Earlier this year, Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in hold hands as they cross the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) to Panmunjom in Paju, South Korea. (Source: Inter-Korean Summit Press Corps/Pool via Bloomberg)

Moon Starts Pyongyang Bid to Save Trump-Kim Nuclear Talks

(Bloomberg) -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un held their first round of discussions on Tuesday in Pyongyang at the start of a landmark three-day visit to salvage stalled nuclear talks.

The leaders spoke for two hours at the headquarters of the Workers’ Party of Korea in Pyongyang. Kim praised “tireless efforts” by Moon, saying they helped improve North Korea’s relations with the U.S. and stabilize the region, according to a media pool report. Moon replied that he respected Kim’s determination to “open a new era” of cooperation and that he feels a “heavy responsibility,” the report said.

Moon’s trip is scheduled to feature a press appearance on Wednesday with Kim, who has resisted American attempts to spell out a timetable for giving up his nuclear weapons. Talks have stalled just three months after he met U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore, with Kim saying the U.S. needs to reciprocate for the country’s dismantling nuclear and missile test sites.

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.

Moon Starts Pyongyang Bid to Save Trump-Kim Nuclear Talks

Thousands of North Koreans waved flowers and flags as Kim and Moon shared smiles and handshakes on the tarmac, a warm start to the first visit by a South Korean leader in 11 years.

Despite the goodwill during Moon’s arrival, North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency blamed the U.S. for the deadlocked negotiations shortly after he touched down. It accused Washington of making “gangster-like” demands and failing to build confidence with measures like a peace declaration. Citing a commentary published in the state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper, it said the future of the talks “totally depends on the stand and action of the U.S.”

“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 flew with a roughly 200-person 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.

Moon Starts Pyongyang Bid to Save Trump-Kim Nuclear Talks

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.

“The heavy burden of denuclearization is weighing on the summit,” Im Jong-seok, Moon’s chief of staff, told reporters on Monday. “This is why we are very cautious and it is difficult to give any optimistic outlook.”

A joint statement that could be announced as early as Wednesday morning will contain an agreement to reduce military tensions on the heavily guarded inter-Korean border, Im said, but a denuclearization deal will depend on “sincere talks” between the two leaders. The prospect of economic cooperation will also be limited, he said.

“There are quite strict sanctions from the international community that are being enforced, so there is a clear difference between what we can act upon and what we can’t do,” Im said.

The Trump administration is stepping up efforts to sustain sanctions against North Korea, even as South Korea and other Asian nations look for potential investment opportunities with Kim’s regime and Washington accuses Moscow of backtracking on the restrictions.

In a heated United Nations Security Council meeting on Monday, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley accused Russia of “actively working to undermine” international sanctions against North Korea, saying Moscow’s policy is to “deny, distract and lie.” Russia’s UN envoy, Vassily Nebenzia, rejected Haley’s “emotional statement,” adding that the U.S. was trying to extract concessions from North Korea without offering anything in return.

While the U.S. has previously accused both China and Russia of violating the sanctions, Haley aimed her criticism Monday squarely at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government, accusing it of successfully pressuring a supposedly independent UN panel to water down a report on the implementation of sanctions.

“Why after voting for sanctions 11 different times is Russia backing away from them?,” Haley said Monday. “We know the answer. Its because Russia has been cheating. And now they’ve been caught.”

While maintaining maximum pressure on Pyongyang, Trump has also expressed an openness to meeting Kim again for another summit. Moon is due to attend the UN General Assembly next week where he will meet Trump on the sidelines and continue his efforts to facilitate talks between the U.S. president and Kim.

“We are working with the international community on sanctions,” said Moon’s spokesman Yoon Young-chan on Tuesday when he was asked to comment on the UN meeting.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.