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(News Focus) S. Korea beefs up mediation efforts to catalyze denuclearization

All Headlines 15:35 September 06, 2018

By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, Sept. 6 (Yonhap) -- South Korea is cranking up its mediation diplomacy to keep North Korea on a denuclearization track and squelch growing U.S. skepticism about its engagement with the communist state, analysts in Seoul said Thursday.

Seoul's presidential delegation, led by chief security adviser Chung Eui-yong, nailed down a third summit between President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un from Sept. 18-20 during their one-day trip to Pyongyang on Wednesday.

The summit will come shortly before Moon's possible talks with U.S. President Donald Trump during the U.N. General Assembly in New York, which will be yet another test of Moon's role as an intermediary between Washington and Pyongyang.

The summits were arranged amid fears that negotiations between the U.S. and the North could flounder due to their growing distrust and differences over the sequence of the "complete" denuclearization their leaders agreed to during their June summit in Singapore.

"Seoul has been striving to break the perceived impasse (in the denuclearization negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang) based on the level of trust it has built with both countries," said Nam Chang-hee, a security professor at Inha University.

"But Seoul may need to find a way to maintain that level of trust with Washington amid rising skepticism among U.S. hawks about the slow pace of denuclearization and their sort of fatigue ... so as to stably manage the partnership among the U.S. and two Koreas," he added.

U.S. skepticism has apparently been deepening amid Seoul's stepped-up push to increase cross-border exchanges and cooperation despite any tangible progress in Pyongyang's denuclearization process.

Seoul has been pushing to open an inter-Korean liaison office in the North's border city of Kaesong despite concerns that the office could violate international sanctions that ban the transfer of energy and other materials needed for its operation.

Washington has repeatedly said that progress on inter-Korean relations must happen in lockstep with progress on denuclearization -- remarks that apparently underscore its unease over the fast pace of Seoul's drive to strengthen cross-border ties.

Seoul's push for greater inter-Korean cooperation coincided with growing frustration in Washington over a lack of progress in the North's denuclearization, which Trump cited as a reason for the cancellation of the planned visit by his top diplomat, Mike Pompeo.

Washington's apparent pique was also displayed when U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently indicated that his country can resume South Korea-U.S. combined military exercises that have been suspended as a goodwill gesture to foster denuclearization.

One major hurdle to the denuclearization negotiations was Pyongyang's insistence that Washington agree to the political declaration of a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War.

Observers in Seoul and Washington have suspected that the reclusive state has been making the demand for the declaration as it could help ensure the security of the North's regime and weaken the rationale for the stationing of American forces on the peninsula.

Moon's delegation appears to have tried to address this concern during its latest trip to the North.

"(The North Korean leader) told us that the end-of-war declaration has nothing to do with a weakening of the South Korea-U.S. alliance or the withdrawal of the U.S. forces in the South," Moon's security adviser Chung told reporters.

Chung Eui-yong, chief presidential security adviser, speaks during a press conference at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae on Sept. 6, 2018. (Yonhap)

While refusing to accept the call for the declaration, the U.S. has reportedly demanded that the North take tangible denuclearization steps, such as a full declaration of its nuclear and missile stockpiles.

Analysts said that the priority task for Moon during the upcoming summit with Kim will be to help address Washington's concerns about the end-of-the-war declaration and ensure that Pyongyang will take meaningful steps to signal its intention for denuclearization.

"The declaration may ultimately lead to a peace regime on the peninsula, which could be seen by the U.S. as part of a process to push American troops out of the peninsula -- one of the strategic tasks China may be looking at," Nam of Inha University said.

"This concern should be addressed to help the U.S. take a more flexible stance over the end-of-war declaration and help the North take concrete denuclearization steps," he added.

The North has taken what it calls pre-emptive steps, such as shutting down its major nuclear test site and long-range missile engine test facility. But the steps have been called into question due to the absence of measures for outsiders to verify them.

Complicating the challenge to the North's denuclearization is China, which critics argue has been increasing economic cooperation with its impoverished ally in a way that weakens the international sanctions regime.

Trump has pointed this out on several occasions recently.

"I think we're doing well with North Korea, we'll have to see," he told reporters last week. "I think part of the North Korean problem is caused by our trade disputes with China."

This image, provided by Yonhap News TV, shows U.S. President Donald Trump (R) shaking hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. (Yonhap)


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