US, South Korean leaders signal intent to cement consensus on Korean denuclearization

The presidents of the United States and South Korea have expressed the hope of meeting with North Korea's paramount leader in demonstration of a will to cement the consensus on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula reached at the June summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, according to an expert.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on Tuesday that Kim could still visit Seoul for the first time in the next few weeks, describing the possible trip as a major attempt aimed at making the Korean Peninsula nuclear-free. Moon and Kim have met three times in 2018, with one paving the way for the historic meeting between Trump and Kim in June in Singapore.

South Korea is not simply a go-between between the United States and North Korea. Instead, it doubles as a diplomatic mediator that has helped ease hostility between the United States and North Korea amid fierce confrontation, said Yue Li, a senior fellow and executive director of the Center for Northeast Asian Studies at Pangoal Institution.

South Korea's diplomacy has led to a thawing of the ties between the two Koreas, and the situation in the Korean Peninsula and even East Asia is indisputably becoming stable, despite the fact that the denuclearization talks have stalled, said Yue.

On Tuesday, Moon still stressed the possibility of Kim paying a visit to Seoul within this year, saying "whether it is this year or not is not that important, what is important is that the North Korean leader's visit to South Korea will definitely accelerate the denuclearization process on the Korean Peninsula". A visit by Kim to South Korea would also improve the US-North Korea relations as Kim and Trump seek to follow up on their summit in June in Singapore, Moon added.

"The United States does not think that the warming of the relationship between the North and South will be followed by a complete resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue. Instead, the United States thinks that North Korea is using it to avoid extreme pressure on it," said Yue.

But he stressed that the United Nations' recent lifting of sanctions imposed on a joint survey of inter-Korean railways, the first step toward reconnecting rail and road links cut during the 1950-53 Korean War, could be an evidence that the United States has recognized the "limited thawing" of the relationship between the two Koreas.

Yue also expressed concerns that the United States might separate the North Korean nuclear problem from the reconciliation between the North and South, which is based on the fact that Washington sees the resolution of the nuclear issue as the precondition for realizing permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.

"A strengthened coordination between the United States and South Korea in dealing with North Korea is not a lip service. The United States would take action to prevent South Korea from getting closer to North Korea as Washington thinks that a warming relationship could give Pyongyang a loophole to exploit," said Yue.

On North Korea's part, the country is unlikely to challenge the bottom line of the international community by resuming its nuclear test, according to Yue, who added that facts show that Pyongyang is shifting its focus to the economy.

Trump said that he and Kim would meet for a second time which will likely take place in January or February. The remark was made to reporters aboard Air Force One during the return trip from the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina. "We are getting along very well. We have a good relationship with Kim," said Trump.

When asked if Kim would come to the United States for a visit apart from the second summit, Trump replied "at some point" he will.

Trump's comment came hours after he and Chinese President Xi Jinping held a dinner meeting in Argentina, where the two leaders discussed some issues including a 90-day truce in the ongoing trade conflict that has pestered the two powers for several months, and the situation in the Korean Peninsula.

"It was also agreed that great progress has been made with respect to North Korea, and that President Trump, together with President Xi, will strive, along with Chairman Kim Jong Un, to see a nuclear free Korean Peninsula," said a statement released on the website of the White House shortly after the dinner meeting.

The United States and North Korea were locked in a diplomatic standoff for weeks over which side should make a compromise first until US relaxed its demands.

Recently, US Vice President Mike Pence reiterated in an interview with the NBC News the demand for developing a "verified plan" to disclose North Korea's nuclear and missile sites after the release of satellite images showing more than a dozen undeclared North Korean missile operating bases, a sign that the North is continuing to move forward with its ballistic missile program.

"For both the United States and North Korea, they are afraid of their concessions being misunderstood as a kind of weakness. In the context of the United Nations planning to lift sanctions, a reconciliation between the United States and North Korea will be difficult if Pyongyang fails to make a substantial change," said Yue.

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