A year ago, South Korean President Moon Jae-in was preparing to host Kim Jong-un on the southern side of their fortified border — a historic high-water mark that fuelled talk of a Nobel Peace Prize.
Now, he’s heading back to Washington, hoping a direct appeal to US President Donald Trump can keep all that from slipping away.
The South Korean leader is slated to visit the White House on Thursday in a bid to rescue talks thrown into doubt when Trump walked away from his Feb. 28 summit with Kim in Hanoi, saying North Korea wasn’t making sufficient commitments to give up its nuclear weapons.
Moon needs a breakthrough fast. Not only would a return to provocations put Seoul back at risk, Moon has staked much of his presidency on a pledge to forge a lasting peace between South Korea’s closest ally and its increasingly well-armed rival. His approval rating fell to a record low of 41 percent, according to Gallup Korea, compared with 83 percent in the wake of his first meeting with Kim last April.
“Moon is more determined now than ever to persuade Trump to return to the bargaining table with North Korea,” said David Kim, a research analyst at the Stimson Center and a former official at the US State Department.
“Moon has played a critical role in getting these two leaders together and I believe he could pull it off again if they can agree to a process moving forward.”
An immediate concern for Moon is discouraging Kim Jong-un from any actions that could provoke Trump and return the two sides to the familiar cycle of threats and counterthreats.
A top North Korean diplomat told reporters in Pyongyang last month that Kim would decide “in a short period of time” whether to continue his freeze on bomb and missile tests. In the meantime, the regime has sent diplomats to potential areas of alternative support such as Moscow, fueling speculation of a possible Kim trip to Russia.
North Korea has also ignored South Korean requests for working-level talks, briefly withdrawing officials from a joint liaison office and criticised Moon’s government for supporting to US led sanctions and military drills.
The moves signalled that Moon’s achievements since signing a joint declaration with Kim in the demilitarised zone last year could unravel without action.
Lee Do-hoon, South Korea’s top envoy to talks, told a forum in Seoul that the parties were in a “race against time.”
“If we let time pass by without dialogue or negotiation, the two Koreas and the United States will end up in a situation that does not benefit anyone,” Lee said. “It is high time that the United States and North Korea get back together.”
Moon’s office has reached out to North Korea about holding another summit with Kim on April 27, to mark the one-year anniversary of their first meeting, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported, citing an unidentified government official.
Moon will probably use the meeting to continue to press for relaxing sanctions to resume stalled inter-Korean economic projects such as joint factory park and mountain resort — even through waivers could be revoked.