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[Editorial] Improper position

Seoul’s mediating role loses ground amid momentum to third US-NK summit

US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un last week expressed willingness to meet for a third time to seek an agreement on the North’s denuclearization.

Trump tweeted Saturday that a third summit with Kim would be “good,” responding to Kim’s speech to the North’s parliament a day earlier, in which he said he would be willing to hold a third summit if the US comes with the “right attitude” and “right method.”

Though the two leaders have described their personal relationship as “excellent,” it is far from guaranteed that a third meeting would result in a solution to the long-standing nuclear issue.

Since their second summit collapsed without a deal in Hanoi in February, Trump and Kim have stuck to their positions on how to move forward stalled talks on the North’s denuclearization.

As a result, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has lost ground in his self-assumed mediating role between Washington and Pyongyang.

Since the second summit between Trump and Kim, Seoul has raised the need for a “good enough deal” in the hope that the US would soften its position on securing a “big deal” with the North.

The Moon administration has also sought to resume suspended inter-Korean projects to help facilitate negotiations, in a move that could violate the international sanctions regime against Pyongyang,

Moon apparently hoped to win Trump’s support for such initiatives, which he believed would bolster his pitch to salvage nuclear talks with Pyongyang, during their summit in Washington on Thursday.

The meeting, however, revealed differences in their views on key issues regarding the North’s denuclearization.

Speaking to reporters at the outset of the meeting, Trump went against what Moon had suggested.

He made it clear that he aims to strike a big deal that involves trading significant sanctions relief for substantial steps to ensure the dismantlement of all of the North’s nuclear weapons programs.

“But at this moment, we’re talking about the big deal. The big deal is we have to get rid of the nuclear weapons,” he said.

Trump also said the US wants sanctions to remain in place, adding they are now at a “fair level.”

In a diplomatic sense, a summit is usually set up to approve what has been agreed on at the working level. Otherwise, the leaders have to invest time to ensure sufficient in-depth discussions.

It appeared neither happened at last week’s summit between Moon and Trump.

They seemed unable to narrow differences in their stances during their one-on-one meeting, which lasted a few minutes.

Moon had planned to use his summit with Trump to push for another meeting with Kim in a bid to help break the impasse in talks between the US and the North. Speculation is mounting that the next and fourth summit between Moon and Kim could be held at the border village of Panmunjom around April 27, in time for the first anniversary of their initial encounter.

But it is uncertain whether Kim will be ready to meet Moon, who has little new to offer the North. Kim might have little interest in talks with Moon at this point, as it is unlikely to strengthen his leverage in dealing with the US going forward.

During his speech Friday, Kim demanded that South Korea be more active in resuming cross-border projects, urging it to become an “advocate of national interests instead of playing an awkward role as a mediator or facilitator.”

Kim made it clear he would not accept the big deal demanded by Washington, saying he has come to think that there is no need to hold a summit with the US to be relieved of sanctions against his regime. He said he would wait until the end of the year for the US to make a proper decision regarding nuclear talks with the North.

But time is not on his side. During last week’s summit with Moon, Trump said he had the option of significantly increasing sanctions but he did not want to do that because of his relationship with Kim.

Meanwhile, Kim’s emphasis on self-reliance will only exacerbate the suffering of his people.

With regards to this, what Moon needs to do now is to persuade Kim there is no way out for his regime but to denuclearize. He should make it clear that Seoul cannot circumvent international sanctions to boost inter-Korean economic cooperation.