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Most South Koreans think Moon, not Trump, is leading the way on North Korea talks

When it comes to who should get credit for denuclearization talks with North Korea, South Korean leader Moon Jae-in has specifically pointed the finger toward one man.

“President Trump should win the Nobel Peace Prize,” Moon told reporters last April, in one of many moments of flattery toward the U.S. leader.

A new poll, however, shows that many South Koreans would not agree. According to the survey, conducted in late December by Hankook Research for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 31 percent of South Koreans thought that Trump had a greater impact than Moon on bringing North Korea to the table for denuclearization talks.

Comparatively, almost 6 out of 10 said that Moon had a greater impact on talks than Trump did; a further 5 percent said they had an equal impact.

The poll was released as there is renewed activity on denuclearization talks between the United States and North Korea, after months of relative inaction. Former North Korean spy chief Kim Yong Chol is in Washington on Friday, and it is widely expected that the United States may soon announce a second summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The White House announced a second summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Trump at the end of February. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

The hope is that a second summit might kick-start the practical side of North Korean denuclearization and clear the impasse that has taken hold since Trump met with Kim in Singapore last June, amid a number of separate inter-Korean summits between Moon and Kim.

“North Korea knows it needs to take clear denuclearization steps to see international sanctions lifted, and I think the United States also realizes that reciprocal measures are needed to match these North Korean denuclearization steps,” Moon said in an annual news conference Jan. 10.

Moon, a representative of the left-leaning Democratic Party, won election in 2017 after the conservative previous government was forced from power amid a corruption and influence-peddling scandal. Even before he was elected, Moon had made clear he thought there was a way forward for U.S.-North Korea talks.

“I believe President Trump is more reasonable than he is generally perceived,” Moon told The Washington Post just days before he won the election. “I am for that kind of pragmatic approach to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue.”

The Chicago Council poll showed relatively little confidence among South Koreans that either world leaders' negotiating abilities would lead North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons — 52 percent said they had little or no confidence in Moon’s ability on this front, while 53 percent said the same of Trump.

In general, supporters of Moon’s leftist government were more positive about both Trump and Moon, while supporters of the conservative Liberty Korea Party were more skeptical. More than three-quarters of all South Koreans thought that the sanctions on North Korea were what had brought Kim to the negotiating table.

There were notable areas of optimism. Forty-two percent of South Koreans thought that the national security situation in the country had gotten better, compared with four years ago, with 30 percent saying it was the same and 23 percent saying it had gotten worse. Another poll conducted last year by the Asan Institute found that 60 percent of the country approved of Moon’s policy toward North Korea.

Perhaps because of this, South Koreans' own desire for nuclear weapons appears to have dipped to 54 percent in favor, compared with 43 percent opposed. Older polls have put the percentage of South Koreans who want nuclear weapons slightly higher, with as much as two-thirds in favor.

Despite Trump’s sometimes critical talk about the alliance with South Korea — complaining about the nature of the military alliance with the country and delaying joint exercises last year — most South Koreans seem comfortable with the state of the countries' partnership. A plurality of 36 percent credited the alliance in general for stopping a wide-scale North Korean attack in past 10 years, while 75 percent said they thought that the United States would defend South Korea in such an attack.

Such confidence may be earned. A separate poll conducted in 2017 by the Chicago Council found that 62 percent of Americans supported the use of U.S. troops if North Korea were to invade South Korea — the first time since 1990 that a majority favored backing South Korea in this way.

Hankook Research conducted the poll Dec. 26 and 27. The sample size was 1,000 South Koreans ages 19 and older. They were contacted on landline phones. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Read more:

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Interview with Moon Jae-in, set to become South Korea’s next president