North Korea’s Sudden Shift Puts South’s Leader on the Spot

His government hopes that North Korea and the United States can meet each other halfway by exchanging denuclearization with security guarantees in a “phased” manner, as the North demands, while carrying out the deal quickly, as Washington wants — perhaps before the end of Mr. Trump’s term in early 2021.

South Korean officials are confident that such a deal is possible. They say that Mr. Kim is desperate to rebuild his nation’s economy and knows that he cannot do so without resolving the nuclear crisis, and that Mr. Trump is eager to make a deal before the midterm elections in November.

But as Mr. Moon acknowledged, “the devil will be in the details” — particularly who should make the first move and how to verify that promises are kept.

North Korea’s Sudden Shift Puts South’s Leader on the Spot
North Korea’s Sudden Shift Puts South’s Leader on the Spot

When China’s premier, Li Keqiang, met Mr. Moon in Tokyo last week, Mr. Li warned that North Korea thought it was doing its part to show its intention to denuclearize — by unilaterally announcing a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests and by inviting outsiders to monitor the shutdown of its nuclear test site. And North Korea was “waiting for a corresponding feedback from the United States,” Mr. Li was quoted as saying by South Korean officials.

Instead, North Korea saw the United States and South Korea pressing ahead with their annual military exercises. Mr. Bolton also called for the removal of not only nuclear arms but also chemical and biological weapons from North Korea.

This week, North Korea pushed back with its threat to cancel the summit meeting with Mr. Trump.

The developments showed how delicate Mr. Moon’s task is in bringing Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim together — and getting them to see eye to eye.

If Mr. Kim does not cooperate, Mr. Bolton has warned it could be a “pretty short meeting” in Singapore.

“Then we will see the crisis rapidly rising on the Korean Peninsula,” said Lee Byong-chul, a senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul. “The mediating role by South Korea and China has become more urgent than ever.”

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