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North Korea Crisis

South Korean President Moon 'embarrassed' by summit's collapse

Would-be peacemaker faces serious challenges as mediator role fizzles

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to be on the same page earlier this week when they met in Washington.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Friday began looking at a grim political future.

The man who for much of this year has been working toward a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is now the target of insults from South Korean politicians.

Late Thursday night in Seoul, news came that Trump had canceled his summit with Kim, which had been set for June 12 in Singapore. Moon had been striving to bring the two men together to talk about denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.

Trump's decision not only surprised Moon but came as a blow. Earlier in the week, Moon had been in Washington, strategizing over the summit with Trump. He spent two days in the U.S. capital, and during the visit, Chung Eui-yong, Moon's national security adviser, said the possibility of the summit being held was 99.9%.

But Moon would return to Seoul the same day Trump went on to blindside him.

"I am embarrassed," Moon said after hosting an emergency National Security Council meeting in the early hours of Friday. "It is very regrettable to see that the North Korea-U.S. summit will not be held on June 12. I expect the two leaders to resolve [problems] through more direct and close dialogue."

It wasn't Moon's first embarrassment in his role as mediator. Last week, Kim abruptly canceled an inter-Korea ministerial-level meeting, blaming military drills South Korea and the U.S. were holding.

In addition, the North initially declined to accept the applications of South Korean journalists who wanted to witness the demolition of a nuclear test site, although it later relented.

The demolition came hours before Trump issued a public cancellation letter to Kim.

A month ago, Moon was meeting with Kim at the truce village of Panmunjom, inside the demilitarized zone that divides the Korean Peninsula. The two leaders adopted the Panmunjom Declaration, in which they agreed to stop hostilities, sign a peace treaty and formally end the Korean War.

An armistice halted fighting in 1953, but a peace treaty has never been signed.

All was going well. Moon's nimble diplomacy had brought him much popularity at home. According to a Realmeter poll, Moon's approval rating surged to its highest level in almost a year, to 77.4 percent in the first week of May, after he sat down with Kim in late April.

But now a shadow lurks over the would-be peacemaker's political standing. Already, South Korean opposition parties are criticizing Moon for being naive on the international stage.

"The Moon Jae-in government was drunk with baseless optimism and rosy fantasy," said Kim Sung-tae, floor leader of the Liberty Korea Party. "It should have faced the reality. We cannot help but criticize the Moon government's amateur mediation diplomacy and its mentioning of Trump as deserving to win a Nobel Peace Prize."

Trump's cancellation of what would have been the first meeting between U.S. and North Korean leaders came three weeks before provincial elections in South Korea. Pollsters have been expecting the governing Democratic Party of Korea to ride Moon's popularity to an electoral victory. Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon of the DPK has been leading polls and is expected to easily win a third term. In South Gyeongsang Province, where the opposition party has dominated for decades, Moon aide Kim Kyung-soo has been ahead of his LKP rival by a wide margin.

Moon's domestic priorities, long stalled by economic headwinds, could now also be held hostage by the president's global "embarrassment," experts say.

"The North Korean issue has been the only area in which the Moon government has been successful," said Shin Yul, a political science professor at Myongji University. "As that has now turned out to be a failure, it may face a backlash from conservative voters, who have been keeping their silence.

"The problem is that the Blue House knew nothing about Trump's cancellation. This shows the South Korea-U.S. alliance is at a very low ebb."

Moon's government says it will continue to push for talks with the North in cooperation with the U.S.

"We believe that all of the related countries are sticking to solve problems through dialogue," said Baik Tae-hyun, spokesperson for the Ministry of Unification. "The government will continue to make diplomatic efforts to keep up the momentum of talks. We will consider resuming inter-Korean ministerial-level talks to carry out the Panmunjom Declaration."

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