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Uncertainty Looms Large Over South Korea’s Bid to Revive Nuclear Diplomacy

People wearing masks make their way in the Ryomyong street in Pyongyang, North Korea Friday, July 3, 2020. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un urged officials to maintain alertness against the coronavirus, warning that complacency risked “unimaginable…
People wearing masks make their way in the Ryomyong street in Pyongyang, North Korea Friday, July 3, 2020. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un urged officials to maintain alertness against the coronavirus, warning that complacency risked “unimaginable…

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is gearing up to facilitate another summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The effort, however, faces an uncertain future, analysts say.

Moon recently tapped new national security chiefs who have extensive experience in high-level contacts with North Korea.

The move comes days after Moon said he wants another summit between Trump and Kim before the November presidential election in the United States.

“This lineup I think is clearly geared towards keeping the North Koreans engaged, finding out what the North Koreans would want at a summit and then trying to convince Washington that having another summit with the North Koreans is a good idea,” Evans Revere, who served as the acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the George W. Bush administration, told VOA.

The nominee for the director of the National Intelligence Service (NIS), South Korea’s main intelligence agency, Park Jie-won, “contributed greatly in arranging the historic 2000 inter-Korean summit,” according to South Korea’s presidential spokesman.

As a special envoy, Park met with North Korean officials in Singapore and China and laid the groundwork for the summit between then-President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

At the time, Park was assisted by two intelligence experts, one of which was Suh Hoon. Suh is the current chief of the NIS, and Moon appointed him as the new national security adviser. During his three decades at the NIS, Suh played a crucial role in arranging inter-Korean summits in 2000, 2007 and 2018.

Facilitator of dialogue

But even with their expertise, analysts doubt that South Korea can facilitate another summit between Trump and Kim, given Pyongyang’s little interest in talks.

“Frankly, I think there’s a lot of skepticism about whether South Korea can play a role. And even though South Korea has a team that is very pro-engagement and probably one of the most experienced teams that you could put together to focus on North Korea, the North Koreans themselves have been the biggest obstacle to enabling South Korea to play a role,” said Scott Snyder, U.S.-Korea policy director at the Council on Foreign Relations.

South Korea’s opposition parties and conservative media criticize the new lineup as heavily focused on North Korea and lacking expertise in alliance management with the U.S.

Snyder said Suh Hoon is “well known to people on the U.S. side” and “represents continuity for the Moon administration on North Korea policy,” whereas Park Jie-won “has a lot of experience with North Korea, considerably less with the U.S.”

Revere also noted, “all of these people were clearly chosen because of their expertise on North Korea, not necessarily because of their expertise on U.S.-R.O.K [South Korea] relations.”

He added, “We’ve seen some signs that Washington and Seoul have not always been on the same page lately when it comes to dealing with North Korea. So I think this is going to necessitate more dialogue and communication between Washington and Seoul.”

Diplomatic opening?

On Saturday, North Korea stressed it has no immediate plans to resume negotiations with the U.S. The North Korean statement came a day after South Korea announced the shuffle of its top aides.

“Is it possible to hold dialogue or have any dealings with the U.S. which persists in the hostile policy toward the DPRK [North Korea] in disregard of the agreements already made at the past summit?” First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui said.

Ken Gause, director of the Adversary Analytics Program at CNA, a research and analysis group in Virginia, said North Korea is unlikely to agree to another summit unless the U.S. makes concessions.

“The Americans would have to make it very clear that they’re putting significant sanctions relief on the table to get the North Koreans to agree to even meet with Trump,” said Gause, who specializes in North Korean leadership.

But it is highly unlikely Washington will make major concessions on North Korea sanctions or shift its demands on denuclearization, according to Revere.

“I suspect there are some people in Pyongyang who may be making the argument that it’s better to try to see what can be done with the current U.S. president. … But at the end of the day, President Trump seems to be surrounded by a number of advisers who have some very clear views about what the United States needs out of this dialogue with North Korea. At the top of that list is a clear, firm commitment to denuclearization. We’ve never gotten that from Kim Jong Un,” Revere said.

Washington and Pyongyang held working-level talks in Stockholm in October, but the talks broke down quickly, and they remain stalled since then.