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(News Focus) Moon's breakthroughs in NK diplomacy met with both applause, caution

2018/03/09 17:26

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SEOUL, March 9 (Yonhap) -- Following his successive diplomatic coups over North Korea, President Moon Jae-in's initiative to engage and denuclearize the recalcitrant neighbor is being met with both praise and persistent skepticism.

After more than a year of military provocations, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un came forward with peace overtures and offers to meet with Moon and U.S. President Donald Trump. The potential breakthroughs are seen as a product of Moon's once fragile policy to build trust with Pyongyang, broker its dialogue with Washington and resume denuclearization talks.

But experts said uncertainties still persist given that Pyongyang could use the dialogue to create breathing space from U.S. threats of military action, crippling sanctions and deepening isolation that could worsen its economic travails and threaten the security of its regime.

After Moon sent a delegation on a two-day visit to Pyongyang earlier this week, Seoul announced Tuesday that Kim agreed to hold a summit with Moon in late April and set up a hotline between them.

More surprisingly, Kim also offered to hold a summit with Trump "as soon as possible." Trump accepted it, saying he will meet Kim by May to achieve "permanent denuclearization."


This image provided by Yonhap News TV shows U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. (Yonhap) This image provided by Yonhap News TV shows U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. (Yonhap)

"Despite its sixth nuclear test and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles last year, Moon has held fast to his two track policy of dialogue, and sanctions and pressure. This has helped bring cross-border ties to where they stand now," Park Won-gon, a security expert at Handong Global University, said.

"That is what sets the liberal government apart from former conservative governments, which initially sought both sanctions and engagement but changed tack towards a sanctions-centric approach in response to the North's provocations," he added.

From the outset, Moon's policy towards the belligerent regime has faced much skepticism from both at home and abroad.

Conservatives here have given it short shrift, arguing it could only serve the interests of the reclusive state, which has squandered its scarce resources on advancing its nuclear program while its citizens suffer from abject poverty and human rights abuses.

They also said Moon must not be deceived by the North's "charm offensive" aimed at sowing discord among South Koreans and driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington.

Outside observers have said Moon's "dovish" policy could weaken international unity in the enforcement of sanctions against Pyongyang and impede policy coordination with Washington bent on its "maximum pressure" campaign.

Yet Moon has dug in his heels, cautiously looking for a window of opportunity for engagement with the North, which coincided with last month's PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

Moon accepted Kim Yo-jong, the North Korean leader's younger sister, as a delegate to the opening ceremony of the games, setting in motion direct contact with the inner circles of the isolated regime's ruler.

He even embraced Kim Yong-chol, a senior Pyongyang official, as the head of the North's delegation to the closing Olympic ceremony, despite accusations that he masterminded two attacks in 2010 that killed 50 South Koreans in total.

"In close coordination with Washington over sanctions and pressure, Moon has succeeded in achieving a turnaround in a security situation once on the brink of war," Koh Yoo-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University, said.

"Though calculations may differ among Moon, Trump and Kim, it can be said that Moon has thus far played a considerable role in shaping the common ground over the denuclearization of the peninsula and fostering peace," he added.

But mindful of unforeseen mishaps, Moon has been seen gingerly enforcing his peace initiative.

"At this point in time, (we) are in a situation like walking on an ice plate ... We should not be rashly optimistic," Moon said during a meeting with local party leaders on Wednesday. "We also should not say that we cannot or we will be played by the other side."


This photo taken on March 7, 2018, shows President Moon Jae-in hosting a luncheon meeting with party leaders at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul. (Yonhap) This photo taken on March 7, 2018, shows President Moon Jae-in hosting a luncheon meeting with party leaders at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul. (Yonhap)

Moon has also instructed his aides to "treat South-North relations like dealing with a (brittle) glass bowl."

   His remarks reflected difficulty in tackling the long-standing nuclear standoff with Pyongyang.

Pyongyang has already defined itself as a nuclear power in its constitution and declared that it has completed its nuclear armament following six underground experiments since 2006. It has also advanced its technology to deliver its nuclear warheads on long-range missiles capable of striking the continental U.S.

Moreover, the wayward regime still sticks to its "Byungjin" policy line of developing its nuclear program and economy at the same time.

"One of the reasons why the North has come out for talks is its sense of confidence about its nuclear program. With its advanced nuclear and missile programs, it has already bolstered its leverage before the talks," said Chun In-young, professor emeritus at Seoul National University.

Some observers pointed out that Pyongyang has opted for dialogue to deescalate military tensions following Trump's bellicose rhetoric, his military's deployment to the South of formidable weapons and growing talk of an American preventive strike.

Adding to Pyongyang's security jitters, Washington has recently published its nuclear posture review, in which it unveiled a plan to develop "low-yield" nuclear weapons, which analysts say could lower the threshold for the use of nuclear arms against potential adversaries.

"From the North's standpoint, the threat by the superpower is still very frightful given that many countries like Libya have backed down amid pressure from the U.S.," Chun of Seoul National University said.

China may be another factor that has pressured the North to return to dialogue. Beijing, its only ally and patron, has sternly opposed Pyongyang's nuclear and missile provocations, as it has actively enforced international sanctions.

Since Chinese leader Xi Jinping took the helm of the country in 2012, he, unlike his predecessors, has pursued a great power diplomacy, a development that Washington has apparently used to pressure Beijing to play a responsible role as a "regional stakeholder" in ensuring peace in Northeast Asia, including Korea.

Xi's government has thus been active in enforcing sanctions, leading to a cut in oil supplies to and trade with the impoverished North. In a reflection of strained ties between the two countries, Xi has yet to meet the leader of the communist ally.

Regardless of the North's intentions over its peace overtures, uncertainties shroud the road to denuclearization, observers said.

In future negotiations, Pyongyang could demand a peace treaty with Washington, which experts say mean a stop to South Korea-U.S. military drills, the withdrawal of some 28,500 U.S. forces stationed in the South and the breakup of the Seoul-based United Nations Command.

However, the North's agreement to hold a summit with the U.S. for the first time will mark a historic step towards its denuclearization.

"If you think about the 1980s, enmity between the U.S. and the North was so deep that they did not have any talks, and Washington refused to see Pyongyang as a legitimate interlocutor," Koh of Dongguk University said.

"So the summit, should it materialize, would be a symbolic move towards the resolution of hostility between the two countries," he added.