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South Korea plays down chances of nuclear breakthrough at Moon-Kim summit but says it will push U.S. for ‘reciprocal’ moves

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

A top South Korean official played down the chances of a breakthrough on North Korea’s denuclearization during this week’s inter-Korean summit, saying Monday that it’s “difficult to have any optimistic outlook” but also noted that Seoul would push the U.S. for “reciprocal” moves in stalled nuclear negotiations.

Im Jong-seok, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s chief of staff, said that much will hinge on “frank talks” between Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, according to a readout of a Monday news briefing.

Speaking later Monday, Moon was quoted as saying at a weekly meeting with top aides that he would seek a lasting agreement with the North.

“What I seek to obtain is peace. What I seek is not a temporary change that may be decided by international conditions, but irreversible and lasting peace that will literally not shake despite how international conditions change,” Moon said, according to pool reports.

Im said Moon and Kim will have at least two chances to discuss ways to “denuclearize the Korean Peninsula” during the South Korean president’s three-day trip to Pyongyang, which begins Tuesday, but Moon said he will attempt to hold “as much discussion as possible” with Kim.

The summit, the third between the current leaders of the two Koreas, will be Moon’s first visit to Pyongyang. He is scheduled to depart to Pyongyang via a direct flight from Seoul’s Seongnam Air Base at 8:40 a.m., arriving in the North Korean capital at 10 a.m.

His first meeting with Kim will be held later Tuesday, followed by an official welcome dinner that could possibly be hosted by the North Korean leader, according to Im. On Wednesday, Moon and Kim will hold their second meeting.

Part of the summit will be broadcast live in Seoul, marking the first time ever that an event held in the communist state is beamed live into South Korea, Im noted.

Im said the summit will focus on three key agenda items: Improving and developing inter-Korean relations, mediating and promoting North Korea-U.S. denuclearization talks and reducing military tensions and “preventing armed conflict” between the two Koreas.

If the talks proceed smoothly, Im said there is a possibility of a joint news conference on the summit’s second day to announce an agreement on the military issues.

On the nuclear issue, Im said questions remain over whether Moon will be able to successfully mediate and help jump-start the stalled U.S.-North Korea talks.

“There are many expectations for great progress on the issue at the summit, but (the possibility) is very limited,” he said.

“Whether an agreement on specific ways to progress denuclearization will emerge, and if such an agreement will be put into a document or be announced orally, all these things are still unknown,” he added.

Still, Im said Seoul will “push to resume genuine dialogue for the establishment of a new peaceful relationship … so that the progressive denuclearization of North Korea and reciprocal U.S. actions can be pursued.”

Moon echoed this sentiment, saying he hopes to “find an intersecting point between the United States’ call for denuclearization steps and the North’s demand for corresponding steps to guarantee its security and end the hostile relationship (between the U.S. and North Korea).”

But in terms of what Moon can do to help further the U.S.-North Korean denuclearization talks, the answer appears to be little.

“Expectations should remain focused on the inter-Korea relationship and some of the items within Moon’s control in this regard — including a likely pledge to increase the frequency of high-level diplomacy and communication on various levels,” said J. Berkshire Miller, a senior visiting fellow with the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo.

“On the issue of denuclearization, there is little more that Moon can do except another push forward,” he said. “Pyongyang essentially sees this issue as a direct matter of negotiation with Washington, not Seoul.”

Washington’s denuclearization talks with Pyongyang have hit a wall in the more than three months since U.S. President Donald Trump’s landmark summit in Singapore with Kim. That impasse may be over the two parties’ understanding of what was agreed to at the June meeting.

Kim agreed to a vaguely worded 1½-page joint statement to “work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” while Trump committed to “provide security guarantees” to the regime.

At the end of the summit, Trump said he was halting joint U.S. military exercises with South Korea — drills the North views as a rehearsal for invasion.

But hit a roadblock in the summit’s wake, with Kim touting steps the North has taken, including the dismantling of nuclear and rocket-engine testing sites, and the White House repeatedly stressing that Pyongyang must first take verifiable steps to dismantle its nuclear arsenal before any further concessions.

As the North has urged more of a quid pro quo approach in the negotiations, one avenue of discussion could be the issue of a declaration to end the Korean War, a step ahead of a formal peace treaty. Fighting in the 1950-1953 war was halted by an armistice, which has governed the conflict ever since.

Kim has reportedly been operating under the view that Trump essentially promised him at the Singapore summit that he would sign such a declaration soon after their talks.

Although an end-of-war declaration would not be a legally binding peace treaty, observers say it could create momentum that would make it easier for Pyongyang to push for such a treaty, as well as formal diplomatic recognition and security concessions.

Moon’s meeting with Kim will be the third since he took office in May last year. The leaders held their first two meetings on April 27 and May 26 this year at the border village of Panmunjom.