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The South Korean President's Diplomatic Dilemma


Two months ago, after the big summit in Singapore, President Trump declared the nuclear threat from North Korea was over. Well, not anymore. On Friday, Trump canceled a trip by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the North, saying not enough progress had been made in achieving denuclearization. But this leaves South Korea's president in a really tricky place as NPR's Michael Sullivan reports.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: President Moon Jae-in has tirelessly promoted improving inter-Korean ties and boosting economic cooperation with the North since he was elected just over a year ago, a man who has held two summits with North Korea's Kim Jong Un and has another planned in Pyongyang in September. But all that was before the North's negotiations with the U.S. apparently stalled last week.

BALBINA HWANG: President Moon has a very, very risky job ahead of him. And September is going to be quite a remarkable month.

SULLIVAN: That's Balbina Hwang, a visiting professor at Georgetown University, who says President Moon is all-in in his desire to, in his words, be in the driver's seat in bringing peace to the Korean Peninsula - a president whose popularity is waning and needs a win.

HWANG: This is a remarkably risky gamble for President Moon, and I think he's about to stake his entire presidency in South Korea on this. He's also put himself on a one-way road heading towards a cliff. And I think he's basically decided there's no turning back.

GREENE: And says, Jiyoon Kim, a senior research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, Moon could play an important role as a mediator when he goes to Pyongyang.

JIYOON KIM: Moon is the only person who can, you know, send out the message to the other side - to both sides and to persuade Chairman Kim that, you know, the regime is not going to be demolished and there is some way to do some negotiation and to resolve such a deadlocked situation.

BONG YOUNGSHIK: It's a high-risk, high-return opportunity for President Moon Jae-in.

SULLIVAN: That's Dr. Bong Youngshik, a research fellow at Yonsei University's Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul. He says Moon can either fail to win any concessions from either side and lose all credibility. Or Bong says, he could work some magic.

BONG: Like the official declaration of the end of the Korean War by the Trump administration, in return for, for instance, the list of nuclear materials and facilities, warheads produced and maintained by Pyongyang. Then, it's a win-win situation for Pyongyang and Washington. And the claim that you can trust South Korea as a effective mediator will gain credence.

SULLIVAN: That's if the U.S. is willing to make such a deal. Until now, it's insisted on the North providing that list before discussing an end to the war or the easing of sanctions, something Pyongyang has characterized as gangster-like demands.

KIM: I think North Korea has to blink...

SULLIVAN: The Asan Institute's Jiyoon Kim.

KIM: ...Because they are in a dire situation.

SULLIVAN: Sanctions are biting?

KIM: Yeah. It is hurting their economy. They are very desperate.

SULLIVAN: And maybe caught a little off guard by a very unconventional U.S. president.

BONG: For the first time in the entire history of North Korean nuclear crisis, unpredictability of the situation actually favors the United States, not North Korea.

SULLIVAN: Yonsei University's Bong Youngshik.

BONG: Unpredictability and uncertainty used to be the most favorite weapons for North Koreans in dealing with the United States and other countries. But this time, North Koreans have to worry about what the next move might be made by the Trump administration of the United States.

SULLIVAN: Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Seoul.


Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.
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