South Korean President Moon Jae-in has always wanted to lead the diplomacy aimed at ending the North Korean nuclear crisis, even as his first year in office was overshadowed by a belligerent standoff between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Moon has had his wish granted and prepares for a meeting in late April with Kim and basks in the international glow of having engineered another upcoming summit between the US and North Korean leaders.
It does not mean the decades-long effort to thwart the North’s nuclear ambition is settled, but it is clear that Moon is having a diplomatic moment. He is popular at home and abroad he has emerged as a reliable intermediary between North Korea and the US, enemies that spent the past year threatening each other with total destruction.
Here is a look at how Moon set up the summits and the challenges that lie ahead:
Since taking office in May last year, Moon has maintained that South Korea needs to lead on the North Korea issue.
In part, it was a matter of national pride for many South Koreans, who liken their country’s geopolitical situation to “a shrimp stuck between whales” — the whales being the US and China.
Moon initially found little room to maneuver diplomatically.
The Trump administration was wary about Moon pushing for greater ties with North Korea even as Pyongyang carried out its biggest-ever nuclear test explosion and test-fired intercontinental ballistic missiles.
As a result, Moon was forced to go more hard-line than he probably wanted and join Trump’s sanctions and pressure campaign against Pyongyang.
Moon ordered provocative precision-guided missile tests immediately after North Korean weapons tests, something that even his conservative predecessors did not do. He also allowed the US to install a high-tech missile defense system in the South, despite strong opposition from China.
All the while, though, he kept working to reach out to the North.
The Winter Olympics in the South’s Pyeongchang would prove to be a major opportunity.
Moon might have learned how to balance the alliance with Washington and his outreach to the North from his time as chief of staff for former liberal South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun, who often had awkward ties with then-US president George W. Bush over North Korea.
“Moon realized why relations with the US suffered during the Roh government, so he would know very well how to deal with the US,” said Lee Daewoo, an analyst at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea, who pointed out that Moon often gives Trump credit for bringing the North to talks.
The speed with which the two summits were set up shocked many, in part because of the period of intense animosity that came before.
The two Koreas have held leaders’ talks only twice since the peninsula’s 1945 division. There has never been such contact between sitting US and North Korean leaders.
The process this time was linked to the Olympics.
In January, North and South Korea had their first dialogue in two years to discuss cooperation for the games in February. The rivals agreed to march together to open the games and to field their first joint Olympic team in women’s hockey.
Kim sent his younger sister Kim Yo-jong to the opening ceremony, making her the first member of the North’s ruling Kim family to visit South Korea since the end of the 1950-1953 Korean War.
The US-North Korea summit talks were brokered by Moon’s envoys, who met with Kim Jong-un during a March 5-6 Pyongyang trip. They then brought Kim Jong-un’s offer to talk to Trump, who accepted the proposal.
Moon called the summit deals a “miracle.”
“The world is paying attention,” Moon told advisers on Monday last week. “The fate of the Republic of Korea and the Korean Peninsula depends on whether we can seize on these opportunities.”
There is still a chance the summit between Kim Jong-un and Trump will never happen.
Pyongyang’s state media have not even officially confirmed or denied that such talks were agreed to. The two sides are also far apart on what details would be up for discussion.
It is unknown what nuclear disarmament measures Kim Jong-un might offer, what rewards he will demand and whether Trump will agree.
North Korea will be very reluctant to completely abandon a nuclear program that it has spent decades building, despite toughening international sanctions.
Nuclear weapons are the core of Kim Jong-un’s authoritarian rule, with the young leader promoting the so-called “Byungjin” policy of simultaneously bolstering his nuclear arsenal and improving the economy.
One step the North might take is to offer to freeze or scrap its long-range nuclear missile program, which has worried US officials who think Kim Jong-un might soon acquire the ability to fire nuclear warheads at the US mainland.
Trump, for his part, has said the US demands complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.
The North has said denuclearization of the peninsula can only be possible when the US completely pulls its 80,000 troops from South Korea and Japan, and stops annual military drills with South Korea that it claims are an invasion rehearsal.
Just as he was praised for setting up the summit, Moon could also be in the crosshairs should the talks fall apart or not bear fruit.
Moon would possibly face criticism from US and South Korean conservatives that his overtures only helped North Korea buy time to perfect its nuclear program.
“It wasn’t a bad attempt to draw Kim Jong-un into talks via the Olympics ... but we still worked as a messenger for North Korea and I think that’s become a diplomatic risk,” Go Myong-hyun of the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies said.
However, Lee said any breakdown in talks should not be blamed on the mediator.
Even if the talks fall through this time, Lim Eul-chul, a researcher at at South Korea’s Kyungnam University, said improved Korean ties could provide future opportunities to bring Pyongyang and Washington to the negotiating table.
China took advantage of the vacuum left behind when US carriers stayed out of the western Pacific Ocean due to COVID-19 outbreaks on several US Navy warships. The Chinese government is solidifying its hold on artificial islands in the South China Sea by moving in missiles and surveillance equipment, and formalizing its occupation by creating two municipal districts in the region under Hainan Island’s Sansha — Xisha District on Woody Island (Yongxing Island, 永興島) to administer the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島) and Nansha District on Fiery Cross Reef (Yongshu Reef, 永暑島) to administer the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) —
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