President Moon Jae-in of South Korea said Thursday that the visit to China this week by the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, heralded an imminent second summit meeting between Mr. Kim and President Trump to negotiate the terms of denuclearizing the North.
Mr. Moon held his New Year’s news conference in Seoul, South Korea, on Thursday, hours after Mr. Kim wrapped up a four-day trip to China, which included his fourth summit meeting with President Xi Jinping. China is considered the best buffer North Korea has against American pressure and sanctions as Mr. Kim prepares for a second meeting with Mr. Trump. He also consulted with Mr. Xi before and after his first meeting with Mr. Trump, which took place in Singapore in June.
The June meeting produced a vaguely worded agreement to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” and “new” relations between North Korea and the United States, which have been adversaries for seven decades.
But talks have since stalled over how to implement the Singapore deal. Washington wants North Korea to declare and start dismantling its nuclear facilities and weapons, while the North has demanded that the United States first build trust with corresponding measures, starting with the easing of sanctions.
“I think both sides know what the other side wants,” Mr. Moon said during the nationally televised news conference. “But they don’t trust each other because of the mistrust that has accumulated between them for a long time, and they are insisting on the other side moving first.”
But Mr. Moon, who has been working to broker a compromise between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump, said Mr. Kim’s trip to Beijing “indicates that a second North Korea-U.S. summit has come close.” He said he expected North Korea and the United States to soon resume long-stalled, high-level government talks to finalize the preparations for a second summit meeting.
Mr. Moon said he believed that North Korea and the United States had narrowed their differences considerably in recent months. If Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump meet again, they will try to forge a deal on what actions North Korea must take toward denuclearization in order to encourage Washington to ease sanctions and what corresponding measures the United States must offer to expedite the North’s nuclear disarmament, he said.
“If they agree to hold a second North Korea-U.S. summit in a not-too-distant future, we can see this as a rather optimistic sign that both sides have narrowed their differences on this issue,” Mr. Moon said.
When Mr. Xi met with Mr. Kim on Tuesday, the Chinese leader also urged North Korea and the United States to meet each other “in the middle,” Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, reported Thursday.
Mr. Kim told Mr. Xi that he remained committed to the goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said Thursday.
Mr. Xi praised Mr. Kim’s “new strategic line” of focusing on economic growth while suspending nuclear and missile tests, the North Korean news agency said, adding that Mr. Xi had accepted Mr. Kim’s invitation to visit North Korea. Mr. Xi has never visited North Korea as Chinese leader.
Mr. Moon, the South Korean leader, has also urged North Korea and the United States to reach a compromise, urging North Korea to take bold steps toward denuclearization and Washington to offer simultaneous incentives.
One such incentive could be a joint statement declaring a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War, which was halted in a truce, he said. But he said the United States was unlikely to withdraw American troops from South Korea or remove strategic assets from its military bases in Japan and Guam.
Last month, North Korea said it would not denuclearize until the United States agreed to diminish its military capacity in the vicinity of the Korean Peninsula.
Mr. Moon said that South Korea was willing to reopen the joint inter-Korean factory park in the North Korean city of Kaesong, as well as South Korean tours to the North’s Diamond Mountain. But the projects cannot resume until international sanctions are eased, and Mr. Moon vowed on Thursday to discuss removing the obstacle with Washington as soon as possible.
The Diamond Mountain and Kaesong projects had provided badly needed foreign currency for the impoverished North until they were shut down in 2008 and 2016, respectively, amid rising tensions between the two sides.
During his New Year’s Day speech, Mr. Kim said his government was willing to resume the projects without conditions.
His offer was enthusiastically embraced by Mr. Moon, who supports broader inter-Korean economic cooperation to help South Korea’s slowing economy and advance Korean reunification.
But Washington insists it will not ease sanctions until North Korea denuclearizes. Seoul and Washington recently established a joint working group to coordinate their policies amid concern that North Korea is trying to drive a wedge between the allies.
Mr. Kim is also seeking China’s support for easing sanctions ahead of his meeting with Mr. Trump, said Kim Donggil, director of the Center for Korean Peninsula Studies at Peking University in Beijing.
“He needs to know what support he might receive from China if he does what he plans to do,” he said. “One thing he needs is for China to convince the United States to reduce sanctions against North Korea.”