By Do Je-hae
President Moon Jae-in is expected to take on a bigger role in facilitating the U.S.-North Korea denuclearization talks following the historic Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) meeting Sunday between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
The third in-person meeting of Trump and Kim Jong-un was mainly the result of the determination of the two leaders to revive nuclear disarmament talks that have been stalled since the collapse of their second summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February.
Moon's undeniable influence, however, can be seen in several aspects of the Trump-Kim summit.
In particular, it is noticeable that the Trump-Kim meeting took place while Trump was visiting Seoul for a summit with Moon, political analysts in Seoul said, Monday.
The President has previously expressed a wish to utilize the DMZ as the venue for the talks between the leaders of the two countries that fought each other during the Korean War. Also, it is noteworthy that it was the Freedom House, controlled by the South, that served as the venue for the Trump-Kim meeting and press conference.
"President Moon played a central role in bringing about the Kim-Trump meeting at the DMZ," said Donald Kirk, an author and columnist specializing in inter-Korean relations. "Moon undoubtedly paved the way for Trump to meet Kim, first in Singapore, then Hanoi and on Sunday at the DMZ. He did so by his own meetings with Kim, which made clear that he would welcome interaction between Trump and Kim as well, and he obviously did all he could to make sure Trump was able to meet Kim on Sunday."
After meeting with Kim, Trump spoke to the press at the Freedom House and paid tribute to Moon, whom the U.S. leader credited for the progress so far, adding that Moon will be closely involved in future U.S-North Korea negotiations.
Since his visit to Pyongyang in September 2018 for his third summit with Kim, Moon has been eager for a reciprocal visit by the North Korean leader. But he has put this on the backburner for the time being while doing all he can to resuscitate the U.S.-North Korea talks.
Even when North Korea's foreign ministry publicly bashed Moon in a recent statement, the South Korean leader has continued to spread a consistent message of peace and called on international support for his peace drive.
Moon's consistency on seeking a dovish approach toward North Korea has been instrumental in terms of creating the mood for the surprise DMZ meeting and in solidifying Kim's trust toward Moon, they said.
"Moon was very important in realizing the DMZ meeting," said Hong Min, director of the North Korean research division at the Korea Institute for National Unification. "He has been consistent in pushing for peace and dialogue, and this has reassured both Trump and Kim of his sincerity."
Some experts say that Moon's real facilitating task will grow larger, with the U.S. and North Korea entering working-level negotiations to set up another summit between their leaders. Trump has invited Kim to Washington, but there are many hurdles to be cleared, particularly their differences on the sanctions.
"South Korea's role begins now," former Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun said in a local television interview. "There have not been much mention of corresponding measures from the U.S., but during these working-level talks, Seoul can suggest to the U.S. to prepare them ahead of the fourth summit between the U.S. and North Korea."
Concerns are mounting, however, that Moon's role may be limited particularly with China's intention for a stronger influence over the security situation on the peninsula, as shown by Xi Jinping's recent state visit to North Korea.
"Korea is not the only country that can mediate the U.S-North Korea talks. In the negotiation process, facilitation does not have to be carried by a single country," Hong said. "There are many different ways of mediation per period and requirements. China's role can also be used for the ultimate goal of a U.S-North Korea nuclear settlement."