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Moon’s masterstroke

May 30,2018
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South Korean President Moon Jae-in, left, shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, right, at Tongilgak, a North Korean-controlled building in Panmunjon on May 26. [YONHAP]
Chun Young-gi

*The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

President Moon Jae-in’s news conference on May 27 revived the U.S.-North Korea summit that had almost vanished.

Moon’s patience and sincerity worked. Just as Moon was giving the conference, U.S. President Donald Trump said that the Singapore meeting was still on the table, and preparations for the talks were moving nicely. It is fortunate. What Trump mentioned as the preparation for the talk must include the surprise summit between Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

The secret meeting at Tongilgak on the North Korean side of the Panmunjom shows that the two have worked together on the challenging homework assigned by the U.S. president. Rather than making the meeting public right after it ended at 5 p.m. on May 26, Moon chose to announce it at 7:50 p.m. The news conference was held the next day. It seems that Seoul needed the time to convey the findings from the meeting to Trump. Chief of the National Intelligence Service Suh Hoon or National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong must have delivered the conversation between Moon and Kim to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or National Security Adviser John Bolton in detail.

When I asked what the Blue House delivered to the White House, a key source said that it was what Trump liked very much. I asked whether it was about Kim giving up the nuclear state status and completely embracing Washington’s demand for complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement, and he did not deny it. He was wary of the fact that the details of denuclearization needed to be finalized by Trump and Kim at the Singapore summit, and that they should not be leaked from Korea’s side.

Why did Kim change his attitude? Multiple sources say that it was Trump’s letter to “His Excellency Kim Jong-un” on May 24. The letter led to extreme pain and shock for Kim. Trump threatened Kim. He wrote, “Sadly, based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting. Therefore, please let this letter serve to represent that the Singapore summit, for the good of both parties, but to the detriment of the world, will not take place. You talk about nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.”

A barking dog never bites. The letter was different from Trump’s usual tweets. His polite and literary expressions showed that he was ready to bite. The letter was written in consultation with Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Kim must have feared that if the meeting was canceled and the situation worsened, he would die.

In the news conference, President Moon said that less than a day after the letter was delivered to Pyongyang, Kim asked for a meeting with Moon on the afternoon of May 25. He was desperate and urgent. Moon took the hand of the North Korean leader, younger than his own son, and offered help.

As the head of state, Moon secretly crossed the border and had a two-hour meeting with the head of an enemy state, so some criticize him for damaging the constitutional status and national dignity and hurting the pride of the Korean people.

However, it is hard to explain his actions and the motive behind going through the trouble to have the meeting and deliver the findings to Trump, who still held suspicions and doubts, with anything other than the extraordinary character and dignity he showed to selflessly sacrifice his pride.

Pyongyang must have been extremely grateful. The lead article in the Rodong Sinmun after the meeting stated that Kim expressed gratitude to President Moon Jae-in for his efforts to facilitate the U.S.-N.K. summit.

JoongAng Ilbo, May 28, Page 30