UPDATE : 2019.9.17 TUE 10:02
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Inter-Korean summit seen as tone-setter for Trump-Kim meeting

South Korean President Moon Jae-in could hold the key to setting the tone for upcoming talks between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

When he meets with Kim on Friday, Moon will be expected to sound out the regime's willingness to dismantle its nuclear weapons program for peace on the peninsula and beyond.

Based on what the North Korean leader says, Trump is expected to make his final preparations for a high-stakes showdown with the reclusive regime.

"The inter-Korean summit is very important for setting the groundwork for the U.S.-North Korea summit," Ken Gause, a North Korea expert at CNA Corp., said in emailed remarks to Yonhap. "President Moon should be able to use the information he learns at the inter-Korean summit to help prepare President Trump for his meeting with Kim Jong-un."

This graphic image shows South Korean President Moon Jae-in (C), North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (L) and U.S. President Donald Trump. (Yonhap)

The Moon-Kim meeting will be an opportunity to gain a better understanding of North Korea's objectives, interests, and seriousness, according to Frank Aum, senior expert on North Korea at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Pyongyang has repeatedly expressed a commitment to denuclearization in recent months, but many are skeptical of the regime's intentions and sincerity, given its track record of entering into agreements and then reneging on them.

On Saturday North Korea announced an immediate suspension of nuclear and ballistic missile tests. To demonstrate its seriousness, it said it would shut down its nuclear test site.

But that decision was also met with skepticism as it stopped short of a promise to abandon existing nuclear weapons.

"Hopefully, President Moon will convince Kim Jong-un that Kim will have a much better summit with President Trump if Kim is prepared to surrender perhaps five nuclear weapons as a sign of sincerity shortly after the inter-Korean summit," said Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at RAND Corp.

To Americans, talk is cheap, he said.

"So the inter-Korean summit might set the atmosphere for the Trump-Kim summit, but unless President Moon convinces Kim to surrender some nuclear weapons and perhaps take other actions, the Moon-Kim summit might have actually a negative effect on the Trump-Kim summit," Bennett added.

In as much as a final agreement on the North's nuclear issue will be reached between Trump and Kim, Moon's influence could also be limited.

"I don't expect much progress to be made on the denuclearization issue because it is a matter that will be decided between the United States and North Korea," Aum said. "However, if President Moon can get Kim Jong-un to publicly and directly commit to denuclearization, that by itself would be a success."

Washington insists on the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea. But Pyongyang has called for a phased and synchronized approach that is interpreted as concessions in exchange for steps toward denuclearization.

"The bottom line is whether the U.S. will move from its current hard line on denuclearization," said Gause. "If it does not, it is hard to see how the U.S.-North Korea summit will be a success, provided it happens at all."

Whether the two sides can reach an agreement on denuclearization could be the biggest factor in determining whether the Trump-Kim meeting takes place and is a success.

"Right now the two sides seem far apart," Gause noted. "If the inter-Korean summit can help bridge that gap, then it will play a huge role in moving dynamics in the region forward."

Denuclearization aside, the inter-Korean summit will still serve other purposes. According to Gause, it will lay the foundation for an improvement in relations between the two Koreas.

"I think the inter-Korean summit can help continue the positive momentum that the Peninsula has experienced since the Winter Olympics," Aum said, referring to the peace mood that burgeoned out of North Korea's participation in the Games. "Given how much President Moon and Kim Jong-un are invested in a positive outcome, I feel cautiously optimistic that the summit will be successful."

Hwi Won  edt@koreapost.com

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