SEOUL — South Korea’s departing president, Moon Jae-in, exchanged farewell letters with North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, both governments announced on Friday, capping a checkered relationship filled with highs and lows and currently locked in a diplomatic stalemate.
Mr. Moon, 69, who is barred by law from seeking re-election, will step down on May 10 after a single five-year term. In his letter sent Wednesday, he urged Mr. Kim to use “dialogue to overcome the era of confrontation” on the divided Korean Peninsula, according to Mr. Moon’s spokeswoman, Park Kyung-mee.
The South Korean president asked Mr. Kim to resume dialogue with the United States to try to end the cycle of tensions caused by North Korea’s nuclear weapons development and missile launches, which have led to international sanctions.
“There were moments of regret and memories of overwhelming emotions,” Mr. Moon wrote in the letter of his relationship with Mr. Kim. “But I believe that holding our hands together, we have taken a sure step toward changing the fate of the Korean Peninsula.”
Mr. Moon said that he would soon return to “life as an ordinary citizen,” but that his heart will be dedicated to efforts to build peace between the two Koreas.
North Korea’s First ICBM Firing Since 2017
On March 24, North Korea launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017, marking the end of a self-imposed moratorium.
Mr. Kim, 38, who will most likely rule North Korea until his death barring a coup or other forced removal, and whose government has harshly criticized the South Korean government, had some warm parting words for Mr. Moon, nevertheless.
“Kim Jong-un appreciated the pains and effort taken by Moon Jae-in for the great cause of the nation until the last days of his term of office,” the North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported on Friday, referring to the letter Mr. Kim sent in response. “The exchange of the personal letters between the top leaders of the North and the South is an expression of their deep trust.”
The Koreas are still technically at war since the fighting between the two sides ended in 1953 not with a formal peace treaty but in a truce. When Mr. Moon took office in 2017, the Korean Peninsula looked as if it were edging toward a renewed war. North Korea tested a hydrogen bomb and launched intercontinental ballistic missiles. President Donald J. Trump threatened to rain “fire and fury” on the North. The two leaders exchanged personal insults like “little Rocket Man” and “U.S. dotard.”
But Mr. Moon and Mr. Kim introduced a rare détente when they met three times in 2018, hugging each other and vowing to build peace and reconciliation on the peninsula. Mr. Moon regularly called for dialogue and improving inter-Korean relations. He saw his political stock rise when he mediated the unprecedented made-for-TV summit between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump in Singapore in 2018.
The leaders signed a document in which Mr. Trump promised “security guarantees” for North Korea and Mr. Kim committed to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Mr. Moon had his own moments of glory, as well: He stood in the May Day Stadium in Pyongyang in 2018, becoming the first South Korean leader to address a North Korean audience. He and Mr. Kim raised their locked hands atop Mount Paektu, which Koreans consider their nation’s sacred birthplace.
But the euphoria didn’t last long.
The devil has always been in the details when it comes to negotiating how to implement any deal with North Korea. Mr. Moon’s painstaking work to mediate between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump started fraying after their second summit, held in Hanoi in 2019, collapsed without the leaders sorting out the details on how to carry out the Singapore agreement.
The Significance of North Korea’s Missile Tests
Mr. Trump left office without the removal of any North Korean nuclear warheads. Mr. Moon later said that Mr. Trump “beat around the bush and failed to pull it through.”
Since then, Mr. Kim has resumed a barrage of weapons tests, including one involving an intercontinental ballistic missile last month. His government has vented its frustration at South Korea, calling Mr. Moon’s government “officious,” an “idiot” and a “feared mongrel dog.” The North even blew up a joint inter-Korean liaison office that Mr. Moon had considered one of his key legacies.
In South Korea’s polarized society, Mr. Moon’s critics called him a naïve pacifist who bet too much on Mr. Kim’s unproven commitment to denuclearization. But Mr. Moon had die-hard supporters for his approach. His approval ratings hovered around 44 percent this month, an usually high record for a departing South Korean leader, according to surveys.
Even so, Mr. Moon’s trademark policy of seeking dialogue and exchanges with North Korea is in jeopardy after the candidate of his liberal Democratic Party lost the March 9 election by a razor-thin margin to Yoon Suk-yeol, who championed a more hawkish stance on North Korea during the campaign.
In his letter, Mr. Kim appeared to send a vaguely worded message to Mr. Yoon, the incoming president of South Korea. Mr. Kim said that “inter-Korean relations would improve and develop as desired and anticipated by the nation if the north and the south make tireless efforts with hope,” the North Korean news agency said.
Mr. Yoon’s office did not immediately comment publicly on Mr. Kim’s remarks.
During the campaign, Mr. Yoon said he was open to dialogue with North Korea. But like past conservative South Korean leaders, he also emphasized the importance of enforcing sanctions against the North as a tool to pressure North Korea to return to the negotiating table.