SEOUL – South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in has a message for the United States: President Biden must now commit to North Korea.
In an interview with The New York Times, Moon pressured the American leader to start negotiations with the government of Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, after two years in which diplomatic progress stalled, even stalled. reversed. Denuclearization, the South Korean president said, is a “matter of survival” for his country.
He also urged the United States to cooperate with China on North Korea and other issues of global concern, including climate change. Deteriorating relations between the superpowers, he said, could undermine any denuclearization negotiations.
“If the tensions between the United States and China escalate, North Korea can take advantage of it and capitalize on it,” Moon said.
It was partly a plea, partly a sales pitch from Mr. Moon, who sat with The Times as the United States tries to rebuild its relations in the region with a view to countering China’s influence, and North Korea increases its nuclear arsenal. . Moon, who will meet with Biden next month in Washington, seemed ready to once again assume the role of mediator between the two parties.
In the interview, Moon was proud of his deft diplomatic maneuvers in 2018, when he urged the two unpredictable leaders of North Korea and the United States to meet in person. He was also pragmatic, tacitly acknowledging that his work to achieve denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula has since fallen apart.
President Donald J. Trump left office without removing a single nuclear warhead from North Korea. Mr. Kim has resumed weapons testing.
“He beat around the bush and couldn’t get by,” Moon said of Trump’s efforts in North Korea. “The most important starting point for both governments is to have the will to dialogue and sit face to face at an early date.”
Now in his final year in office, Moon is determined to start over, and he knows he faces a very different leader in Biden.
Moon bet on Trump’s style, emphasizing personality-driven “top-down diplomacy” through one-on-one meetings with Kim. Biden, he said, was reverting to the traditional “bottom-up” approach in which negotiators haggle over details before seeking approval from their bosses.
“I hope that Biden becomes a historic president who has made substantive and irreversible progress towards complete denuclearization and the peace agreement on the Korean peninsula,” Moon said in the interview from Sangchunjae, a traditional hanok on the grounds of the residence. executive, Casa Azul.
Moon’s visit to Washington comes at a crucial moment. The Biden administration is wrapping up its month-long review of North Korea’s policy, one of the most pressing geopolitical issues for the United States.
Mr. Biden has begun to reverse many of his predecessor’s foreign policy decisions. But Moon warned that it would be a mistake to nullify the 2018 Singapore agreement between Trump and Kim that set broad goals to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.
“I think that if we build on what President Trump has left, we will see how this effort will become a reality under Biden’s leadership,” he said.
Moon called for the United States and North Korea to move “gradual and phased” steps toward denuclearization, exchanging concessions and incentives “simultaneously” along the way. It was a well-worn script for Mr. Moon, who occasionally paused during the interview to refer to his notes and punctuated his speech with small but determined hand gestures.
Some former US negotiators and Moon’s conservative critics dismiss such a strategy, saying North Korea would cripple and undermine international sanctions, the best influence Washington has against the impoverished country. In his annual threat assessment released last week, the US director of national intelligence said Kim “believes that over time he will gain international acceptance and respect as a nuclear power.”
But Moon’s team contends that the phased approach is the most realistic, even if it is imperfect. As his administration sees it, North Korea would never give up its arsenal in a quick deal, lest the regime lose its only bargaining chip with Washington.
The key, Moon said, is for the United States and North Korea to develop a “roadmap of mutual trust.”
American negotiators under Trump never got to that point. Both parties could not even agree on a first step for the North and what reward Washington would provide in return.
Mr. Moon is not only fighting to save his “Korean Peninsula Peace Process,” but also possibly his greatest diplomatic legacy.
As his policy with North Korea has faltered, critics have called him a naive pacifist who gambled too heavily on Kim’s unproven commitment to denuclearization.
“His good intentions brought bad consequences,” said Kim Sung-han, a professor at Korea University. “His mediation has not worked, and we have no progress in denuclearization. Time is running out. “
Since the negotiations stalled, Moon’s problems at home have increased. His approval ratings have plummeted to record lows amid real estate and other scandals. This month, angry voters handed his Democratic Party crushing defeats in mayoral elections in South Korea’s two largest cities.
That’s a sharp turn of fortune since the beginning of his administration, when Moon transformed a grisly geopolitical crisis into a flagship political initiative.
“When I took office in 2017, we were really concerned about the possibility of a war breaking out once again on the Korean peninsula,” he said.
Four days into his tenure, North Korea launched its Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile that it said could target Hawaii and Alaska. Then the North tested a hydrogen bomb and three ICBMs. In response, Trump threatened “fire and fury” as US Navy carrier groups headed for the peninsula.
Moon’s first diplomatic victory came when Kim accepted his invitation to send a delegation to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Soon after, Moon met Kim at the heavily armed inter-Korean border.
During that meeting, Moon said the North Korean dictator hinted that disarmament was a real possibility. “If security can be guaranteed without nuclear weapons, why would I have to fight to hold on to them even at the cost of sanctions?” Moon remembered what Kim said.
He said he made that speech to Trump and implored him to meet Kim. At his made-for-television summit in Singapore, Trump promised “security guarantees” for North Korea, while Kim pledged to “work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
“It is clearly an achievement for President Trump that he held the first summit meeting between North Korea and the United States,” he said.
But Moon also regretted that Trump never complied, after declaring that “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.” When Kim and Trump met again in 2019 in Hanoi, Vietnam, the negotiations went nowhere and the men left without an agreement on how to move forward with the Singapore deal.
While Moon was careful to praise Trump, he also seemed frustrated by the former president’s erratic behavior and Twitter diplomacy. Trump canceled or reduced the annual joint military exercises that the United States conducts with the South and demanded what Moon called an “excessive amount” to keep 28,500 American troops in South Korea.
Moon said he had decided to suspend negotiations on the so-called defense cost-sharing agreement during Trump’s final months in office. South Korea was willing to pay more given its growing economic size, but Trump’s demands violated the basis of the two countries’ relationship.
“His claim lacked a reasonable and rational calculation,” Moon said.
The fact, he said, that Washington and Seoul could reach an agreement within 46 days of Biden’s inauguration was “clear testament to the importance that President Biden attaches to” the alliance.
Moon is hopeful about the progress the new American leader can make in North Korea, although any significant breakthrough may be unrealistic, given the deep mistrust between Washington and Pyongyang.
Biden said last month that he was “prepared for some form of diplomacy” with North Korea, but that “it has to be conditional on the end result of denuclearization.”
North Korea has offered insights on a phased approach that begins with the demolition of its only known nuclear test site, followed by the dismantling of a rocket engine test facility and nuclear complex at Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang.
Moon said he believed those steps, if combined with US concessions, could lead to the disposal of North Korea’s most prized assets, such as ICBMs. In that scenario, he said, the move toward complete denuclearization becomes “irreversible.”
“This dialogue and diplomacy can lead to denuclearization,” he said. “If both sides learn from the failure in Hanoi and come together for more realistic ideas, I’m sure they can find a solution.”