World News

North Korea’s Sudden Shift Puts South’s Leader on the Spot

Posted May 17, 2018 10:29 a.m. EDT

SEOUL, South Korea — A week ago, things could not be going better for President Moon Jae-in of South Korea. He was successfully arranging a meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump. His approval ratings at home were soaring. The tone had changed so much that Trump had even called Kim “very honorable.”

Now, the matchmaking role that has defined Moon’s presidency is suddenly in doubt.

After months of unusual bonhomie, North Korea on Wednesday withdrew from talks with South Korea and threatened to cancel the planned June 12 summit meeting between Kim and Trump, which Moon’s aides have spent months trying to set up.

For Moon, the North’s reversal brought home the difficulties in playing matchmaker between his country’s most fearsome foe and its most important ally, both countries run by an impulsive and often unpredictable leader.

It shows the extraordinarily difficult challenge that Moon confronts. He faces skepticism from both Pyongyang and Washington that he can be an honest broker. North Korea still considers South Korea a U.S. stooge. In the United States, conservatives who have the president’s ear worry that progressive South Korean leaders like Moon will ease sanctions, breaking ranks with Washington in their eagerness to reconcile with the North.

“A matchmaker can succeed when boy and girl like each other,” said Moon Seong-mook, a senior analyst at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy in Seoul. “But the United States and North Korea have very different ideas on how to achieve denuclearization.”

It remains unclear whether the North’s sudden shift in attitude signaled a return to brinkmanship or mere posturing before the summit meeting, which is slated to take place in Singapore.

While most South Koreans support Moon’s intermediary role, North Korea’s actions on Wednesday give political ammunition to his conservative enemies, who call him a naïve amateur who has fallen for Pyongyang’s trap of “false peace.” They fear that Moon will not denuclearize the North, but will weaken Seoul’s alliance with Washington.

North Korea’s reversal has already dampened some of the optimism that pervaded South Korea after Moon’s dramatic meeting with Kim on the inter-Korean border on April 27. His party had been hoping to benefit politically from the Singapore meeting, which would take place a day before elections of mayors and provincial governors in South Korea. Moon’s North Korea diplomacy has loomed large over the contests.

Moon’s government vowed Thursday to “step up a mediator’s role,” urging North Korea and the United States to “respect each other,” and “think in the other’s shoes” despite occasional setbacks.

“The situation we have is part of the long and hard process of creating the same painting,” said Moon’s spokesman, Yoon Young-chan.

North Korea and the United States have the same name for that painting: a “nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.” But they have differ sharply on the best way to complete it.

The Trump administration, particularly national security adviser John Bolton, wants North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program as soon as possible. It says that only when denuclearization has become irreversible will the United States ease sanctions and economically reward the North.

But North Korea says it will not bargain away its nuclear weapons for the sake of its economic future. Kim insists that he will take only “phased” steps toward denuclearization and that Washington must match each of them with “synchronized” measures to satisfy North Korea’s demands for security guarantees, which include normalized ties and a peace treaty with the United States, as well as the lifting of sanctions.

“There is a huge gap between the North and the United States over denuclearization,” said Lee Seong-hyon, a research fellow at the Sejong Institute in South Korea. “There should be a lot of soul-searching going on in Seoul over whether it has been a mediator and communicator trusted by both sides.”

Moon has repeatedly argued that Kim would be willing to trade away his nuclear weapons for the right incentives. He called Kim “open-minded,” “frank” and “courteous.”

“Through many hours of frank and serious discussions with Chairman Kim, I could again and again confirm his willingness for complete denuclearization,” Moon said last week.

His government hopes that North Korea and the United States can meet each other halfway by exchanging denuclearization with security guarantees in a “phased” manner, as the North demands, while carrying out the deal quickly, as Washington wants — perhaps before the end of Trump’s term in early 2021.

South Korean officials are confident that such a deal is possible. They say that Kim is desperate to rebuild his nation’s economy and knows that he cannot do so without resolving the nuclear crisis, and that Trump is eager to make a deal before the midterm elections in November.

But as Moon acknowledged, “the devil will be in the details” — particularly who should make the first move and how to verify that promises are kept. When China’s premier, Li Keqiang, met Moon in Tokyo last week, Li warned that North Korea thought it was doing its part to show its intention to denuclearize — by unilaterally announcing a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests and by inviting outsiders to monitor the shutdown of its nuclear test site. And North Korea was “waiting for a corresponding feedback from the United States,” Li was quoted as saying by South Korean officials.

Instead, North Korea saw the United States and South Korea pressing ahead with their annual military exercises. Bolton also called for the removal of not only nuclear arms but also chemical and biological weapons from North Korea.

This week, North Korea pushed back with its threat to cancel the summit meeting with Trump.

The developments showed how delicate Moon’s task is in bringing Trump and Kim together — and getting them to see eye to eye.

If Kim does not cooperate, Bolton has warned it could be a “pretty short meeting” in Singapore.

“Then we will see the crisis rapidly rising on the Korean Peninsula,” said Lee Byong-chul, a senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul. “The mediating role by South Korea and China has become more urgent than ever.”