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North Korea Crisis

South Korea's Moon looks to gain politically from summits

President's image as bridge between North and Trump is popular with voters

South Korean President Moon Jae-in answers reporters' question during his New Year news conference at the presidential Blue House in Seoul on Jan.10.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in is expected to gain political capital through his summit this Friday with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, as the two are set to discuss how to ease tensions on Korean Peninsula that have been ratcheted up by Pyongyang's nuclear weapons and missile programs.

Moon, an advocate of engagement with the North, has also brokered a summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim, scheduled for late May or early June. 

The historic summits come as Moon marks his first year in office on May 10. Success in these meetings will help him appeal to South Korean voters, who will vote in provincial elections on June 13. Hopes for the summits are already giving Moon a lift. His approval rating reached 67.8% in the third week of April, up from 66.8% a week ago, according to a survey by Realmeter, a pollster.

"Support for President Moon rebounded, largely due to the upcoming April 27 inter-Korea summit," said Realmeter in a statement. "People expect the meeting will end the [temporary] truce system that has prevailed for the last 65 years since the Korean War, and establish a peaceful system here."

Such sentiments should help Moon's Democratic Party, which is looking to sweep the elections. Eight mayors of big cities and nine provincial governors will be chosen, including Seoul and Busan. Seeking to ride on Moon's coattails, governing-party candidates are touting their friendship with the president, publicizing photos taken with Moon or stressing their personal ties to him.

Moon's presidency got off to a rocky start. His discomfort with Trump was on public display at a summit at the White House last June. But Moon has overcome that difficulty by presenting himself as a go-between as Trump and Kim look to strike a deal.

"President Moon has democratic leadership, with good communication skills and a humble mind," said Kim Hong-kook, a professor at Kyonggi University in Suwon. "He does not try to lead with strong charisma, but embraces others with humble leadership."

Moon is known for his mild temperament. He does not express anger publicly, and smiles in the face of tough questions from journalists. He never raised his voice in a two-hour dinner meeting with a group of foreign correspondents during the election campaign a year ago.

But the quiet exterior conceals strong ambitions. The 65-year-old human rights lawyer-turned-politician successfully led the so-called Candlelight Revolution a year and a half ago that removed former President Park Geun-hye from office. The protests kept the heat on the courts, which convicted Park of taking bribes worth tens of millions of dollars from the country's big conglomerates, including Samsung and Hyundai Motor.

Having brokered a summit between Trump and Kim, Moon's task now is to make sure that the meeting goes ahead, and that it spurs the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Experts say Moon should pressure Kim to move closer to complete denuclearization during their summit on Friday, which will pave the way for Kim's meeting with Trump.

"President Moon needs to persuade Kim to give up nuclear arms and intercontinental ballistic missiles because that will help boost the interests of both Koreas and the U.S.," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, a Seongnam-based think tank.

"It is very important for Moon to agree with Kim that North Korea will dismantle its nuclear weapons and ICBMs by 2020, which will lead to diplomatic normalization between North Korea and the U.S., the signing of a peace treaty and the lifting of sanctions against Pyongyang," Cheong said.

Moon's shuttle diplomacy follows a war of words between Pyongyang and Washington. Trump said the U.S. was ready to "totally destroy" North Korea during a U.N. General Assembly session in September last year, while North Korea threatened to detonate a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific. Moon has stressed that Seoul must be "in the driving seat" during negotiations on denuclearization.

The peace offensive comes in stark contrast to the hard-line approach taken by Moon's predecessor, Park, and has proved popular with the public. Kim Dae-jung won the Nobel Peace Prize for his "sunshine policy" of engagement with the North and the successful conclusion to the 2000 summit. Some have suggested Moon has similar hopes.

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