This year's third summit between the rival Koreas will present new challenges to South Korean President Moon Jae-in as he seeks to break an apparent stalemate in nuclear negotiations between North Korea and the United States, analysts here said Monday.
Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will hold their third meeting in Pyongyang next month as part of an agreement reached at their first summit in April, the two sides announced after high-level talks Monday.
Neither the date nor the agenda was disclosed, but the main focus is expected to be the dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear weapons program, a commitment Kim made at his earlier summit with Moon as well as his historic meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in June.
Moon, who engineered the Trump-Kim meeting in Singapore after months of heightened tensions over Pyongyang's testing of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles aimed at the U.S., will now face the test of whether he can still be an effective intermediary, according to Frank Aum, senior expert on North Korea at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
"I think it could help provide a breakthrough because President Moon seems to understand the motivations and concerns of each side," Aum said in an email interview with Yonhap. "President Moon should attempt to find an innovative compromise that is not 100 percent satisfactory to both sides, but allows the diplomatic process to move forward."
Aum's remarks reflect concerns in diplomatic and expert circles that neither the U.S. nor the North is willing to budge from their respective positions of a complete and verifiable denuclearization versus the establishment of a peace regime accompanied by eased sanctions.
Last week Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, flatly accused North Korea of failing to live up to its denuclearization commitment.
Meanwhile, Trump has continued to voice optimism that Kim will "honor" their deal, and played up the fulfillment of an agreement by Kim to return the remains of some American soldiers killed in the 1950-53 Korean War.
Adam Mount, a senior fellow and director of the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists, lauded Seoul's efforts to engage Pyongyang on security and economic issues.
But he also noted that the regime "has proven obstinate to both" and "a breakthrough on either front is unlikely."
"There is little evidence Kim Jong-un has chosen to leave his country's past behind and pursue a new path," Mount said in an email to Yonhap.
Still, if the negotiations fail to rid the North of its nuclear arsenal, they could at least "shape that arsenal and the regime's evolution."
"The immediate priority should be to keep the new Yongbyon reactor from starting and codify the nuclear and missile test freeze," he suggested. "These would be achievable but substantively significant wins."
Mount also called for a joint Seoul-Washington negotiating strategy to maximize leverage in talks and prevent lasting damage to the alliance.
"Pyongyang will continue to try to divide Washington and Seoul," he said.
Others offered a more skeptical view of the planned summit, pointing to North Korea's reported violations of U.N. Security Council sanctions against the regime.
"South Korea risks looking over-eager to offer benefits to North Korea without applying commensurate pressure on Pyongyang to implement significant denuclearization steps," said Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation. "Seoul front-loading offers of benefits and acting as North Korea's intermediary with the U.S. undercuts international resolve to enforce required sanctions."
Three South Korean firms were recently caught importing North Korean coal via Russia in possible violation of U.N. sanctions.
The U.S. State Department was cautious to comment last week, saying South Korea is "a faithful and reliable partner in the maritime implementation" of U.N. sanctions and that the allies "work closely together" on their joint response to North Korea.
"During his third summit, Moon should not offer additional economic enticements, but instead should request Kim Jong-un articulate the regime's steps to denuclearize," Klingner said. (Yonhap)