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(News Focus) Cautious optimism surfaces over prospects of U.S.-N.K. nuclear talks

Politics 09:59 April 12, 2019

By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, April 12 (Yonhap) -- Guarded optimism is emerging over the prospect of now-stalled nuclear talks between the United States and North Korea, as the leaders of Seoul and Washington reaffirmed their desire to maintain diplomacy with Pyongyang at their summit Thursday.

During their talks in Washington, presidents Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump renewed their will for dialogue with Pyongyang, with the former's efforts to hold another summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un likely to help catalyze a denuclearization parley between the U.S. and the North.

Moon and Trump held the first face-to-face meeting since the Washington-Pyongyang summit in Hanoi in February fell apart due to a failure to reconcile differences over the extent of the North's denuclearization and the U.S.' sanctions relief.

"(The Moon-Trump) summit served as an opportunity to clear various uncertainties that have been raised since the Hanoi summit, and to revive the momentum for the resumption of dialogue (between the U.S. and the North)," a senior official at Seoul's presidential office Cheong Wa Dae told reporters as he recapped the outcome of the summit.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in (L) holds a summit with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House on April 11, 2019. (Yonhap)

The official added that the U.S side renewed its will for follow-up consultations with the North "at an early date" and its commitment to continue efforts for the North's denuclearization and the establishment of a lasting peace on the peninsula through dialogue and diplomacy.

The high-stakes summit came on the heels of the North's key ruling party sessions this week, where Kim displayed his resolve to maintain a strategic policy line centering on economic development rather than opting to change tack away from nuclear dialogue with the U.S.

Despite signs of Pyongyang's growing impatience over a lack of progress in the negotiations, the communist regime has eschewed direct, explicit excoriations targeting the U.S. and kept its chief negotiators in the top ruling party and government echelons.

Still, Trump appears keen on wringing sweeping nuclear concessions out of the North under what he calls a "big deal" which has been cited as a major sticking point that led to the collapse of the Hanoi summit.

"At this moment, we're talking about the big deal. The big deal is we have to get rid of the nuclear weapons," Trump said at his meeting with Moon, though he hinted "various smaller deals" could also happen.

He also said that Washington wants sanctions to remain in place, though he indicated that he could offer some economic concessions to the impoverished state at the "right time."

"This isn't the right time," Trump said. "But at the right time, I'd have great support with North Korea."

Trump's remarks might have unnerved those in the Moon administration that have sought to encourage Washington to lower the bar for a comprehensive nuclear deal with Pyongyang and gain sanctions waivers to resume key inter-Korean cooperation projects, such as the now-shuttered industrial complex in the North's border city of Kaesong.

Some analysts, however, pointed out that Trump's mention of a "big deal" does not mean he would shun any flexibility in future negotiations.

"Sticking to that big deal ... that is just an ostensible basic position of Washington," Koh Yoo-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University, told Yonhap News Agency. "Had Trump mentioned any possible concessions to the North publicly in advance, that would not help Washington's parley with Pyongyang."

Trump appears to have reiterated his stance in broad generalities and may consider food aid or the resumption of the Kaesong complex should there be substantial progress in the North's denuclearization, the scholar added.

Other analysts argue that it remains to be seen whether Trump would be inclined to make concessions when he has been emboldened by what he claims a "complete, total exoneration" in a major probe into his election campaign's alleged link to Russia. But he might seek a major foreign policy coup from the North as he faces a reelection battle next year.

Before the Moon-Trump summit, Seoul officials have been advocating for a "good enough deal" that could yield an "early harvest," as part of its efforts to facilitate the resumption of Washington-Pyongyang dialogue.

The "good enough deal" refers to a phased-in, incremental approach to Pyongyang's denuclearization based on the belief that its nuclear disarmament in one fell swoop, without any advance rewards, might not be a realistic option.

That expression fueled worries that the allies might not be on the same page over how to tackle the nuclear quandary. But Moon sought to scotch the rising concerns of a rift between the allies.

"I pledge that (the South and the U.S.) will cooperate until the end of the complete denuclearization through watertight collaboration (between the allies)," Moon said during the summit.

As Moon unveiled the plan to pursue another summit with Kim, attention is shifting to what will come out from what will be a fourth meeting between them.

The push for another inter-Korean summit indicates that there might have been some agreement between Moon and Trump to breathe fresh life into the uncertainty-laden Korea peace process, observers presumed.

"The ball has now been effectively passed into the North's court should there be another inter-Korean summit," said Park Won-gon, a professor of international politics at Handong Global University.

"Moon might seek to persuade that the North needs to take a new denuclearization step," he added, noting that Pyongyang may still have "many cards" to offer beyond the dismantlement of its mainstay Yongbyon nuclear facility.

Washington has been demanding that Pyongyang offer to dismantle the Yongbyon compound, as well as other key weapons of mass destruction programs, should it want to secure the major lifting of sanctions that have crippled its economy.

"Pyongyang might have closely watched the development from the Moon-Trump summit, but it has not received any positive news (about sanctions relief)," Park said.

"Thus, the North might be stewing over a step forward, and maybe cannot afford to break the mood of dialogue (given its economic hardships)," he added.

sshluck@yna.co.kr
(END)

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