SEOUL, Korea, Republic Of — South Korea’s president on Monday urged the incoming Biden administration to build upon the achievements and learn from the failures of President Donald Trump’s diplomatic engagement with North Korea.
A dovish liberal and the son of northern war refugees, Moon Jae-in had lobbied hard to help set up Trump’s three summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but their diplomacy stalemated over disagreements over easing crippling U.S.-led sanctions for the North’s disarmament.
Biden has accused Trump of chasing the spectacle of summits rather than meaningful curbs on the North’s nuclear capabilities. North Korea has a history of staging weapons tests and other provocations to test new U.S. presidents, and Kim vowed to strengthen his nuclear weapons program in recent political speeches that were seen as aimed at pressuring the incoming Biden administration.
The South Korean leader has been desperate to keep alive a positive atmosphere for dialogue in the face of Kim’s vows to further expand a nuclear and missile program that threatens Asian U.S. allies and the American homeland.
And while Moon acknowledged that Biden is likely to try a different approach than Trump, the South Korean leader stressed that Biden could still learn from Trump’s successes and failures in dealing with North Korea.
During a mostly virtual news conference in Seoul, Moon claimed that Kim still had a “clear willingness” to denuclearize if Washington and Pyongyang could find mutually agreeable steps to decrease the nuclear threat and ensure the North’s security. Most experts see Kim’s recent comments as further evidence he will maintain his weapons program to ensure his regime’s survival.
When asked about the North’s efforts to increase its ballistic capacity to strike targets throughout South Korea, including U.S. bases there, Moon said the South could sufficiently cope with such threats with its missile defence systems and other military assets.
“The start of the Biden administration provides a new opportunity to start over talks between North Korea and the United States and also between South and North Korea,” which have stalled amid the stalemate in nuclear negotiations, Moon said.
The erosion in inter-Korean relations have been a major setback to Moon, who met Kim three times in 2018 while expressing ambitions to reboot inter-Korean economic engagement held back by U.S.-led sanctions against the North.
During Trump’s first summit with Kim in June 2018, they pledged to improve bilateral relations and issued vague aspirational vows for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula without describing when and how it would occur.
But the negotiations faltered after their second meeting in February 2019 when the Americans rejected the North Korean demands for major sanctions relief in exchange for the dismantling of an aging nuclear reactor, which would have amounted to a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.
Moon said that Trump and Kim’s agreement in their first meeting was still relevant and the Biden administration should take lessons from the failures of their second meeting.
Kim Tong-Hyung, The Associated Press