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Seoul determined to remain the mediator

Gov’t can protect its interests by helping U.S. and North talk
Apr 10,2018
As North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump make preparations for a historic first meeting between the heads of the two countries, South Korea is intent on maintaining its role as a mediator between the two.

With an inter-Korea summit less than three weeks away, President Moon Jae-in is expected to use that meeting to tell Kim of Washington’s demands in terms of denuclearization.

The 34-year-old leader is expected to tell Moon what he wants in return during the April 27 meeting in the border village of Panmunjom.

Moon could also explain to Kim what steps Trump could, or is willing to, take in return for the North’s denuclearization, such as suspending economic sanctions or scaling down joint Korea-U.S. military drills.

Moon’s Blue House is determined to hold onto its role as a mediator to get the best outcome from the Kim-Trump meeting, for which a date and venue have yet to be announced.

“There are many negative views [about our role as a mediator], saying that it will not work. But even in a marriage, there are disagreements between two families,” said a senior Blue House official, using a metaphor.

“As a mediator, we will try to adjust and iron out different positions from each side for [Pyongyang and Washington] to reach middle ground.”

In retrospect, past negotiations about North Korean denuclearization failed due to a lack of trust between the United States and North Korea, experts say.

“In the past, there was this giant gap in positions as well as a lack of trust between Washington and Pyongyang, leading to a conclusion that it is not feasible to produce agreements on the North’s denuclearization from a U.S.-North Korea bilateral meeting alone,” Lim Eul-chul, a professor of North Korea studies at the Institute for Far East Studies at Kyungnam University, told the Korea JoongAng Daily.

But with the Moon government having earned trust from both Trump and Kim, it may be able to adjust demands from either side and eventually satisfy both.

“With Seoul playing the mediator or broker, there is room for adjustment towards a compromise,” Lim continued. “One crucial job for the Moon government is to put in place mechanisms so that a denuclearization agreement is irreversible and one state cannot renegade on an agreement unilaterally.”

Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute specializing in North Korea affairs, said it was “like a miracle” that Seoul had the two leaders in Pyongyang and Washington agree to sit for talks. “One achievement the Korean government has made so far is that it has brought North Korea and the United States together for talks, not just of working-level officials but of top leaders, a meeting long thought to be impossible.”

The Blue House is hoping for a comprehensive nuclear deal from the two upcoming summits in which the North promises a denuclearization of the peninsula that is implemented in a series of steps. In return, Pyongyang is likely to demand Washington wind up its economic sanctions and possibly work toward ending the 1950-53 Korean War through a peace treaty.

The war ended in armistice, leaving the two Koreas technically at war. A formal end of the war would pave the way for North Korea and the United States to establish diplomatic ties.

“A package deal and phased-in settlement are two sides of the same coin,” said another senior Blue House official. “We have no choice but to declare a package deal and take gradual procedures to implement it.”

Should Seoul successfully carry out its job as a mediator, the United States and North Korea could agree on a denuclearization roadmap for complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula by the end of 2020 from their summit, a government source with deep knowledge of the summit preparations was quoted as saying by the JoongAng Ilbo on Monday.

Trump’s first term as president ends in January 2021.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]