With US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreeing to return to the negotiating table, South Korea’s behind-the-scenes diplomacy is expected to continue to ensure that the nuclear talks get back on track.
Breaking a four-month stalemate was a near-impromptu meeting in the truce village of Panmunjom, inside the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas on Sunday, which came after Trump tweeted an invitation to Kim on Saturday from Japan where he was attending the G-20 summit.
After a nearly one-hour meeting with Kim, Trump said both sides will set up teams to revive the negotiations to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Trump, who exchanged “beautiful” personal letters with Kim earlier this month, credited the “special personal chemistry and friendship” between the two leaders for jumpstarting the Washington-Pyongyang nuclear diplomacy.
“Now the leaders of the US and North Korea can exchange letters and meet at any time they want. In this new era, there is no need for mediators or facilitators for their talks,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Dongguk University in Seoul.
President Moon Jae-in, who accompanied Trump’s visit to the border Sunday, had played a role of mediator when Pyongyang and Washington negotiations appeared on the verge of collapse before their first summit in Singapore in June 2018. Trump canceled the meeting but reinstated it after Moon held emergency talks with Kim at Panmunjom.
However, Moon’s diplomacy faced an uphill battle, damaged by the discord between the US and North Korea after their second summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February failed to bridge the differences on denuclearization and sanctions relief.
“It is time for Trump and Kim to make up their minds. What Seoul can do now is closely coordinate with Washington to share ideas and draw up a denuclearization roadmap,” Koh said.
Seoul could offer diplomatic assistance through behind-the-scenes talks with the US on issues such as establishing the range of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction that Trump demanded be eliminated at the Hanoi summit.
The dismantling of its main nuclear complex in Yongbyon would mean the “start of an irreversible stage toward complete denuclearization,” President Moon said during a joint press conference with Trump Sunday after their summit.
With such a move, the international community will be able to discuss easing sanctions, he said.
Nuclear negotiations will proceeded smoothly with the presence of the starting point of irreversible denuclearization, said Hong Min, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
“It is becoming crucial to deliver a silver bullet through full coordination with Washington in invisible ways so that the two sides (the US and North Korea) can take a flexible approach,” he said.
Once the two countries achieve substantive progress in their denuclearization negotiations, the South and China could join in resolving the issues concerning regime security for the North, such as signing of a declaration ending the 1950-53 Korean War and a peace treaty.
“North Korea’s denuclearization and a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula will be achieved when South Korea, North Korea, US and China complete such talks. Russia, Japan and the European countries could also participate when issues involving the North’s economic reconstruction start being addressed,” Koh said.