President Donald Trump and his South Korean counterpart agreed to work closely to ensure the success of the planned U.S.-North Korean summit as they prepare for their own meeting Tuesday in Washington.
It will be the fourth time the leaders have met since both took office last year amid rising tensions over the growing nuclear threat from the North.
Trump and Moon Jae-in “exchanged views on various actions taken by North Korea recently,” in a nearly half-hour phone call on Sunday (South Korean time), according to South Korea’s presidential office.
Moon is seeking to keep the recent dialogue with the North on track after Pyongyang threatened to scuttle the process in anger over U.S.-South Korean war games and what it called one-sided demands on denuclearization from Washington.
The South Korean president will try play the role of mediator to try to narrow the gap between the U.S. and North Korean positions.
He and Trump will discuss detailed plans for the complete denuclearization of North Korea and a permanent peace settlement on the divided peninsula, a senior presidential aide said Friday.
“We expect them to discuss ways to guarantee a bright future for the North in return for its complete denuclearization,” Nam Gwan-pyo told reporters on Friday.
Trump has insisted that international economic sanctions against the North won’t be lifted until the communist state agrees to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
But administration officials have said negotiations could lead to economic rewards and security assurances for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his regime, which has been accused of widespread human-rights abuses.
Caught in the middle
The North canceled high-level talks with the South on Wednesday, casting a shadow over hopes for improved inter-Korean relations less than a month after Moon and Kim met in a border village and promised “a new era of peace.”
The two men also agreed to the “complete denuclearization” of the divided peninsula, although the final declaration contained no specific measures on how to achieve that.
The mood shifted last week when North Korea returned to angry rhetoric and criticized the South for allowing a two-week joint Air Force drill with Washington to proceed on May 11.
Senior North Korean official Ri Son Gwon reiterated the communist state’s allegations that the exercises are rehearsals for military strikes.
He also called South Korea’s government “an ignorant and incompetent group devoid of the elementary sense of the present situation, of any concrete picture of their dialogue partner and of the ability to discern the present trend of the times,” according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency.
Separately, Pyongyang threatened to cancel Kim’s summit with Trump, which is planned for June 12 in Singapore, saying it has no interest in talks solely aimed at trying to force it to unilaterally give up its nuclear weapons.
Despite the protests, Trump has said nothing has changed with respect to North Korea, and U.S. and North Korean officials are discussing summit arrangements “as if nothing happened.”
He promised that the North Korean leader will “get protections that would be very strong” in exchange for nuclear disarmament.
But Trump offered a mixed message regarding suggestions that Washington may seek a Libya-style deal, which the North has rejected.
Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who gave up his nuclear program in exchange for economic incentives, was overthrown and brutally killed by rebels years later following a 2011 uprising supported by NATO airstrikes.
The North has frequently used Gadhafi’s fate as a justification for its nuclear weapons program, which it insists is for self-defense.
“That model would take place if we don’t make a deal, most likely,” Trump told reporters on Thursday. “But if we make a deal, I think Kim Jong Un is gonna be very, very happy.”
Caught in the middle, South Korea has urged the North to implement agreements reached at the inter-Korean summit and said it believes the North remains committed to improving relations.
“We are just at the starting point and we will not stop or waver as we move forward for peace in the Korean Peninsula,” Unification Ministry spokesman Baek Tae-hyun said Friday during a press briefing.
Seoul and Washington insist that their alliance, which was forged during the 1950-53 Korean War, is stronger than ever.
The U.S. maintains about 28,500 servicemembers on the peninsula and offers the South the protection of its nuclear umbrella.
North Korea demonstrated strong advances in its nuclear weapons development last year with three intercontinental ballistic missile tests and its sixth and most powerful underground nuclear blast.
Trump responded by stepping up his so-called “maximum pressure” campaign aimed at isolating the regime and cutting off its sources of foreign currency.
He also threatened to unleash “fire and fury” and to “totally destroy North Korea” if forced to defend the U.S. and its allies.
But the president agreed to meet with Kim after the North Korean leader offered an olive branch this year by agreeing to join the Winter Olympics and offering a vague commitment to denuclearization.
Experts say the North is using the renewed criticism to maneuver for leverage in its talks with Trump and is not likely to cancel the high-stakes summit.
After declaring his nuclear force complete, Kim has promised to suspend ICBM and nuclear tests and to raze his country’s northeastern nuclear-test facilities and destroy the network of tunnels.
The North also said it would invite foreign journalists to a ceremony later this week, although Seoul said Friday that the North did not respond to its list of journalists selected to go.
The North already has removed key buildings at the Punggye-ri site, according to the website 38 North, which monitors North Korean activity.
Commercial satellite images from May 15 also indicate additional steps toward closure, including the possible preparations to build a safe reviewing stand for visitors, 38 North said.
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