Asia Pacific / Politics

Moon landing: South Korean leader begins three-day summit with North's Kim Jong Un

Reuters, AFP-JIJI, Staff Report

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un held their first round of talks Tuesday in a historic summit in Pyongyang largely aimed at kick-starting stalled U.S.-North Korea talks on denuclearization.

Kim greeted Moon with hugs and smiles when the South Korean leader arrived in the North Korean capital to discuss the faltering nuclear talks as well as the prospect of officially ending the Korean War.

The three-day inter-Korean summit, the third between Moon and Kim, will be a litmus test for another meeting Kim has recently proposed to U.S. President Donald Trump.

Trump has asked Moon to be “chief negotiator” between himself and Kim, according to Moon’s aides, after Trump cancelled a trip to Pyongyang by his secretary of state last month.

Washington wants to see concrete action toward denuclearization by North Korea before agreeing to a key goal of Pyongyang declaring an end to the 1950-53 Korean War.

“(My) North Korea trip would have a great meaning if it could lead to the resumption of North Korea-U.S. dialogue,” Moon was quoted as saying before heading to Pyongyang earlier in the day.

But underscoring the challenges ahead, the North’s official Rodong Sinmun said the same day that “the responsibility falls squarely on the United States” for the stalled nuclear discussions.

“It is due to its nonsensical, irrational stubbornness that other issues can only be discussed after our country has completely verifiably, irreversibly dismantled our nuclear capabilities … without showing the intention to build trust including declaring the end of war,” the newspaper said in an editorial.

Moon, himself the offspring of a family displaced by the war, has met Kim twice this year at the border village of Panmunjom.

As he landed at Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport on Tuesday morning, Moon was greeted by Kim, his wife, Ri Sol Ju, and other top North Korean officials, as well as a large honor guard and a military band.

Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of the leader and a key propaganda official, was seen preparing officials for Moon’s arrival and accompanying Kim Jong Un and his wife.

South Korean corporate executives, including Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yon and the chiefs of SK Group and LG Group, will meet with North Korean Deputy Prime Minister Ri Ryong Nam, who is in charge of economic affairs.

On Wednesday, Moon and Kim plan to hold a second round of talks after which they are expected to unveil a joint statement and a separate military pact designed to defuse tensions and prevent armed clashes. Moon will return home early Thursday.

This week’s summit comes as the United States presses other countries to strictly observe U.N. sanctions aimed at choking off funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

North Korea says it has destroyed its main nuclear and missile engine test site, and has halted atomic and ballistic missile tests but U.S. officials and analysts believe it is continuing to work on its weapons plans covertly.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley accused Russia on Monday of “cheating” on U.N. sanctions on North Korea.

Moon is hoping to engineer a proposal that combines a framework for the North’s denuclearization and a joint declaration ending the Korean War, Seoul officials said.

The conflict ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving U.S.-led U.N. forces including South Korea technically still at war with the North.

But U.S. officials remain “unenthusiastic” about declaring an end to the war without any substantial action toward denuclearization from the North, Seoul officials said.

South Korea is pinning high hopes on Kim’s remarks to Moon’s special envoys earlier this month that he wants to achieve denuclearization within Trump’s first term in office ending in early 2021.

Agreeing on a timetable is a core task for Moon, as it would induce U.S. action, said Lee Jung-chul, a professor at Soongsil University in Seoul.

“Given U.S. skepticism that South Korea may have oversold Kim’s willingness to denuclearize, how President Moon delivers his sincerity toward denuclearization to Trump would be a key factor for the fate of their second summit,” Lee told a forum on Monday in Seoul.

Perhaps more immediately, and possibly more crucially, Moon may need to ultimately convince Trump to give South Korea some breathing room to operate independently, said Aidan Foster-Carter, a North Korea specialist and honorary senior research fellow at Leeds University.

“For the inter-Korean process to keep moving forward, at some point Moon — or maybe even Trump — needs to convince the ‘adults in the room,’ in the White House and elsewhere, to cut their ally some slack,” Foster-Carter wrote Monday on the North Korea-watching blog 38 North. “Beyond the nuclear issue, the two Koreas have their own vast, multifaceted agenda. They should be free to pursue this as this would be good for building peace.”