But Moon Jae-in, who will meet Kim in the demilitarized zone that separates their two countries next Friday, said North Korea has signaled a major shift in its stance.
“North Korea is expressing its intention for complete denuclearization,” Moon said during a lunch meeting in the presidential Blue House with top executives from 48 media companies. “And it is not making demands that the U.S. cannot accept, such as the withdrawal of the U.S. forces in Korea,” he said, according to the JoongAng Ilbo, one of South Korea’s biggest papers and one that had a representative at the lunch.
The U.S. military has 28,000 troops stationed in South Korea, with backups in Japan and on Guam — the legacy of the standoff that has ensued since the Korean War ended in 1953.
Every spring and fall, U.S. forces conduct drills with the South Korean military, preparing for various scenarios on the peninsula, including the sudden collapse of North Korea and “decapitation” strikes on the North Korean leadership.
North Korea strongly protests the drills, viewing them as a pretext for an invasion and emblematic of what it considers the U.S. policy to destroy the regime.
But Moon, who is vigorously promoting diplomacy as the solution to the North Korean nuclear problem, said Thursday that the Kim regime wants an “end to the hostile policy” and a “guarantee of its security” in return for abandoning its nuclear and missile program.
Many analysts were skeptical about Moon’s version of events, noting that he wants the summit to be a success so that President Trump will go ahead with his own meeting with Kim, tentatively planned for late May or early June.
Vipin Narang, a nonproliferation expert at MIT, said he would be “very, very careful” about interpreting Moon’s statement as a sign that Kim had conceded that U.S. Forces Korea could stay.
“This is a very clever semantic pirouette,” he said, adding that just because North Korea had not explicitly asked for U.S. forces to leave did not mean that North Korea had not included that step as part of its demand for “ending hostilities.”
Moon said the South Korean government was acting as a mediator “to narrow the gap between Pyongyang and Washington and explore realistic measures that can be accepted by the two sides.”
Moon’s diplomatic drive picked up pace amid increasing talk in Washington about “bloody nose” military strikes on North Korea — strikes that would be potentially devastating for South Korea. North Korea has a huge amount of conventional artillery lined up on the Seoul capital region, home to 25 million people.
“When we look back, just a few months ago, the shadow of war glimmered on the Korean peninsula as military tensions here had escalated sharply,” the president told the media executives, according to Yonhap News Agency, which was also represented at the lunch with Moon.
This, he said, highlighted the necessity of having “bold” ideas.
Moon invited North Korean representatives to the Winter Olympics, which South Korea hosted in February, paving the way for a remarkable set of diplomatic encounters. These have included Kim making his first visit abroad as leader — to Beijing to see Chinese President Xi Jinping — and CIA Director Mike Pompeo traveling to Pyongyang to talk to the 34-year-old Kim about his planned summit with Trump.
But the effort would be successful only if the summit between Trump and Kim was successful, Moon said.
“We will need bold imagination and creative solutions to make the two summits successful and not repeat the mistakes of the past,” Moon told the executives.
On Wednesday, after two days of meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump said he would cancel the meeting with Kim or walk out if there are signs it “is not going to be fruitful.”
“If I think it’s a meeting that is not going to be fruitful, we’re not going to go,” he said. “If the meeting, when I’m there, is not fruitful, I will respectfully leave the meeting.”