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(News Focus) With his peace initiative at stake, Moon leaves room for his successor amid realistic constraints

All News 14:58 February 10, 2022

By Choi Soo-hyang

SEOUL, Feb. 10 (Yonhap) -- As he is running out of time as South Korea's president, Moon Jae-in's message for his successor, either conservative or liberal, seems to be clear: There should be no prerequisites for an inter-Korean summit.

He is well aware of the realistic problem in pushing for the resumption of his summit-driven Korea peace process during the presidential election season in the ideologically divided South. Nearly five years ago, Moon took office with an ambitious drive to improve inter-Korean relations and play a significant role in advancing talks on North Korea's nuclear program.

His last months in office, however, have been marred by North Korea's series of missile tests amid no breakthrough in efforts to restart the peace process that has come to a halt since the no-deal Hanoi summit between Pyongyang and Washington in early 2019.

In a joint written interview with Yonhap News Agency and seven other global newswire services, Moon said another inter-Korean summit could be held "in whatever method North Korea wants" but noted his time was running out.

"I don't think there should be prerequisites for a summit. However, my time will run out shortly, and the timing of the incoming presidential election and its result may make it inappropriate to hold an inter-Korean summit," the president said in the interview.

Many experts bet the Korea peace process will be in the doldrums until after the March 9 presidential poll to pick Moon's successor, especially as the Kim Jong-un regime is also busy preparing for its own political events.

The fate of the peace process will likely depend on the results of the election, with Moon banned from seeking reelection under the Constitution. His government, in the meantime, is likely to focus on keeping military tensions at bay, while bolstering security cooperation with Washington and Tokyo, they said.

In this file photo, taken April 27, 2018, South Korean President Moon Jae-in (R) embraces North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during their first summit talks at the truce village of Panmunjom. (Yonhap)

In this file photo, taken April 27, 2018, South Korean President Moon Jae-in (R) embraces North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during their first summit talks at the truce village of Panmunjom. (Yonhap)

Moon also acknowledged the lack of time to accomplish the goal of declaring a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War as a confidence-building measure to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table and kick off a full-fledged peace process.

It would be "too physically demanding to reach" such a declaration before his term ends in May, he said.

"However, I would at least like to make conditions ripe for an end-of-war declaration and pass that on to the next administration," he added.

South Korea and the U.S. have concurred on the wording of the declaration to be presented to North Korea, according to the president.

"It's unlikely for Pyongyang to sign any substantial deal with an outgoing president," Cheong Seong-chang, director of Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute, said. "The new administration will have to seriously think about how to readjust the South Korea-U.S. alliance in the face of North Korea's growing nuclear and missile threats, and expand its role."

Moon held three summits with North Korean leader Kim and witnessed the historic first summit between North Korea and the U.S. But the dialogue remain stalemated after the 2019 Hanoi summit between Kim and the U.S. President Donald Trump ended without a deal.

He cited the collapse of the Hanoi summit as one of the most "regrettable" events during his tenure.

"This is truly a lasting regret," he said, adding that a "small deal" should have been sought if reaching a "big deal" was too hard.

In this file photo, taken Sept. 20, 2018, South Korean President Moon Jae-in (L) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un chat during a luncheon at a guesthouse on Lake Samji near the North's northern border. Moon ended his three-day visit to North Korea with an excursion to Mount Paekdu, the tallest mountain on the Korean Peninsula, with Kim. The leaders agreed during their summit talks on a wide range of steps to ease cross-border tensions. (Pool photo) (Yonhap)

In this file photo, taken Sept. 20, 2018, South Korean President Moon Jae-in (L) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un chat during a luncheon at a guesthouse on Lake Samji near the North's northern border. Moon ended his three-day visit to North Korea with an excursion to Mount Paekdu, the tallest mountain on the Korean Peninsula, with Kim. The leaders agreed during their summit talks on a wide range of steps to ease cross-border tensions. (Pool photo) (Yonhap)

Those critical of Moon argue that Moon's North Korea policy has failed and the security conditions on the peninsula has been drawn back to a crisis.

The North has recently been upping the ante with a record seven missile tests from the start of the year, and even hinted at the possibility of breaking its yearslong moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing.

South Korean officials earlier said the North appears to be preparing for a military parade, possibly to mark key national holidays -- the 80th birthday of Kim's late father, Kim Jong-il, on Feb. 16 and the 110th birthday of his late grandfather, Kim Il-sung, on April 15.

Moon warned the Korean Peninsula may return to a "touch-and-go crisis" like five years ago if North Korea goes ahead with its veiled threat to scrap the moratorium.

"Preventing such a crisis through persistent dialogue and diplomacy will be the task that political leaders in the countries concerned must fulfill together," he emphasized.

Lee Jae-myung, presidential candidate of Moon's liberal Democratic Party and Yoon Suk-yeol, flag bearer of the conservative main opposition People Power Party, are notably divided over how to address the North Korea issue.

Lee has called for using a mixture of pressure and diplomacy to get the North to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. If Lee is elected, he is likely to inherit what the Moon administration has done and much of its policies.

Yoon, in contrast, has vowed to strengthen the extended deterrence provided by the U.S. in favor of the deployment of another THAAD advanced missile defense unit in South Korea, heralding an overhaul of Seoul's approach toward Pyongyang.

Looking back on his presidency, Moon said his speech at a Pyongyang stadium was "the most impressive scene so far in inter-Korean relations."

In September 2018, Moon delivered the first address by Seoul's head of state to 150,000 Pyongyang citizens during his visit to the North Korean capital for talks with Kim.

Moon stressed efforts to build peace on the Korean Peninsula is one of the "national tasks that will determine the future of the country," one that "should be carried on by the next administration regardless of its governing philosophy."

"It is a herculean task," Moon said. "However, we cannot afford to give up this task."

In this file photo, taken Sept. 19, 2018, South Korean President Moon Jae-in raises his hand to acknowledge the welcoming crowd at a mass gymnastics and artistic performance at the May Day Stadium in Pyongyang. (Pool photo) (Yonhap)

In this file photo, taken Sept. 19, 2018, South Korean President Moon Jae-in raises his hand to acknowledge the welcoming crowd at a mass gymnastics and artistic performance at the May Day Stadium in Pyongyang. (Pool photo) (Yonhap)

scaaet@yna.co.kr
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