South Korean President Moon Jae-in will head to Pyongyang on Tuesday for a landmark visit to salvage stalled nuclear talks between the U.S. and North Korea.
The three-day trip, the first by a South Korean leader in 11 years, will feature a joint press appearance on Wednesday with Kim Jong-un. The North Korean leader has resisted U.S. attempts to spell out a timetable for giving up his nuclear weapons, prompting talks to stall just three months after he met U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore.
Kim is pushing for a peace declaration with the U.S. before he takes concrete steps toward getting rid of his nuclear capability. American strategists fear such a declaration will bolster arguments to ease sanctions on North Korea — one of the biggest pieces of leverage Trump has left — and draw down the U.S. military presence in South Korea.
“I will have candid talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to find common ground between the U.S. demand to denuclearize and the North Korean demand to end their hostile relations,” Moon said at a meeting with his top aides on Monday. “What I am trying to achieve is peace. Not a temporary change that can be swayed by international conditions, but an irreversible and permanent peace.”
Moon is scheduled to depart for the North Korean capital on an early Tuesday flight with a 200-member delegation that includes government officials, the billionaire heir of Samsung Electronics Co. and other executives from South Korea’s largest conglomerates. Besides formal meetings, Moon and Kim will watch art performances and enjoy a lavish welcome banquet.
It’s only the third visit ever by a South Korean president to Pyongyang. In 2000 and 2007, two of Moon’s predecessors — who adopted a similar engagement policy — had met with Kim Jong-il, the current leader’s late father, in the city.
Moon arguably has a tougher job this time around: The world is counting on him to persuade Kim to commit to something that goes beyond the vague denuclearization promise delivered in April. While Kim has stopped the missile launches and nuclear tests that rattled the world last year, he still retains the capability to strike the U.S. homeland with a nuclear weapon.
Moon is aware that any progress on inter-Korean relations will be limited if Kim fails to agree on specifics to end the North’s nuclear program, including giving a list of its nuclear facilities to the U.S. and accepting international inspectors. The South Korean leader is betting on momentum toward peace to strengthen his own country’s economy and bolster his sliding approval ratings.
Before the summit, Moon’s office tried to temper any rosy expectations on denuclearization, saying it was the first time it would be discussed by leaders of the two Koreas.