South Korean President Moon Jae-in isn’t taking any chances ahead of his historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Friday. Officials from President Moon’s office have met with their counterparts from across the border three times to coordinate everything from security measures to media coverage. Even the timing of the handshake between the two leaders has been planned in excruciating detail – not to mention their symbol-laden dinner menu, featuring Pyongyang’s trademark noodles and an elaborate mousse with a map of the Korean peninsula.
Much will be on the line during the meeting on the South Korean side of Panmunjom, a so-called truce village that straddles the border. Not only will it be the first time leaders of the two Koreas have met since 2007; it will also be the first time a supreme leader from the North sets foot in the South. The two men are expected to discuss the North’s nuclear weapons and missile programs and an official end to the Korean War, which ended in a stalemate in 1953 after three years of fighting.
For Moon, the summit presents the biggest test yet of his pro-engagement strategy toward North Korea. While progressives in South Korea widely support his approach, many conservatives remain deeply skeptical of where it will lead. The challenge Moon faces is to convince them – and Washington – that engagement doesn’t mean appeasement, a waste of time, or, worse yet, a gift of time to further bolster the North’s nuclear arsenal.
“We are standing at a crossroad to denuclearization not by military measures but through peaceful means and permanent peace," Moon said during a meeting with his top aides in Seoul on Monday. “The entire world is watching and the entire world is hoping for its success.”
The overarching goal of the summit on Friday is to lay the groundwork for Mr. Kim’s meeting with President Trump in late May or early June. To do that, Moon will need to convince Kim to keep denuclearization on the table, in hopes of aid or a security guarantee down the line. If Moon succeeds, the Korean Peninsula could be one step closer to lasting peace. If he fails, the risk of war on the peninsula could become greater than ever.
“Moon is taking a huge risk by trying to bring Kim and Trump together,” says Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “It’s clear that the North Koreans are willing to have a dialogue, but it’s unclear if that dialogue will lead to full denuclearization,” the outcome that Mr. Trump has emphasized.
Apart from denuclearization, there are two other key issues on Friday’s agenda: a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War, and improving inter-Korean relations. Yet analysts don’t expect the summit to produce any major breakthroughs in and of itself, and say that any joint statement from Moon and Kim is likely to be short on specifics. Instead, many view the summit as simply a step toward the more substantial negotiations between Kim and Trump.
The stakes couldn’t be much higher. Last year, North Korea tested its sixth and most powerful nuclear device and three intercontinental ballistic missiles that experts warn could reach the US mainland. In response to the tests, the United Nations passed its harshest sanctions ever against North Korea. Meanwhile, fears of a US military strike on the North started to grow as Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea, and said trying to negotiate with Kim was a waste of time.
Despite the rising tensions – including the threats and insults Trump and Kim flung at one another – Moon maintained his commitment to peace through dialogue. He made his position clear in a speech he delivered in Berlin last July, two days after Pyongyang’s first intercontinental ballistic missile test, while asserting that Seoul must “sit in the driver’s seat” to manage the precarious situation on the Korean Peninsula.
“President Moon deserves a great deal of credit,” says Bong Young-shik, a research fellow at the Institute for North Korean Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. “He has walked a very fine line.”
Moon’s focus on engagement with North Korea stands in stark contrast to the hardline approach taken by his predecessor, Park Geun-hye. His strategy more closely resembles the “sunshine policy” pursued by Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, two liberals who held power from 1998 to 2008.
The “sunshine policy” emphasized diplomatic and economic engagement with the North, but it failed to secure any concrete gains and clashed with the more aggressive policies favored by President George W. Bush. In light of the policy’s shortcomings, analysts say, Moon has embraced dialogue with the North while still supporting the economic sanctions championed by the US.
“Moon knows that he has to keep the United States on his side,” Mr. Bong says. “He has not wavered in keeping maximum economic pressure on the North.”
At the same time, Moon has made sure to keep the door open for diplomatic engagement, a strategy that faced criticism during much of 2017 as Pyongyang ramped up its weapons testing. Moon’s first breakthrough came when North Korea accepted his invitation to participate in the Winter Olympics. The Games were widely hailed as a success, and they set in motion the series of events that led to this week’s summit.
“Moon has done a great job in reversing the course and turning conflict into dialogue,” say Shin Gi-wook, the director of the Korea Program at Stanford University. “He has been a good facilitator between North Korea and the United States.”
But facilitating will only get Moon so far before Trump needs to step in. “It’s like a relay race,” Dr. Shin says. “South Korea has got a good start, but the United States needs to finish.”
Now that talks are under way, Moon can only hope that Kim and Trump keep them going. The US president welcomed Kim’s announcement last week that North Korea no longer needed missile and nuclear tests, and would close a key nuclear facility – a mountain test site which reportedly has partially collapsed and is unsafe for further use. While many experts remain skeptical of Kim’s commitment, Trump has so far spoken positively about the prospect of negotiations. On Tuesday, he praised the North Korean leader as “very open and I think very honorable.”
Still, there is a large gap between what Kim has pledged and what the White House has demanded: full denuclearization. Whether Moon can find a way to help narrow that gap will go a long way in determining the chances of the US and North Korea reaching any agreement. Failure to do so could spell the end of his engagement strategy by pushing officials in Seoul and Washington to endorse a more hard-line approach. Alternatively, Moon could decide to risk South Korea's partnership with the US and continue bilateral negotiations with North Korea.
“If the meetings fall apart, then conservatives in South Korea will blame Moon,” Shin says. “They will say that we were deceived by North Korea once again.”
But some analysts question how much influence Moon will have over the US-North Korea summit. Jenny Town, assistant director of the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, says that while the US will take what comes out of Friday’s meeting into consideration, it will also pursue its own agenda, which could include stricter terms about denuclearization.
“The Moon administration has portrayed this as a lead-in to the next summit, as if it’s almost guaranteed that whatever they come up with the US will rubber stamp,” she says. “I don’t know if that’s really the case.”
For the next 24 hours, however, all eyes will be on Panmunjom, and whether the two Korean leaders’ talks will clear a path for a US-Pyongyang summit in the first place.
“Moon’s job is to make a good volley,” says Mr. Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations, “and then we’ll wait and see if Trump can spike the ball."