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In search of middle ground

June 30,2017
Before embarking on his first summit with U.S. President Donald Trump, South Korean President Moon Jae-in underscored the need for a two-phase solution to the North Korean nuclear threat. In a conversation with the press on the flight to Washington, Moon pinned his hopes for dialogue with Pyongyang on first freezing its nuclear weapons testing toward the ultimate goal of a nuclear freeze and denuclearization.

As Moon said, the best way to address the issue is the North’s immediate abandonment of nuclear development. But no matter how much pressure is put on Pyongyang, it will not likely scrap its program immediately. Therefore, Moon’s proposal for a two-stage solution could be a realistic way to cut the Gordian Knot.

Nevertheless, a number of hurdles await Moon if his approach is to succeed. First of all, who would trust the North’s declaration of a nuclear freeze? Moon said there will be no big obstacles as long as the freeze can be completely verified. But that sounds vague. Moon must present a detailed roadmap if he really wants to convince the U.S. of the validity of the path.

Another question involves smooth cooperation with Uncle Sam. Seoul and Washington appeared bent on hyperbolizing the strength of the decades-old alliance. After Moon’s special security advisor raised controversy in Washington by mentioning a possibility of scaling down Korea-U.S. joint drills in return for Pyongyang halting nuclear provocations, Moon stressed that the government cannot link the two options. As a friendly gesture, a senior White House official joined the bandwagon by highlighting no gap between the two leaders on their approach to North Korea.

But the atmosphere tells otherwise. The White House still prioritizes Pyongyang’s unconditional scrapping of its nuclear programs before talks. Since the death of a U.S. college student after his release from North Korea, public outrage has swept America. White House Security Advisor H. R. McMaster’s remarks that Trump ordered diverse options be given to him, including military, rings alarm bells.

It is desirable for Seoul to take the leadership in inter-Korean relations. Moon must present a mutually satisfying strategy to Trump. It all depends on a close personal relationship with him. We hope Moon builds mutual trust with his counterpart in Washington.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 30, Page 34