SEOUL -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un emphasized their closeness in their third meeting on Sept. 18 in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.
It is not yet clear, however, whether their discussion on the first day of their summit touched on the critical issue of denuclearizing North Korea, which Kim promised in his June summit with U.S. President Donald Trump.
At the beginning of their talks, Kim said he felt "really close" to Moon, while the South Korean leader replied that the welcome by Kim, his wife and Pyongyang citizens was beyond his expectations, according to the Pyongyang Press Corps covering the event.
Kim praised Moon for making the U.S.-North Korea summit in June possible. He also made an indirect attempt to show dissatisfaction toward Washington, saying he had expected more progress in improving bilateral ties with the United States.
Moon replied that he wanted to praise Kim's decision "to open a new era," while adding that he felt a "responsibility" for the current situation, in which denuclearization talks have become bogged down.
The meeting was held at the headquarters of the Workers' Party of Korea, which controls the country under Kim's leadership. It is the venue for important party meetings and is said to house Kim's business office. Moon's special envoy was received at this facility in March, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Kim there too in May.
Moon and Kim expressed their respect for each other apparently in a bid to extract more concessions from the other side. North Korea's official newspaper, Rodong Sinmun reported on Sept. 18 that Moon's visit is "an important opportunity to accelerate the development of the North-South relationship" -- a rare instance of coverage before the visit of a foreign leader. This treatment shows that Pyongyang has high expectations for the summit.
The two Koreas have opened a liaison office, and have had exchanges to ease military tension between them. They are discussing the joint excavation of the remains of their soldiers in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that has stood between the two nations since the armistice of the Korean War (1951-1953), and the removal of some monitoring posts along the DMZ. Although they have not agreed on the timing and implementation methods of such measures, South Korea's chief presidential spokesman Yoon Young-chan has expressed hope that a "meaningful agreement" will be reached.
Based on such advancements, Kim is expected to promote detente with the South and build confidence while trying to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul over the issue of denuclearization and making Moon his mediator to win over Trump for his benefit.
North Korea's stance on denuclearization seems to remain the same. The country is seeking a declaration of the end of the Korean War before any concrete move is made on the dismantling of its nuclear program. This was apparent in the commentary of Rodong Sinmun on Sept. 18. The government mouthpiece went on to call for "sincere action" from Washington and for the signing of a peace treaty to end the Korean War.
At the same time, the paper piled strong criticism on the United States, blaming the country for the stalling of denuclearization talks. It accused the U.S. of making "unilateral, strong demands to us to move while they stand still." It went on to say that North Korea has already made advance movements such as the demolition of its nuclear test site, the release of American citizens who were detained in the country and the return of the remains of U.S. soldiers killed in the Korean War.
-- Moon eyes positive involvement in mediation
Meanwhile, Moon is bent on urging Kim to make a decision on denuclearization. The Moon administration has prided itself as a "mediator for Washington and Pyongyang," but chief presidential secretary Im Jong-seok disclosed on Sept. 17, one day before the summit, that Seoul would make a fresh proposal of its own "to encourage mediation."
South Korea is trying to break the impasse between the United States and North Korea over their differences regarding which side should move first over denuclearization and other related issues. Seoul sees North Korea and the U.S. as largely in agreement that Pyongyang will take steps to dismantle its nuclear program and the United States will declare an end to the Korean War and guarantee the existence of the Kim regime.
Moon met experts well versed in North Korean affairs in South Korea on Sept. 13 and told them that what North Korea needs to do now is to get rid of its existing nuclear weapons, materials, facilities and programs, on top of sealing off future nukes.
Moon's remark is seen as a sign of his demand that Pyongyang dismantle its existing nuclear arsenal and relevant programs, and his position that simply capping future development is not enough. This is a tactical shift on the part of Moon administration, which has praised North Korea's demolition of the nuclear test site as "a positive step forward." Pyongyang also insisted that the step shows its "sincerity" about denuclearization.
Moon has also said that it is possible to find a point of agreement between Washington and Pyongyang, suggesting that he has a special proposal to break the stalemate in nuclear negotiations.
In addition to Moon and Kim's official two-hour summit, the leaders had more time together inside their car and at the welcome reception, and could have discussed denuclearization at those times.
Presidential spokesman Yoon said that if this summit produces some results, Moon will likely convey that to Trump in their meeting in New York later this month. But he added it is difficult to figure out what kind of outcome the summit will produce at this moment in time.
(Japanese original by Chiharu Shibue and Akiko Horiyama, Seoul Bureau)