‘Grasping at straws,’ South Korea’s president tries to restart North Korea talks

‘Grasping at straws,’ South Korea’s president tries to restart North Korea talks

By Luke Vargas   
Published
South Korean President Moon Jae-in offers remarks on diplomacy with North Korea at a cabinet meeting. April 15, 2019. Courtesy: The Office of President Moon Jae-in
South Korean President Moon Jae-in offers remarks on diplomacy with North Korea at a cabinet meeting. April 15, 2019. Courtesy: The Office of President Moon Jae-in

Moon Jae-in's latest offer to meet with Kim Jong-un suggests North Korea is in the driver's seat after talks with the US broke down in February.

UNITED NATIONS  South Korean President Moon Jae-in proposed on Monday holding a fourth summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un, saying the “stage is set” for further talks even as diplomatic efforts championed by President Donald Trump reached an impasse in Hanoi in February.

Moon and Kim have met three times in the last year, but many of their ambitious goals — like building a railway connecting the countries — remain blocked by U.N. Security Council sanctions, which don’t look to be going away anytime soon.

“You can, as we saw in December 2018, have a nominal groundbreaking ceremony for the inter-Korean railway, but that won’t really mean anything because you can’t really start construction.”

Kristine Lee is an Asia-Pacific research associate at the Center for a New American Security and says that without sanctions relief, further summits look a bit pointless, and that’s put Moon in a tough spot considering he won election on the promise of pursuing peace.

“There’s sort of been a diminishing return on summitry. Since [Moon’s] election there was a sharp uptick in his popularity with the initial outreach to North Korea and the good will built around the Olympics and then, since then, it’s sort of deteriorated over time, and particularly after Hanoi I think there’s a sense that he’s really grasping at straws.”

While Moon tried to stay upbeat on Monday, Daniel Sneider, a lecturer in international policy at Stanford University, thinks the South Korean president’s offer to meet Kim anywhere “regardless of venue and form,” suggests he has become desperate for the now-stalled diplomatic process to resume.

“He’s given up even this idea which he cherished as being sort of a centerpiece of his own engagement strategy with the North, that Kim would come to Seoul, which is of course something that the North Koreans promised to do way back in 2000, and they’ve never done it. It would be a really signal moment. He’s even backed off from that, so they know that this thing is teetering.”

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