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SEOUL, South Korea – To his supporters, South Korean President Moon Jae-in is a master negotiator who's fixing decades of bad nuclear diplomacy with North Korea. To his critics, he's falling prey to the same old trap that has claimed previous South Korean presidents — but with an important difference: This time the stakes are much higher.
Whoever's right, it's hard to ignore Moon's role as the architect behind a new global push to settle the nuclear standoff with the North. The outcome of his efforts may hinge on a meeting in Singapore next month between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump, who spent months contemplating military strikes against the North before Moon steered him to the table.
Moon, a soft-spoken liberal, last month hosted Kim in a summit that saw them stride hand-in-hand across the border and pledge the "complete denuclearization" of the Korean Peninsula, an ambitious declaration that was light on specifics.
Moon doesn't have the power to resolve North Korea's weapons programs on his own. But in hustling between Pyongyang and Washington to set up the Kim-Trump summit and offering to broker other meetings with Pyongyang, Moon is fulfilling his promise to push South Korea into the driver's seat in diplomacy with the North.
"South Korea has never had a leader like Moon, who actively embraced a leading role in planning and coordinating a global approach to the North," said Hong Min, a senior analyst at Seoul's Korea Institute for National Unification. "He managed to convince Washington that Pyongyang would change course after a year of brinkmanship. He convinced Pyongyang he would be able to move Washington."
Despite the dangers — a derailed Trump-Kim summit might revive the animosity that enveloped the peninsula last year — Moon's push has proven wildly popular: A Gallup Korea poll last week measured his approval rating at 83 percent, a striking number in a country deeply divided along ideological and generational lines.
PULLING THE STRINGS
Moon's central presence could be seen Wednesday in a three-way meeting in Tokyo when he got the premiers of Japan and China to issue a joint statement in support of the inter-Korean declaration, which he's looking to sell as a meaningful breakthrough that could create a positive atmosphere for the Kim-Trump meeting.
The recent flurry of diplomatic activity was almost unimaginable for most of last year when the North ripped off a torrid run of weapons tests, including an underground detonation of a purported thermonuclear warhead and three separate tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles with a range that could strike the continental United States. Kim and Trump exchanged insults and threats of nuclear annihilation, drowning out Moon's repeated calls for diplomacy.
The dynamics shifted after Kim used his New Year's speech to propose talks with the South to reduce animosity. The North then sent hundreds of people to the Pyeongchang Winter Games in the South, including Kim's sister, who conveyed her brother's desire for a summit with Moon. Moon later brokered the meeting between Kim and Trump.
FINDING HIS SPACE
Moon, the son of North Korean war refugees, has vowed to build on the legacies of late liberal Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun and their so-called "Sunshine Policy," which Moon had a hand in building. Seoul's economic inducements resulted in a temporary rapprochement and two summits with the North in 2000 and 2007 that involved Kim Jong Un's late father, Kim Jong Il. Critics say it gave the North a lifeline as it pursued its nuclear dreams.
Moon says the decade of hard-line conservative policies he ended when elected last year did nothing to stop Pyongyang's weapons advancements. He has balanced his criticism of the North's nuclear program with hints of ambitious economic promises in exchange for a "complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization."
While Moon is in a significantly tougher spot than his liberal predecessors, who governed when the North's nuclear threat was nascent, he also has more time — four more years in his term — and political space to assert his voice.
Kim Dae-jung's engagement with North Korea was often a source of discord with the hard-line administration of former President George W. Bush. Disagreements between Washington and Seoul continued during Roh's government, and the Koreas were never able to build on Roh's last-minute summit with Kim Jong Il in 2007.
For all their differences in personality, Moon has been able to maintain a coordinated approach with Trump on North Korea. Moon has so far stayed firm on sanctions, and he offered vocal support to Trump's pressure campaign last year during the North's weapons tests. While reaching out to the North in past months, Moon has credited Trump at every step, even suggesting that he take the Nobel Peace Prize if there's peace in Korea.
"It's not a bad way to approach the North — Moon playing the good cop to Trump's bad cop," said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University.
WILL KIM DENUKE?
There are doubts about whether Kim will ever agree to fully relinquish the nukes he likely sees as his only guarantee of survival.
Moon has maintained that Kim is genuinely interested in dealing away his nuclear weapons in return for economic benefits. But North Korea for decades has been pushing a concept of "denuclearization" that bears no resemblance to the American definition. The North vows to pursue nuclear development unless Washington removes its troops from the South and the nuclear umbrella defending South Korea and Japan.
Moon may face credibility problems if it becomes clear that Kim won't give up his nukes easily. Seoul could also be pushed aside if Washington chooses to deal more directly with China, the North's only major ally and economic lifeline. Moon has been upstaged by separate summits between Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping, which were seen as strengthening the positions of both countries ahead of the Kim-Trump talks.
The focus may now shift from Moon to Kim, who some believe may want to drag out negotiations until Trump is replaced by a U.S. president seen as less willing to ponder the use of military force against the North at the risk of triggering war.
Another scenario has Kim seeking a deal where he gives away his ICBMs but retains some of his shorter-range arsenal in return for a reduced U.S. military presence in the South. This could satisfy Trump but undermine the alliance between Washington and Seoul.
Follow Kim Tong-hyung on Twitter at @KimTongHyung