With President Moon Jae-in set to mark his 100th day in office this week, the geopolitical situation on the Korean Peninsula and Seoul's relations with major powers remain tricky, posing a grave challenge for the new leader down the road.
Moon came into office on May 10 with urgent missions to address North Korea's advancing nuclear and missile programs and find a way out of inter-Korean tension as well as untangle bilateral feuds with China which frets over Seoul's deployment of a U.S. defense system, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD).
As Moon's 100th day in office falls on Thursday, his successful summit-level diplomacy figures prominently.
He flew to the U.S. in late June for his first summit with President Donald Trump less than two months after taking office. He then attended the meeting of leaders from the Group of 20 countries in Germany in July, putting South Korea's summit-level diplomacy back on track following a hiatus caused by former President Park Geun-hye's impeachment.
In their summit with in Washington D.C., Moon and Trump reaffirmed strong alliance between their countries and joint efforts to deter North Korea's threats, a security guarantee that came as North Korea's continued ballistic missile tests unnerved South Koreans and their surrounding regions.
Moon also had Trump's support for South Korea's "leading role in fostering an environment for peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula" written in their joint statement following the summit, gaining U.S. backing for his pledge to be in the driver's seat in dealing with North Korean issues.
The statement confirmed that "President Trump supported President Moon's aspiration to restart inter-Korean dialogue on issues including humanitarian affairs," extending U.S. support for Moon's initiative to use dialogue in denuclearizing North Korea, in addition to sanctions and pressure against the country.
He rallied international support for his approach during the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany held from July 7-8.
During his visit to Germany, Moon unveiled the outline of his North Korea policy, later billed as the "Berlin initiative," in a speech in the German capital.
There, Moon said he is willing to sit together with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to discuss cooperation and peace and will push for denuclearization of North Korea simultaneously with a peace treaty with the North.
"The Moon Jae-in administration unavoidably had some difficulties in pursuing new diplomatic policy after it came into a diplomacy inheritance that was in a mess," Hong Hyun-ik, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, said. "But he was quite successfully in recovering South Korea's place through summit diplomacy in a short period of time and asserting his peace initiative," Hong said.
Despite Moon's efforts, however, the security condition of the peninsula is mired in higher-than-ever tensions as North Korea escalated its military threats instead of returning South Korea's calls for talks.
In July, North Korea test-fired two Hwasong-14 missiles which the country declared were intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). It was the country's first tests of missiles that most analysts said are capable of reaching the mainland U.S. Some said they could have reached as far as eastern part of the U.S. if they were fired at a right angle.
Last week, North Korea's military threatened missile strikes in the area around the U.S. territory of Guam, drawing backlash from an angry Trump.
"Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely," Trump tweeted in reaction.
Meanwhile, North Korea was unresponsive to South Korea's offers to hold talks between their militaries and Red Cross bodies, which were made in line with Moon's Berlin announcement.
Amid deepening tensions, the United Nations Security Council adopted its latest sanctions resolution against North Korea in early August, imposing a blanket ban on North Korea's exports of coal, iron and iron ore, the country's major foreign currency sources.
Resolution 2371 also placed restrictions on the North's foreign sales of lead, seafood and workforce, with an aim to cut the country's US$3 billion annual export revenue by $1 billion, in response to the ICBM tests
Experts said Moon's peace initiative is currently in a straitjacket against such a backdrop; Moon's much-promoted pledge to sit in the driver's seat in North Korean issues is going nowhere with the North seen to be occupied with tit for tat with the U.S., rather than Seoul's offers.
The prospect of South Korea's diplomacy with China and Japan looks also gloomy.
In the aftermath of the North's ICBM launch, Seoul reversed course and said it will resume the unfinished deployment of a THAAD battery, a move that would surely result in a major thorn in relations with China which explicitly opposes the military installation.
An unresolved diplomatic dispute over Japan's colonial-era mobilization of Korean women for sexual services is also standing in the way of the South Korea-Japan relationship, with Seoul having recently launched a special probe into a so-called comfort woman deal the previous Park administration signed with Japan to settle the history feud.
"The backdrop isn't right at all for the Moon Jae-in administration to do what it has originally set out to do," Kim Joon-hyung, professor at Handong Global University, said. "The most urgent task is to manage the tinderbox at hand."
While firmly sticking to his vision, Moon has to keep pushing for talks with North Korea as well as the U.S. and China to achieve a breakthrough in the situation, Kim said, adding that "If official dialogue is unavailable, then he should mobilize all other options possible including under-the-table negotiations in order to keep talks going." (Yonhap)