Juhyun Lee and Hyungjin Kim contributed to this report.
PANMUNJOM, DEMILITARIZED ZONE -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in vowed continued outreach to North Korea, saying the path to peace on the Korean Peninsula is irreversible despite temporary setbacks.
“This is a new path, and since we all must take it together we need sometimes to wait for those moving slower to catch up,” Moon said. “In the face of obstacles sometimes we need to catch our breath for a while and find the way together.”
Moon’s comments came on the first anniversary of his first meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
In a sign of worsening relations, North Korea did not attend the celebration. Instead, Pyongyang marked the occasion with a sternly worded statement in the Korean Central News Agency, which blamed the United States for holding back inter-Korean progress.
“The U.S. is employing every possible means and method to subordinate the North-South ties to its policy of sanctions and pressure upon the DPRK, while openly pressurizing the South Korean authorities,” said KCNA, quoting the North Korean Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country.
The first Moon-Kim summit helped spur a year of diplomacy and negotiations with the United States over North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Though both the nuclear talks and inter-Korean projects have stalled, South Korea pushed ahead Saturday with a celebration to mark the anniversary.
Artists from South Korea, China, Japan and the United States performed at the event, held at the border town of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone — the site of the first Moon-Kim meeting. The artists performed at five separate stations, each of which commemorated a different aspect of the summit.
Since the Moon-Kim summit, Panmunjom has become much less tense. Last October, the two Koreas and U.S.-led forces agreed to withdraw firearms and guard posts from the truce village, the only spot on the DMZ where North and South Korean soldiers stand face-to-face.
Steve Kim, a South Korean member of the joint security battalion at Panmunjom, says he no longer wears a gun or his bulky bulletproof vest.
“It’s much more comfortable,” Kim told reporters on a media tour ahead of the anniversary celebration.
South Korea says it would like to move ahead on other aspects of the agreements reached by Kim and Moon at the Panmunjom meeting, as well as two additional summits that followed. But doing so would likely violate international sanctions against North Korea.
The Trump administration has said it will not relax the sanctions until North Korea commits to completely abandoning its nuclear and chemical weapons program.
Moon on Saturday cited gradual progress in implementing the inter-Korean pledges, including withdrawing guard posts from the demilitarized zone, recovering remains of soldiers killed during the Korean War, and regular meetings at a joint liaison office just north of the border.
But North Korean officials have skipped high-level meetings with their South Korean counterparts at that office for nine consecutive weeks. And South Korea’s military has been forced to start searching for Korean War remains by itself in the DMZ after North Korea failed to cooperate on the project.
The lack of progress is a major problem for the Moon administration, which viewed inter-Korean cooperation as a top priority, says Shin Beom-chul of South Korea’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
“Moon’s approach was that improving inter-Korean relations would eventually lead to the denuclearization of North Korea,” Shin says. “That premise is now dismantling.”
While Moon’s public approval rating was more than 80% in the days following his first meeting with Kim, it has now slipped to 44%, according to the latest poll from Gallup Korea. Adding to Moon’s woes, South Korea’s economy unexpectedly contracted in the first quarter.
Still, the Moon administration remains upbeat, pushing for another meeting with Kim.
“We suggested the fourth summit,” South Korea’s Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul told reporters Friday, “And we will try our best to make it happen.”