Photo/IllutrationSouth Korean President Moon Jae-in with U.S. President Donald Trump after a meeting at the White House on April 11 (Photo by Yuko Lanham)

A year ago, the leaders of North and South Korea walked hand in hand across the military border dividing one race into two nations for a historic summit.

The joint declaration issued by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who met at the Joint Security Area in the border village of Panmunjom, appeared to herald a new era of harmonious co-existence between the rival countries.

Kim and Moon have met twice again since their April 2018 summit.

But substantial progress remains elusive with regard to achieving the main goals set by the declaration: “the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” and “establishing a permanent and peaceful Korean Peninsula peace regime.”

Stalled talks between the United States and North Korea over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program have erected a huge obstacle to efforts to achieve these goals.

Moon has been trying to play the role of “mediator” between the United States and North Korea. During the past year, his efforts yielded some achievements, including the two meetings between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Now, however, Moon finds himself in a difficult position.

After the second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi in late February broke down without a deal, both Washington and Pyongyang started growing wary about Seoul’s involvement.

The frustration on both sides has been directed also at South Korea, placing Moon in a dilemma.

Moon, who has made improving ties with North Korea his central diplomatic goal, must be feeling distressed by the lack of progress.

But Moon should understand that the current situation is testing his perseverance and commitment to the cause.

If he takes unilateral actions in a desperate effort to break the impasse, Moon could undermine the momentum for dialogue among countries concerned that he has helped engineer. It is vital to maintain constant and close cooperation among the United States, South Korea and Japan in dealing with inter-Korean policy issues.

The Kim regime has become particularly critical of South Korea. Kim recently denounced Seoul’s role. He said South Korea “should not act as an officious mediator” and should “be a party advocating the interests of the nation with its own spirit and voice.”

Trump, for his part, has made clear his opposition to the resumption of suspended inter-Korean economic cooperation projects that Moon has been pursuing.

In his meeting with Moon in April, Trump proposed a deal under which the sanctions on North Korea will be lifted in exchange for Pyongyang’s agreement to abandon all of its nuclear arms and facilities.

Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also confirmed the need to maintain this policy stance during their meeting in April.

Instead of making rash moves to provide support to the North, Moon should continue tenacious efforts to convince Pyongyang of the need to denuclearize.

Moon, if he is determined to play the role of mediator, should try to make Kim realize that the only option for his country is to terminate its development of nuclear arms and missiles to receive international assistance.

South Korea’s economic footing is becoming increasingly wobbly. The country’s economic growth rates have been sagging under Moon’s watch.

His policy of raising the legal minimum wage to help workers has put strains on small and midsize businesses, causing the unemployment rate to rise. Moon’s approval ratings have fallen below 50 percent from nearly 80 percent soon after he took office.

Given the plaudits he won by bringing an end to North Korea’s military provocations, Moon clearly wants to see a further advancement of the North-South relationship.

But Pyongyang could maneuver to take advantage of Moon’s wishes to drive a wedge into the relationship between Washington and Seoul.

If South Korea becomes alienated from the United States, Pyongyang will no longer seriously deal with Seoul.

The harsh situation concerning the inter-Korean relationship is likely to continue. That is all the more reason for the Moon administration to work closely with the international community to extract changes from North Korea.

--The Asahi Shimbun, May 2