After returning home from Pyongyang, the South Korean envoys will fly to Washington for follow-up discussions with the Trump administration.
Washington and Pyongyang remain far apart over the terms under which they would start such a dialogue, a gap that South Korea seeks to narrow.
The Trump administration says it is determined not to repeat what it calls the mistakes of its predecessors, who tried both dialogue and sanctions but failed to stop the North’s nuclear program. Washington now says it will enter negotiations with North Korea only after it commits to discussing denuclearization.
American officials fear that North Korea is more interested in weakening sanctions that have begun biting the impoverished country than engaging in serious negotiations. Even if talks begin, they say, Washington will not stop its campaign of “maximum” pressure and sanctions until the North dismantles its nuclear weapons program.
But North Korea rejects any preconditions for talks, saying Washington must treat it like an “equal” nuclear power. It also insists that any talks with Washington would have to deal not only with its nuclear program but also with “hostile” American policies, like the United States’ annual joint military exercises with the South, which the North says forced it to seek a nuclear deterrent in the first place.
Mr. Moon spent most of the last year helplessly watching the Korean Peninsula edge toward a possible war, as the North test-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles and conducted its most powerful nuclear test, and Mr. Trump threatened to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea.
Mr. Moon saw an opening when Mr. Kim agreed to send North Korean envoys, as well as athletes and cheerleaders, to the Pyeongchang Olympics. He has since assumed the role of a matchmaker in persuading Washington and Pyongyang to soften their stances enough to make dialogue possible.
The last time South Korea sent an envoy to Pyongyang was in 2007, toward the tail end of the South’s decade-long “Sunshine Policy” of encouraging economic and other exchanges with the North. But a conservative leader took power in Seoul the following year, cutting off inter-Korean trade in retaliation against the North’s nuclear weapons development and other provocations.
Kim Jong-un has accelerated his country’s nuclear and missile tests since inheriting power after his father, Kim Jong-il, died in 2011. After launching an intercontinental ballistic missile in November, Mr. Kim claimed to have a “nuclear button” on his desk with which he could fire missiles capable of reaching the mainland United States. American officials say Mr. Kim is getting dangerously close to achieving the ability to strike the United States with nuclear-tipped missiles.
Mr. Kim, at 34, is one of the world’s youngest and most reclusive dictators. He has met with envoys from China and Cuba, as well as personal guests, including the American basketball star Dennis Rodman. But until now, he has never met any envoy from South Korea. Neither has he visited any foreign country as North Korea’s leader, although he studied in Switzerland as a teenager.