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President on diplomatic high wire this week

Nov 13,2018
A series of regional diplomatic summits kicks off this week in Singapore and Papua New Guinea, but South Korea faces a predicament with its North Korea peace overtures, which puts it at odds with the United States over sanctions, while relations with Japan are cooling over historical issues.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in will make a four-day visit to Singapore from today for a series of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) meetings - including the Asean Plus Three summit (includes China, South Korea and Japan) and the East Asia Summit. He will then head to Papua New Guinea Saturday and Sunday for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.

On Monday, Moon reviewed with key aides at the Blue House his agenda for the summits and bilateral talks on the sidelines.

Moon will focus on strengthening his New Southern Policy aimed at deepening diplomatic and economic ties with South and Southeast Asian countries, and earn their support for the Korean Peninsula peace process.

However, there may be differences in Seoul’s message about Pyongyang compared to that of Washington and Tokyo, which are against any sanctions relief for the North. This could dampen trilateral coordination among the three allies to pressure the North to denuclearize. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence will attend the series of Asean-related meetings and APEC summit instead of U.S. President Donald Trump. His trip to the region will take him to Japan, Singapore, Papa New Guinea and Australia.

“I think President Trump and I remain convinced that President Moon and [Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe] and the U.S. are going to work together to ensure the complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Pence said at a base in Anchorage, Alaska, Sunday before heading to Asia. “We’ll continue to stand in solidarity with those nations.”

Pence has said he will carry a message of “unprecedented diplomatic and economic pressure” on the North during this Asia visit and push for the final, fully verified denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Pence is scheduled to have talks with Abe Tuesday, and they will hold a joint press conference afterward. This could be an indicator of close cooperation between Tokyo and Washington and an opportunity to coordinate on North Korea denuclearization before they head to the Asean meetings. Pence will not make a stop in Seoul.

“There are already differences in views between South Korea and the United States over sanctions relief and various inter-Korean projects such as the linking of the roads and railways,” a former Korean diplomat said. “Asean countries have a relatively amicable disposition toward the North, but should Vice President Pence call for thorough implementation of sanctions while President Moon, as during his Europe visit, emphasizes the need to ease sanctions, there is concern that Seoul and Washington will show they are not on the same page.”

Seoul and Tokyo are also in a renewed diplomatic standoff after the Korean Supreme Court ordered a Japanese steel company to compensate Korean victims of forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule of the peninsula.

Shin Kak-soo, a former South Korean ambassador to Japan, said, “In a situation where North Korea and the United States are unable to seal a denuclearization deal and continue to apply pressure on each other, Seoul has to take part in such pressure to continue the drive and be helpful. South Korea, the United States and Japan have to be on the same side, and China and Russia also have to be drawn in to make a five-to-one structure and build the possibility of pressuring the North.”

This comes as Pyongyang has been pressuring Seoul to speak up on sanctions relief to Washington.

BY YOO JEE-HYE, WIE MOON-HEE and SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]