South Korean President Moon Jae-in has staked his legacy on the stunning diplomatic progress he has forged with North Korea, as well as the behind-the-scenes orchestration of the US-North Korean summits. But following months of stalemate on North Korea nuclear talks, Moon’s presidency faces a crucial moment, with President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un set to meet for the second time next week. Moon, a liberal who took office in May 2017, is desperate for a breakthrough so he can continue engagement with the North that has driven the three-way diplomacy but is now held back by tough US-led sanctions against Pyongyang. There’s hope among Moon’s supporters that progress by Trump and Kim on the nuclear issue will allow the partial sanctions relief needed for the Koreas to resume joint economic projects that were shelved during previous standoffs. But Moon may be disappointed in his push for quick sanctions relief. It remains unclear whether Kim is ready to deal away his nukes, and Washington still sees economic pressure as its best form of leverage over Pyongyang. If the nuclear negotiations break down, Moon could face a serious political dilemma over whether to continue to engage with the North or join another US-led pressure campaign. A look at the stakes for Moon as Trump and Kim prepare to meet in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi: Moon’s Shot Moon, who has preached that Seoul should be in the driver’s seat when dealing with Pyongyang, has prioritized improving bilateral relations with North Korea, which he says would help drive nuclear progress between Washington and Pyongyang. A son of North Korean war refugees, Moon has vowed to build on the legacies of former Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Under their “Sunshine Policy,” which Moon had a hand in building as Roh’s chief of staff, economic inducements from Seoul resulted in temporary rapprochement and summits in 2000 and 2007 with then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un’s late father. In a phone conversation with Trump on Tuesday, Moon said the South was ready to proceed with inter-Korean economic projects to induce further nuclear disarmament steps from Kim. But Moon is in a tougher spot than his liberal predecessors, who governed when the North’s nuclear threat was nascent. Kim’s arsenal now includes purported thermonuclear warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles potentially capable of reaching the US mainland. The Trump-Kim meeting in Hanoi could be pivotal in determining whether things head toward a stable and nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, or the cementing of the North as a nuclear power. With crucial parliamentary elections coming next year, Moon can’t afford a major setback in inter-Korean relations, his strongest issue. Moon continues to enjoy a good level of public support for his rapprochement with North Korea. But recent polls show there’s also growing skepticism among South Koreans, especially among older people, over whether Kim will ever give up his nukes. “As long as the Kim Jong Un regime is there, North Korea will never abandon its nuclear weapons, even if we pay them hundreds of billions of dollars or trillions of dollars,” said Thae Yong Ho, a former North Korean diplomat who defected to the South in 2016. “The nuclear weapons are gravity that pulls the regime together,” Thae said. “They make up for the North getting behind in the inter-Korean competition and provide an instant solution to the North’s inferiority in conventional military power against the United States and South Korea.” Worries In Seoul There’s discontent over a rapidly decaying job market — the 1.22 million South Koreans measured as jobless in January represented the highest number in 19 years. The bad economy has also compromised government efforts toward reforming powerful family-owned conglomerates often accused of monopolistic behavior and corruptive ties with politicians. There’s also worry over the long-term effects of a falling birthrate as many women put off marriage and child birth because of financial instability, grueling working hours and limited daycare services. Published in Daily Times, February 22nd 2019.