Wed, May 16, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Moon Jae-in shines as he drives diplomacy with Pyongyang

By Kim Tong-hyung  /  AP, SEOUL

To his supporters, South Korean President Moon Jae-in is a master negotiator who is fixing decades of bad nuclear diplomacy with North Korea. To his critics, he is falling prey to the same old trap that has claimed previous South Korean presidents — but with an important difference: This time the stakes are much higher.

Whoever is right, it is hard to ignore Moon’s role as the architect behind a new global push to settle the nuclear standoff with the North.

The outcome of his efforts might hinge on a meeting in Singapore next month between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump, who spent months contemplating military strikes against the North before Moon steered him to the table.

Moon, a soft-spoken liberal, last month hosted Kim in a summit that saw them stride hand-in-hand across the border and pledge the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, an ambitious declaration that was light on specifics.

Moon does not have the power to resolve North Korea’s weapons programs on his own.

However, in hustling between Pyongyang and Washington to set up the Kim-Trump summit and offering to broker other meetings with Pyongyang, Moon is fulfilling his promise to push South Korea into the driver’s seat in diplomacy with the North.

“South Korea has never had a leader like Moon, who actively embraced a leading role in planning and coordinating a global approach to the North,” said Hong Min, a senior analyst at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification.

“He managed to convince Washington that Pyongyang would change course after a year of brinkmanship. He convinced Pyongyang he would be able to move Washington,” Hong said.

Despite the dangers — a derailed Trump-Kim summit might revive the animosity that enveloped the peninsula last year — Moon’s push has proven wildly popular: A Gallup Korea poll last week measured his approval rating at 83 percent, a striking number in a country deeply divided along ideological and generational lines.

PULLING THE STRINGS

Moon’s central presence could be seen on Wednesday last week in a three-way meeting in Tokyo when he got the prime ministers of Japan and China to issue a joint statement in support of the inter-Korean declaration, which he is looking to sell as a meaningful breakthrough that could create a positive atmosphere for the Kim-Trump meeting.

The recent flurry of diplomatic activity was almost unimaginable for most of last year, when the North ripped off a torrid run of weapons tests, including an underground detonation of a purported thermonuclear warhead and three separate tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with a range that could strike the continental US. Kim and Trump exchanged insults and threats of nuclear annihilation, drowning out Moon’s repeated calls for diplomacy.

The dynamics shifted after Kim used his New Year’s speech to propose talks with the South to reduce animosity. The North then sent hundreds of people to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games in the South, including Kim’s sister, who conveyed her brother’s desire for a summit with Moon.

Moon later brokered the meeting between Kim and Trump.

FINDING HIS SPACE

Moon, the son of North Korean war refugees, has vowed to build on the legacies of liberal South Korean presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun and their so-called “Sunshine Policy,” which Moon had a hand in building.

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