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Why The Second U.S.-North Korea Summit Dealt A Setback To South Korea's Plans


South Korea is trying to keep negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea moving ahead after last week's summit in Vietnam ended without a new deal. When the talks collapsed, it dealt a setback to South Korea's plans to engage with the North. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has more from Seoul.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The timing could not have been more awkward. President Moon Jae-in had scheduled a speech celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the Korean Independence movement against Japanese colonialism for Friday, the day after the Hanoi summit. Moon presented a grand vision of a peaceful peninsula despite the diplomatic deadlock of just a day before.


PRESIDENT MOON JAE-IN: (Through interpreter) On the Korean Peninsula, shots are no longer heard in the sky, on land or at sea. Ideas once regarded as ethereal rainbows are now taking shape before our eyes.

KUHN: Cho Seong-ryoul is a recently retired researcher from the Institute for National Security Strategy, a government-funded think tank in Seoul. He says developments in Hanoi caught Moon off guard.

CHO SEONG-RYOUL: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "Because the recent summit failed to reach an agreement," he says, "implementing Moon's vision in earnest will be difficult. He had to take out large parts of his speech on inter-Korean economic cooperation." Some of those passages referred to the Kaesong joint industrial zone and the Diamond Mountain tourist site whose future is now in question. And plans to have Kim Jong Un visit Seoul, which would be the first-ever visit to the South by a North Korean leader, are now likely to be put on hold.

Peter Kim, a U.S.-Korean relations expert at Seoul's Kunming University, provided some of the few upticks in Moon's sliding approval ratings. His efforts to help workers instead of big corporations such as Hyundai and Samsung have proved unpopular, especially with small business owners.

PETER KIM: He doesn't want Korea to focus as heavily on conglomerate-driven growth or economic growth as it was in previous administrations. Because it hasn't worked and also the hourly increase in the minimum wage, those have combined to weaken the overall approval rating of his administration.

KUHN: But Moon does not seem to be panicking. One reason says, John Delury, an historian at Yonsei University in Seoul, is that South Koreans have lived through plenty of diplomatic setbacks, compared to which Hanoi doesn't look that bad.

JOHN DELURY: I think the view is that it didn't work in Hanoi, but the two sides didn't storm out, you know, screaming at each other. They kind of parted amicably, and therefore the attitude by President Moon here is, we just got to get right back in there.

KUHN: At a meeting of his National Security Council today, Moon told his officials that at least President Trump and Chairman Kim had gotten into the nitty-gritty details of dismantling nuclear facilities and easing economic sanctions.


MOON: (Through interpreter) I give President Trump high marks for explaining after the summit why he didn't reach an agreement and for expressing his continuing trust in Chairman Kim Jong Un and his commitment to further dialogue.

KUHN: Moon called for a semi-official talks between the U.S., North and South Korea to keep dialogue going. And on Saturday, the U.S. and South Korea announced they'd cancel annual spring military drills in order to make more room for diplomacy with Pyongyang. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Anthony Kuhn
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.