SEOUL, South Korea — Since his election in May, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea has been something of an odd man out in Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign on North Korea, calling again and again for talks as President Trump was threatening “fire and fury.” At one point, Mr. Trump even accused him of “appeasement.”
But Mr. Moon’s persistence suddenly appears to be paying off.
Mr. Trump’s head-spinning decision to accept an invitation to meet with Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, amounts to a remarkable diplomatic coup for Mr. Moon, who engineered the rapprochement in a whirlwind of diplomacy that began at the Winter Olympics last month and gained momentum faster than perhaps even he had anticipated.
Mr. Moon went out of his way to credit Mr. Trump with each breakthrough and personally appealed to Mr. Kim’s sister to engage in talks with the United States. After Mr. Kim played host to the South’s envoys in Pyongyang, Mr. Moon immediately sent them to Washington to brief Mr. Trump, who agreed on the spot to an unprecedented meeting between a sitting American president and a North Korean leader.
Not only has Mr. Moon steered two headstrong, erratic adversaries away from a military conflict that could have been devastating for his nation, he has maneuvered the Trump administration into pursuing negotiations that it has long resisted — but that he and his allies on South Korea’s political left have long pressed for.
And he will set the stage for any meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim when he first sits down with the North Korean leader for a summit meeting next month in the Demilitarized Zone.
But if Mr. Moon has managed to put himself in the “driver’s seat,” as South Koreans like to say, of international efforts to defuse the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear program, it is unclear if he has a specific deal in mind to resolve the standoff — and he will soon have to surrender control again to Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim.
In doing so, he faces multiple risks, including: failed talks that leave the region even closer to a military conflict, concessions by Mr. Trump that damage South Korea’s security, or a sudden reversal by North Korea, which has a long record of backtracking on deals.
“The danger is that North Korea gets de facto recognition as a nuclear state, divides U.S. allies and partners, and is able to subvert international sanctions in exchange for vague commitments and an easily reversible testing freeze,” said Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
For Mr. Moon, a human rights lawyer whose parents fled the North during the Korean War, reconciliation on the divided Korean Peninsula has been a lifelong goal.
He served as chief of staff to Roh Moo-hyun, South Korea’s president from 2003 to 2008, and helped him pursue the “Sunshine Policy” of engaging North Korea with dialogue, humanitarian aid and joint economic projects. Then he watched his late friend’s legacy crumble as the South’s last two presidents, both conservatives, worked with Washington to isolate Pyongyang with sanctions and pressure.
The nation’s progressives have long been skeptical of that hard-line approach, arguing that sanctions alone would never persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and would increase the risk of war. They looked forward to a new approach when Mr. Moon returned them to power last year.
Unlike conservatives whose overriding concern is the alliance with Washington, “the progressives see peace on the Korean Peninsula, dialogue and reconciliation with the North as their top priority,” said Lee Byong-chul, senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul.
But Mr. Moon’s election came as Mr. Kim was accelerating his weapons program and building missiles that could reach the United States. Mr. Trump stepped up pressure on the North and escalated tensions with belligerent rhetoric, leaving Mr. Moon increasingly out of step with Washington.
Even as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan echoed Mr. Trump’s tough talk, Mr. Moon repeatedly spoke out against a military strike — in effect, undermining the credibility of Mr. Trump’s threats.
“No one shall take a military action on the Korean Peninsula without South Korean consent,” he said in August, arguing that attacking the North would trigger a catastrophic war in Korea. “We will prevent war whatever it takes.”
Left-wing governments in South Korea have been in conflict with the United States before. Mr. Roh, for example, said the South would no longer be a junior partner in a “lopsided” alliance with Washington and sought to improve relations with China, the nation’s largest trading partner.
But Mr. Moon has proved more pragmatic and politically adroit than Mr. Roh. He quickly decided to keep an American missile-defense battery whose deployment his supporters had vehemently opposed. And he has gone to great lengths to play to Mr. Trump’s ego, repeatedly thanking the American president for his support and crediting his policies for bringing Mr. Kim to the negotiating table.
Even after Mr. Trump accused South Korea of “appeasement” in September, a remarkable charge against an ally and one that damaged Mr. Moon politically, the South Korean leader was careful to avoid exacerbating the rift.
Then, on New Year’s Day, when Mr. Kim suddenly accepted Mr. Moon’s invitation to send North Korean athletes to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Mr. Moon moved quickly to embrace the overture, setting off a diplomatic flurry that at times has left the Trump administration struggling to catch up.
“He has learned lessons from the Roh Moo-hyun era — that it does no good to his country to provoke the United States,” Mr. Lee said. “If Roh was blunt and in-your-face, Moon is much more cautious and sophisticated. See the way he keeps giving credit to Trump for supporting inter-Korean ties.”
On Friday, Mr. Moon was at it again, saying in a statement that the summit would be “remembered as a historic milestone in establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
“The leadership of President Trump, who wholeheartedly accepted Chairman Kim’s invitation, will be hailed by the people of both Koreas and all the peace-loving people in the world,” he said.
Mr. Moon’s central role in events was on full display Thursday night when the White House allowed South Korea’s national security adviser, emerging from a meeting with Mr. Trump, to make the stunning announcement that North Korea had committed to denuclearization and that Mr. Trump had accepted Mr. Kim’s invitation to meet face-to-face.
It was only later that the news was confirmed by Mr. Trump’s press secretary, and then by the president himself on Twitter.
”The Kim-Trump summit deal was possible because of a confluence of factors,” said Cheng Seong-chang, a senior analyst at the Sejong Institute in South Korea, listing Mr. Moon’s dogged diplomacy, Mr. Trump’s efforts to deepen the North’s isolation and Mr. Kim’s desire to blunt the pain of sanctions.
When Mr. Kim sent his sister, Kim Yo-jong, to attend the Olympics last month, the South Koreans spent nearly three hours in talks with her. Mr. Moon did most of the talking and made the case for North Korea to negotiate with Washington over its nuclear weapons, Mr. Moon’s aides said.
On Monday, Mr. Kim himself hosted Mr. Moon’s envoys in Pyongyang — and surprised them. Chung Eui-yong, Mr. Moon’s national security adviser, had barely begun to speak when the North Korean leader interrupted. “I understand you,” he was quoted as saying by the South Korean officials. “I know your problems.”
Mr. Kim agreed to meet with Mr. Moon in April and accepted his request to begin negotiations with Washington on denuclearization. Mr. Kim also withdrew his threat to resume weapons tests if the United States and South Korea went ahead with joint military exercises in April, and pledged a freeze on such tests while talks were ongoing.
The South Korean envoys said Mr. Kim even joked about how he is depicted in foreign news media, and passed on an apology to Mr. Moon for conducting early-morning missile tests that caused him to lose sleep.
Conservatives have attacked Mr. Moon as dangerously naïve. But he has been careful to avoid being seen as cozying up to North Korea, consistently warning that he would improve ties with North Korea only “in parallel” with progress on eliminating its nuclear arsenal. And at Monday’s meeting, he arranged to meet Mr. Kim on the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone between their two nations rather than fly to Pyongyang as two of his predecessors have.
Mr. Moon’s office said that an impressive array of senior American officials gathered in the White House to hear his envoys’ briefing on Thursday, including Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and others. They then moved to the Oval Office to brief Mr. Trump for 45 minutes, South Korean officials said.
Mr. Chung told them that Mr. Kim said if Mr. Trump accepted the offer of talks, the two could have a “great meeting,” South Korean officials said.
Mr. Trump accepted Mr. Kim’s invitation, telling his aides that he had always favored dialogue, South Korean officials said. He then surprised the South Koreans by asking them to make the announcement to reporters outside the White House.
Even as he celebrated the breakthrough, Mr. Moon warned the work toward a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula had barely begun.
“We will handle with care this opportunity that has come like a miracle,” he said. “We will advance it with sincerity and caution but also without delays.”
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