How Moon saved Trump's negotiations with Kim

South Korea's president managed to save talks with North Korea and even got Trump talking about a second summit.

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    US President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in gesture after signing the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement on the sidelines of the 73rd UNGA on September 24, 2018 [Reuters/Carlos Barria]
    US President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in gesture after signing the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement on the sidelines of the 73rd UNGA on September 24, 2018 [Reuters/Carlos Barria]

    After a months-long hiatus following the landmark summit between United States President Donald Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore, the Korean peace process seems to have been jolted back to life.

    Last month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cancelled a planned visit to North Korea amid a festering deadlock over how to implement a peace plan. Trump complained about how he "fe[lt] we are not making sufficient progress with respect to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula".

    This week, however, saw a dramatic change in Washington's tone, with the US president discussing the possibility of a second summit with his North Korean counterpart later this year. He also welcomed a "very warm, very positive" letter from the North Korean leader and announced that this administration was "already in the process of coordinating" another summit.

    Meanwhile, the White House has also welcomed North Korea's decision to return the remains of US soldiers killed in the Korean War and not to ostentatiously display its nuclear capability during a recent military parade as well. 

    Trump's speech came shortly after his meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on the sidelines of the UN meeting in New York.

    In fact, what largely explains this sudden turnabout is the dramatic intervention of the South Korean leader, who has staked his entire political career on bringing about lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.

    Moon's efforts to save the talks

    Earlier this month, Moon visited Pyongyang to hold his third summit with his North Korean counterpart. 

    In some ways, it was a surreal homecoming for the South Korean president, a former Special Forces officer who served at the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas in the 1970s.

    The son of North Korean refugees, who fled to the south during the Korean War, it was both a highly symbolic as well as emotional visit for Moon. But beyond all the symbolism, the South Korean president also focused on making concrete steps with his North Korean counterpart on normalisation of relations.

    He brought Korean businessmen and top security officials with him to explore concrete mechanisms to enhance economic cooperation and confidence-building measures between the two countries. Infrastructure connectivity and resuscitation of joint industrial zones were on top Moon's agenda. The South Korean president hopes to tame North Korea's militaristic passions by wedding it into an integrated regional production network.

    The support of big Korean conglomerates (Chaebols), which are world leaders in industrial and electronics productions, is crucial to jumpstarting North Korea's integration into the global economy. 

    In economic terms, the Pyongyang Declaration, which was signed during the visit, outlined a number of inter-Korean cooperation projects, including the construction of transnational railways and the resuscitation of the Kaesong Industrial Complex.

    Not short of ambition, the two sides even discussed the prospect of a joint Olympics bid in 2032, signalling South Korea's commitment to upgrade the basic infrastructure and economy of its impoverished and isolated northern neighbour.

    Crucially, North Korea agreed to international inspection of its planned dismantling of the missile engine test site and launch platform at Dongchang-ri as well as permanent dismantlement of the Yongbyon nuclear plant. The two sites have served as a key infrastructure for North Korea's burgeoning nuclear weapons capability.

    Moon has gone all in on the peace process, reasoning that his young North Korean counterpart is also open to, if not desperate for, a fundamental transformation in Pyongyang's external relations for the purpose of domestic economic revival.

    The denuclearisation challenge

    Essentially, the South Korean president has been the driving force behind engagement with North Korea.

    It was Moon, who months earlier convinced Trump to hold the first summit with Kim, arguing that this could earn the American president a Nobel Peace Prize down the road. And it was him again who managed to save the negotiations once again.

    However, the question is how far he can push for on the denuclearisation issue which is what the US ultimately and solely interested in.

    One major problem is lack of agreement among them on the exact sequencing as well as threshold for reciprocal cooperation.

    Pyongyang has insisted on proportional relaxation of sanctions in response to a gradual rollback of and opening of its nuclear infrastructure to international inspections, a position that Seoul seems to support.

    The Trump administration, however, has taken a tougher line, insisting on full disclosure of the country's entire nuclear and missile development programme and complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of its nuclear weapons capability.

    There are signs, however, that Washington is beginning to relax its demands, no longer insisting on expedited dismantlement of North Korea's entire nuclear infrastructure. Instead, it's exploring the possibility of a more gradual, step-by-step approach to Pyongyang giving up its nuclear deterrent.

    In this context, Trump's second summit with Kim will be crucial. It will be an opportunity for the concerned parties to harmonise a mutually-acceptable and logistically realistic timetable for denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, which may take up to a decade if not more.

    Regardless of what happens when Trump meets Kim again, it will be important to keep the ball of negotiations rolling, minimise tensions and provocative actions, and provide sufficient incentive for both sides to demilitarise and denuclearise the peninsula.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance. 

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