South Korean President Moon Jae-in says he sees his final year in office as the last chance to achieve peace with North Korea, saying it was “time to take action” amid stalled talks over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes.
Moon’s comments on Monday, in a speech marking the fourth year of his presidency, come ahead of his first summit with US President Joe Biden in Washington on May 21.
The South Korean leader is expected to push the US to seek engagement with North Korea, though Biden has shown little interest in making North Korea a top priority.
“I will consider the remaining one year of my term to be the last opportunity to move from an incomplete peace toward one that is irreversible,” Moon said in the nationally televised address.
“Now, the time for long deliberations is also coming to an end. It is time to take action.”
The White House recently completed a review of Washington’s North Korea policy and suggested the Biden administration would seek a middle ground between Donald Trump’s “grand bargain” and Barack Obama’s “strategic patience” approaches as a way to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.
In his Monday speech, Moon said he welcomed the direction of the Biden administration’s North Korea policy, which he said was finalised after consultations with South Korea.
Moon said Biden’s policy aims to achieve “the Korean Peninsula’s complete denuclearisation through diplomacy with a flexible, gradual and practical approach”.
The Biden administration has not disclosed details of its policy review. But US officials have signalled they are trying to set the stage for incremental progress, in which denuclearisation steps by North Korea would be met with corresponding actions, including sanctions relief, rather than a Trump-style push for an immediate, comprehensive deal through a leader-to-leader summit.
Moon said when he meets Biden for their first summit talks in Washington, he will try to bolster the bilateral military alliance, boost policy coordination on North Korea and find ways to resume stalled talks between Washington and Pyongyang and between Seoul and Pyongyang.
“I will not be pressed by time or become impatient during the remainder of my term. However, if there is an opportunity to restart the clock of peace and advance the peace process on the Korean Peninsula, I will do everything I can,” Moon said.
“I look forward to North Korea responding positively.”
The South Korean president once shuttled between Pyongyang and Washington to facilitate the now-dormant nuclear diplomacy between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Trump.
Inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation programmes also flourished.
But the Kim-Trump diplomacy eventually fell apart during their second summit in Vietnam in early 2019 due to wrangling over US-led sanctions on North Korea. Pyongyang later suspended communications with Seoul and halted all major joint cooperation programmes.
Kim’s government has not made an official response to the Biden administration’s North Korea policy review.
But his foreign ministry last week warned Washington of “a very grave situation” while criticising Biden for calling North Korea’s nuclear programme a serious security threat in an address to Congress.
In January, Kim said the fate of ties between North Korea and the US would depend on whether Washington would abandon what it considers a hostile policy on Pyongyang.
North Korea has long wanted the US to lift sanctions on it and provide a security guarantee.