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N Korea at crossroads

Pyongyang Declaration falls silent as Moon loses voice

North Korea seeks direct deal with Trump, cutting Seoul's influence as mediator

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pose atop Mount Paektu, North Korea, in September 2018.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- One year on from the signing of the Pyongyang Declaration, the agreement signed by President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been overshadowed by broken promises and a series of missile tests from the North.

The two leaders agreed to end their military confrontation and improve economic cooperation during their three-day meeting in Pyongyang last year, but most of the agreements have not been implemented. Nor has Kim fulfilled his promise to visit Seoul, and he has given no explanation. This has disappointed Moon, who is keen to host the North Korean leader.

The mood has darkened considerably since the two leaders and their spouses climbed North Korea's Mount Paektu together. During his visit, Moon made a speech to the North Korean people at a Pyongyang stadium, a first for a South Korean leader.

But he has little to show from the promising start. "Few things have been achieved from the agreement over the last year. Not a single joint military commission meeting was held between the two Koreas," said Park Won-gon, a professor of international relations at Handong Global University in Pohang. "The declaration has lost its meaning."

Park believes Moon's role as go-between for Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump has also weakened. Kim hopes to deal with Trump directly over its nuclear program, giving up its warheads in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Washington and Pyongyang plan to resume their denuclearization talks in a few weeks.

"South Korea has almost lost its influence on the U.S. and North Korea. It won't be easy for Moon to mediate between Trump and Kim," Park said. "Seoul may have to rely on Washington more for information about the denuclearization talks, as the U.S. will hold direct talks with Pyongyang."

Moon will meet Trump in New York next week on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. Analysts say it will be a good opportunity to strengthen the alliance between Seoul and Washington, and improve soured ties between Seoul and Tokyo.

"It would be even better to include Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to demonstrate trilateral coordination after recent frictions between Seoul and Tokyo," said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University. "Another summit with Kim Jong Un, especially a Trump visit to Pyongyang, would be premature without significant working-level progress on denuclearization," he said.

Seoul terminated a military intelligence sharing agreement with Tokyo in August in response to Japan's removal of South Korea from its "whitelist" of countries eligible for simplified import procedures.

Relations between Japan and South Korea have worsened since last October, after South Korea's Supreme Court ruled that Japanese companies must pay reparations to Korean laborers who were forced to work during the World War II.

Analysts say the denuclearization talks between the U.S. and North Korea will restart, but a substantive deal remains very unlikely despite the departure of Trump's hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton.

Trump "will probably claim to have scored a major deal before the 2020 presidential election, though any such deal would likely be very small and largely symbolic," said Scott Seaman, a director at Eurasia Group, a U.S. think tank.

Seaman said the status quo is a win-win situation for Trump and Kim. The North Korean leader can keep his nuclear weapons and production facilities, and stave off harsher sanctions, while Trump can continue to boast in the run-up to the election that he has extracted more concessions from Pyongyang than any of his predecessors.

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