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N Korea at crossroads

Moon steps up efforts to coax Kim to Seoul

South Korean president seeks a leg up on public support

People wear masks of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a pro-unification rally in Seoul on April 25.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in is scrambling to nail down a visit by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in hopes of bolstering his sagging public approval, though a lack of progress in U.S.-North Korea talks stands in the way.

"The possibility is open" for Kim to visit Seoul by the end of the year, Moon told South Korean media Saturday on his flight out of Buenos Aires, where he attended the Group of 20 summit.

"It's up to Chairman Kim," he said, stressing that South Korea is ready to address the North's concerns about the safety of its leader.

The two sides agreed at a September summit to have Kim visit Seoul some time this year. They had been considering dates in mid-December, but North Korea recently asked to postpone, according to South Korean reports. Inter-Korean ties appear to have taken a back seat as the North focuses on mounting obstacles to its biggest goal: a second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump.

Trump on Friday said Kim visiting Seoul would increase momentum for denuclearization talks between the U.S. and North Korea, according to Moon. The South hopes the comment will help convince Kim to go through with the trip.

The South Korean government appears to have already secured rooms at several luxury hotels in Seoul on Dec. 13 and 14. The restaurant at the top of N Seoul Tower, which offers sweeping views of the city, is also not taking reservations from the public on those dates.

Moon desperately wants to make progress with North Korea given mounting public dissatisfaction at home. His minimum wage hike and other economic policies have been unsuccessful. He is now even facing heavy pushback from traditional allies like labor unions. While his approval rating recovered to about 60% following the North-South summit in September, it is once again on a downtrend, hitting 53% at the end of last week.

The trip has riled up groups on both sides of the aisle. Progressives sent college students out onto the streets of Seoul to collect signatures supporting the visit. A radical pro-North Korea organization gathered at the heart of the city in November, crying out "Long live Kim Jong Un!" Meanwhile, conservatives continue holding rallies to criticize Moon's conciliatory approach to the North.

Reaction among ordinary citizens has been largely positive. "Political beliefs aside, I welcome the trip if it will lead to peace," a 50-something man said.

"I'm hopeful that I will witness a historic event," said a woman in her 30s. Sixty percent of South Koreans believed Kim's visit will have a positive effect on the denuclearization and peace of the Korean Peninsula, according to an opinion poll conducted at the end of November.

It remains uncertain if Kim's visit to Seoul will materialize. Trump said he and Kim could meet in January or February. But with a meeting between the U.S. and North Korean leaders also up in the air, any inter-Korea summit looks unlikely to yield progress on economic cooperation. In addition, the security of Kim is seen as a grave concern for North Korea owing to the U.S. military's presence in Seoul.

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