote, has only mentioned external reasons for the stalemate in relations. She also wrote that Moon has betrayed the North's trust by failing to act.

Moon and Kim Jong Un met as many as three times in 2018. But their dialogue ceased after the ruptured U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi in February 2019.

The summit fell apart because Kim Jong Un had only a single bargaining chip for talks with Trump. Kim sought a lifting of economic sanctions in return for dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear complex, which consists of 300 facilities. But Trump demanded more dismantling -- of secret facilities and long-range missiles.

Details of the Hanoi summit are included in a recently published memoir by John Bolton, Trump's former national security advisor. Kim was calling for mutual step by step conciliations that he said would ultimately lead to a "comprehensive picture," Bolton wrote. But he had no steps to offer beyond dismantling the Yongbyon complex, so Trump left the table, according to Bolton.

Kim had gone to Hanoi with confidence, having completely misread Washington.

This summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in North Korea on Sept. 20, 2018, is now a source of ire for Kim.   © Reuters

The idea of dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear complex came up during the Moon-Kim meeting in Pyongyang in September 2018. A joint statement issued by the two leaders at that time mentioned the "permanent dismantlement" of North Korea's nuclear facilities in Yongbyon.

Moon strongly advised Kim to dismantle the Yongbyon complex, said Moon Chung-in, the South Korean president's special advisor for unification, diplomacy and national security affairs who accompanied Moon to the summit. The advice was a recipe for drawing Trump into talks with Kim.

The WPK's United Front Department told Kim Jong Un just before the summit that the U.S. would accept a deal for dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear complex, according to people familiar with the North Korean situation. The department possibly became optimistic about a deal based on information from the South Korean government.

In contrast, the Japanese government was aware that the U.S. would take a tough stance at the summit.

Kim was so shocked by the Hanoi summit's collapse that he confined himself to his compartment in a special train from the capital of Vietnam to Pyongyang, a person familiar with the matter said.

He later subjected Kim Yong Chol, head of the department and vice chairman of the central committee, to "ideological education" punishment.

In April 2019, Moon Jae-in flew to Washington to call for Trump to accept economic cooperation between the two Koreas in exchange for the North's dismantlement of the Yongbyon complex and other steps. Trump brushed the call aside as premature.

North Korea began lashing out at Moon the day after he met with Trump. Kim Jong Un pointed a finger at Moon in a speech, saying he should not behave as an "intrusive go-between" but become a "party" to protect the interests of Koreans. When Moon referred to the unification of the two Koreas by 2045 in August, Pyongyang issued a statement questioning whether his thought was "healthy."

Kim has suspended North Korea's announced plan to conduct military action near the border with the South. But North Korea is still holding the threat over Moon's head, saying it is ready to consider reactivating the plan anytime depending on Seoul's response.

In a recent teleconference summit between South Korea and the European Union, Moon stressed he would do his utmost to realize the resumption of talks between the U.S. and North Korea before the U.S. presidential election.

With no sign of progress toward such talks, however, Moon finds himself deeper in a quandary between the two countries.

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