President Moon Jae-in, who returned home from a tour of three Nordic countries on Sunday, apparently wanted the visit to highlight his efforts to get the stalled North Korean denuclearization talks back on track.
In a series of speeches and remarks during the eight-day visit to Finland, Norway and Sweden, he emphasized the need for the North to restart negotiations with the US. He also urged Pyongyang to engage in other bilateral and multilateral dialogues to earn the international community’s confidence.
Moon’s consistent message was timely, as the North Korean denuclearization process, which has been deadlocked since the failed meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in February, will be highlighted later this month.
Trump and other leaders including Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin will gather in Japan for the annual Group of 20 summit. Trump is also scheduled to visit South Korea on his way home on June 28-29.
Moon made it clear that he wanted to use the upcoming events to restart the denuclearization negotiations between the US and North Korea. On the surface, the atmosphere seems to be favorable.
Trump said last week that he received a “warm” letter from Kim and that he thought “something will happen that is going to be very positive.”
Speaking in Oslo, Norway, Moon noted that Washington and Seoul shared information regarding the letter and that it contained something “very interesting.”
This episode alone shows that, for now, Kim and Trump want to continue diplomatic efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue. Moon also tried to emphasize that his administration is in contact with Pyongyang.
After talks with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, Moon said the two Koreas are continuously communicating with each other through “various channels.”
It is yet to be seen whether such communication will result in a fourth meeting between Moon and Kim before Trump comes to the region for the G-20 meeting and his South Korean visit.
While Moon and his aides did not hide their strong desire to set up another meeting with the North Korean leader -- like one held at the border village at short notice last year -- there is skepticism too.
Most of all, another inter-Korean summit for the sake of a summit is meaningless. Any meeting between the two leaders should be able to lay the basis for a breakthrough in the US-North Korea talks, which have been stalled since the second Trump-Kim meeting in Hanoi in February.
Moon said that it was up to Kim whether he accepts the proposal to hold a new summit before Trump’s visit to Seoul, but judging from the North’s attitude it seems unlikely.
While refraining from raising security tensions and increasing hostility, the North has avoided efforts to improve inter-Korean relations in recent months.
It rejected the South’s proposal to jointly celebrate the first anniversary of the initial summit between Moon and Kim in April. The North also shunned the southern proposal to celebrate the 19th anniversary of the first-ever inter-Korean summit between the South and North’s respective late leaders Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il last week.
That the North Korean leader’s sister Kim Yo-jong did not come to Seoul and instead delivered the North Korean leader’s letter of condolences and flowers mourning the death of late President Kim Dae-jung’s wife Lee Hee-ho at the truce village of Panmunjom also raises questions about the attitude of the North Korean leadership. The late Lee, who passed away last week, visited the North in 2011 to pay respects after the death of Kim Jong-il.
Judging from past experiences, the North will “adjust” the pace and scope of inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation along with its strategy to deal with the US. It would not be wise to rush to hold another inter-Korean summit under these circumstances.
Moon emphatically said last week that only dialogue, not nuclear arms, will secure peace for the North, and no one will threaten its system and safety if it seeks dialogue.
Moon also rightfully noted that working-level discussions should precede a top-level meeting in order to not repeat the failure of the “top-down” approach Trump and Kim took in their second meeting. Kim ought to heed this advice and take actions to send his aides for negotiations with the US.