SEOUL — South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s role as mediator between Washington and Pyongyang will face its biggest test yet this weekend as he lobbies President Trump to turn “warm” letters and birthday wishes from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un into working-level talks that could produce a third summit between the leaders while validating Mr. Moon’s own pursuit of inter-Korean peace.
Stephen Biegun, U.S. special representative for North Korea, will use Friday meetings to set the table for Mr. Trump after he leaves the Group of 20 summit in Japan and touches down in this sprawling capital Saturday.
Mr. Biegun and his South Korean counterpart “plan to hold in-depth consultations on ways to cooperate for substantive progress in the Korean Peninsula peace process, including the endeavors for the resumption of North-U.S. dialogue,” Kim In-chul, spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, told reporters Thursday.
Negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea have been stalled since February, when Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim walked away from a Vietnam summit without reaching a sweeping deal to end the North’s nuclear and missile programs in exchange for the lifting of punishing economic sanctions on the North.
Yet Mr. Trump has praised the North Korean autocrat in recent weeks, raising hopes of a diplomatic jolt that could jump-start lower-level talks between the countries while giving Mr. Moon — a longtime advocate of detente with the North — a chance to prove his pursuit of Korean peace is not in vain.
“This is a moment of hope after a long, frustrating pause after Hanoi,” Paik Haksoon, president of the Sejong Institute, a leading South Korea think tank, said in an interview on the edge of Myeongdong, a busy shopping district in Seoul.
For Mr. Trump, progress on North Korea would offer a boost heading into the 2020 campaign or at least allow him to claim victory by using talks to keep a lid on Mr. Kim so he doesn’t restart tests on a missile that could reach U.S. soil. Any such missile launch would open the door for Democratic rivals to portray Mr. Trump’s unusual and personalized diplomacy as a failure.
The stakes may be even higher for Mr. Moon, a liberal who tied his personal legacy to the Korean peace process after assuming the presidency in 2017.
Mr. Moon met with Mr. Kim three times last year, signaling hope that they could formally end the Korean War after 70-plus years, only to see North Korea’s push for security guarantees lead to an impasse with Washington.
Also complicating Mr. Moon’s diplomatic push is the North’s preference to bypass Seoul and exploit its new direct line to the Oval Office. On Thursday, Kwon Jong-gun, chief of the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s U.S. affairs department, said it won’t go through South Korea again when it deals with the United States, The Associated Press reported. He denied reports of various exchanges and unofficial talks between the two Koreas.
“It’s better for the South Korean authorities to mind their own business at home,” Mr. Kwon said.
But Chinese President Xi Jinping, who made a rare state visit to Pyongyang ahead of the G-20 summit and met Thursday with Mr. Moon, offered a far more upbeat view of the state of the peace talks. Mr. Kim, Mr. Xi insisted in Seoul, is “strongly committed” to the peace talks with the U.S. and wants to resume the nuclear dialogue “as early as possible.”
The South Korean economy has been scuffling along, so Mr. Moon could use a win on his No. 1 issue. His party could prove vulnerable in elections next spring if he cannot make progress.
“I think Trump’s top priorities changed, from North Korea to China or Iran, at this moment. But for President Moon, North Korea is his top political priority. He believes that his administration will be evaluated by the success of his North Korea policy,” said Shin Beomchul, an analyst on inter-Korean relations at the Asan Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. “Whatever the agreement, he wants to move on to the next stage of dialogue.”
Mr. Trump said in February that he had to walk away because the North Koreans demanded sweeping sanctions relief in exchange for a commitment to destroy only part of their nuclear arsenal at the Yongbyon nuclear complex, a characterization Pyongyang later challenged.
Mr. Moon will lobby Mr. Trump to be more flexible, analysts say. In effect, he will argue that the leaders can take incremental steps rather than pursuing Mr. Trump’s approach for a “big deal.”
Mr. Moon hinted at pieces of leverage that could go beyond the terms of the Hanoi summit, such as reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex and resuming the Mount Kumgang tours, a pair of collaboration projects that have been suspended.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly touted North Korea’s potential for business development, so it speaks to his ambitions.
“It would play a very positive role in making North Koreans trust our intentions more favorably,” Mr. Paik said.
On one level, Mr. Trump’s stop in Seoul is simply good manners after his stop in Osaka for the G-20 summit, where he will meet with global leaders including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Mr. Abe also hosted Mr. Trump in May, so a missed meeting this time “would look pretty bad for Moon’s government,” said Byoung-joo Kim, a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. The Asian countries have a tangled past and status as U.S. allies on equal footing.
The main objective, however, is to prepare for working-level talks between the U.S. and North Korea.
Mr. Trump and Mr. Moon will compare notes at the presidential residence, the Blue House, in Seoul, and there is wide speculation that the U.S. president will take a helicopter to the Demilitarized Zone, the heavily fortified area that has divided North from South since an armistice froze the Korean War in 1953.
If Mr. Trump goes to the DMZ, it may just be a way to make up for a 2017 trip that was scrapped because of fog.
However, pundits wonder whether he will make a grand gesture toward North Korea. Mr. Trump has ruled out a meeting with Mr. Kim during his Asia trip.
“I’ll be meeting with a lot of other people, not by him, but I may be speaking to him in a different forum,” he said.
Though Mr. Kim won’t be at the table in Seoul, Mr. Moon on Wednesday confirmed behind-the-scenes talks between the U.S. and North Korea.
The North Korean Foreign Ministry denied that assessment Thursday, saying South Korea should not interfere and that the U.S. should offer a new strategy for talks before time runs out.
The statement underscored the thorny challenge in striking the right balance on sanctions relief, which North Koreans have viewed as a precondition to build trust instead of a bargaining chip.
If talks resume, analysts said, they will focus on what has been dubbed “Yongbyon-plus-one” — shutting down North Korea’s well-known nuclear complex along with a concession on ballistic missiles or another segment of weapons in exchange for step-by-step sanctions relief.
For Mr. Moon, breaking the logjam is personal. His parents fled North Korea as refugees, and he led an ambitious push to reengage with the North last year.
South Korea marched under the same flag as North Korea at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang ahead of symbolic meetings between Mr. Moon and Mr. Kim.
But Mr. Moon is under increasing pressure to deliver concrete results. Although Mr. Moon is not on the ballot next spring, his Democratic Party allies could be held liable if Korean peace talks remain stalled.
“He’s got eight, nine months to show that his legacy is not a fool’s errand, that inter-Korean peace is possible and that progress is being made,” said Patrick Cronin, who holds the Asia-Pacific Security chair at the Hudson Institute. “So far, we have the theater of 2018. We have the small, confidence-building measures, steps of 2018. But we have no substantial movement.”