When President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un sat down for their historic first summit last June in Singapore, the president of South Korea was 3,000 miles away in Seoul.
Moon’s envoys had relayed the initial message from Kim to the White House that he wanted to meet Trump. And after Trump called off that first summit, it was Moon who held an emergency meeting with Kim to resurrect it.
Now, with the nuclear disarmament talks at a standstill since February, Moon is hoping once more to spur along diplomacy this weekend when Trump visits him in Seoul.
Trump appeared ready, tweeting from Japan early Saturday that “if Chairman Kim of North Korea sees this, I would meet him at the Border/DMZ just to shake his hand and say Hello(?)!”
North Korea may present a bigger challenge for Moon.
“South Korean authorities would better mind their own internal business,” a North Korean foreign ministry official wrote in a statement published this week by state media.
The official, Kwon Jong Gun, who heads the ministry’s American Affairs section, wrote that there was no role for South Korea in the nuclear talks between the U.S. and North Korea.
“The negotiation, if any, will be held face to face between the DPRK and the U.S.,” his statement said, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “Therefore, there will be no such a happening where anything will go through the South Korean authorities.”
Kwon was echoing earlier remarks from Kim, who in a speech in April accused South Korea of being a “meddlesome mediator.”
The rhetoric is a dramatic shift in tone from 2018, when relations between the Koreas appeared to be rapidly improving, with three pomp-filled summits, joint sports teams and cultural exchanges, and measures to ease military tensions along the border.
Since the breakdown of the Hanoi summit between Trump and Kim in February, however, North Korea has largely turned a cold shoulder to the South’s entreaties.
North Korea was a no-show at the one-year anniversary celebration of last April’s summit between the Koreas. It also backed out of what was to be a joint recovery effort for remains from the Korean War in the demilitarized zone.
Kim appears to have ignored invitations from Moon to meet before Trump’s visit this weekend.
The statements from North Korea reflect its displeasure with South Korea for failing to back its demand for the removal of economic sanctions, said Duyeon Kim, adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
“They’re basically implying: Go all the way and help us, or just butt out,” she said. “The Hanoi summit highlighted a fundamental sticking point between Washington and Pyongyang, and it’s made Moon’s job more difficult. We’re getting to the substance and not just creating atmospherics.”
Moon, a son of North Korean refugees and a liberal who was elected into office on promises to engage with the north, has tried to maintain a positive note, telling reporters in Seoul that despite appearances, North and South Korea remained in contact through “diverse channels.”
“There has already been considerable headway made in the peace process on the Korean Peninsula, and it is still making steady progress,” he said in a written response to questions from news agencies.
It will be Trump’s second visit to South Korea. He came to Seoul in late 2017 at the height of tensions with North Korea, after Pyongyang fired a series of increasingly longer-reaching intercontinental ballistic missiles and conducted nuclear tests.
In a speech before the national assembly at the time, Trump cautioned Kim: “Do not underestimate us. Do not try us … The world cannot tolerate the menace of a rogue regime that threatens with nuclear devastation.”
In this week’s visit, Trump and Moon are expected to discuss terms of a deal that might bridge the gap that became apparent between the U.S. and North Korea when the Hanoi summit fell apart.
Moon could then relay those proposals to Kim, said John Delury, a professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University.
“Trump does empower Moon to mediate if he can,” he said. “Moon has played catalyst role, and he’s eager to now. Especially now that things are stuck and Trump would like them to get unstuck.”
Stephen Biegun, Trump’s special envoy for the North Korea nuclear negotiations, arrived in Seoul Thursday ahead of Trump’s visit and met with his South Korean counterpart Friday.
Biegun said the U.S. was “ready to hold constructive talks” with North Korea and move forward in a “simultaneous and parallel manner,” South Korea’s foreign ministry said in a statement.