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South Korea’s Moon to visit White House next month in bid to salvage Kim-Trump nuclear talks

President Donald J. Trump and President Moon Jae-in of the Republic of Korea at the United Nations General Assembly in 2017. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

In a bid to salvage broken-down nuclear negotiations with North Korea, U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean leader Moon Jae-in plan to hold a summit next month in Washington, the White House has announced.

The meeting will be the first between the two since the Trump administration’s denuclearization negotiations with Pyongyang broke down in late February after a summit in Hanoi. Moon is scheduled to arrive in the U.S. on April 10 and hold a summit with Trump the following day.

“The leaders will have in-depth talks to discuss ways to strengthen the Seoul-Washington alliance and to coordinate their stance on setting up a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula through complete denuclearization,” the South Korean presidential office said Friday.

In a separate statement, the White House confirmed the meeting.

“The alliance between the United States and the Republic of Korea remains the linchpin of peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and in the region,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement, using the official name of South Korea.

The summit will, notably, take place as the first session of North Korea’s 14th Supreme People’s Assembly convenes in Pyongyang on April 11. This meeting follows its first national election in five years in mid-March, in which, unusually, leader Kim Jong Un was not on the ballot.

His absence from the election — the first time a North Korean leader has not served as a member of the nation’s top legislative body since the inaugural parliamentary election was held in 1948 — has raised speculation that he may assume a new post as head of state through a constitutional revision in an attempt to bolster his grip on power.

North Korea-watchers are also closely monitoring whether Kim will map out a new diplomatic policy toward the U.S. at the assembly.

After the second summit between Trump and Kim ended when the U.S. president rejected an apparently step-by-step proposal by Kim to dismantle some facilities at the Yongbyon nuclear site in exchange for sanctions relief, Moon has struggled to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table.

The South Korean leader, who has invested much of his political capital into the denuclearization talks, is likely to use the meeting with Trump to help bridge the gap between the two sides.

Moon has held three summits with Kim in his bid to forge a path to peace between the two Koreas, but he has seen his domestic support rate falter. About a month after the Hanoi summit’s collapse, his presidential approval rating hit a record low of 43 percent, according to a Gallup Korea poll released Friday.

Seoul is also pushing to hold an inter-Korean summit in the South Korean capital this year as part of efforts to improve cross-border relations and help tackle the current denuclearization stalemate, the South’s Unification Ministry has said.

The U.S. has said it remains open to dialogue with North Korea despite the summit breakdown and that it will seek denuclearization talks while maintaining pressure and sanctions on the North. Pyongyang, for its part, has also tempered its reaction in the wake of the talks, though top North Korean officials have said that Kim will soon make a decision on whether to continue diplomatic talks and maintain the country’s moratorium on missile launches and nuclear tests.

After the Hanoi summit ended early without a highly anticipated agreement, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui met reporters in the Vietnamese capital in the early morning hours of March 1. Choe said the U.S. was “missing an opportunity” and suggested Kim may have lost interest in striking a deal on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.

In an interview with South Korean news outlets that day, Choe issued another veiled warning, referring to Kim’s New Year’s message in which he said he would have to pursue a “new path” if the U.S. maintained crippling sanctions against the North.

Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department official who worked on North Korean issues, said the news was not surprising in that Moon had hoped for a summit ahead of the Hanoi meeting. Oba also said that given the harder-line tack Trump had taken in Hanoi, apparently on the advice of senior U.S. officials, “getting to Trump directly and appealing to his personal investment in the diplomatic process is critical for Moon.”

Still, Oba noted, “Trump has always been on a completely separate track” from these officials when it comes to North Korea.

“He has a personal stake in this diplomatic process because he has embraced summit diplomacy and bet on the value of his personal relationship with Kim Jong Un — and demonstrating success is critical to sustaining his claim to being a great dealmaker,” he said.


© 2019 the Japan Times (Tokyo)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.