South Korean President Moon was confident he could convince European leaders to relax international sanctions on North Korea, but Germany, France and Britain are standing firm on complete denuclearization.
South Korea's presidential Blue House is putting a brave face on President Moon Jae-in's meetings last week with European leaders, but there is little disguising the fact that Moon failed to any win support for his proposals to relax international sanctions on North Korea.
Instead, the leaders of Germany, France and Britain all reiterated that there can be no "rewards" for the Kim regime without the "complete, verified and irreversible dismantlement (CVID)" of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons capability.
"It seems clear that Moon had genuinely high hopes of convincing European leaders that relaxing sanctions was the best course of action to encourage North Korea to denuclearize, but he was disappointed," Ahn Yin-hay, a professor of international relations at Seoul's Korea University, told DW
Ahn added the proposal was effectively a non-starter before Moon even got on the plane for his nine-day trip to Europe for the biennial Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Brussels and a series of bilateral meetings across the continent.
"It was not possible from the outset," Ahn said, adding that the political atmosphere in the US and Europe made support for Moon's suggestions on North Korea unlikely.
"The world has already been deceived by North Korea numerous times, and if Pyongyang is really serious about change this time, then it has to provide at least a partial list of its nuclear production and weapons facilities."
Talks at a standstill
This position is the reason why talks between North Korea and the US have recently come to a standstill. At the same time, Pyongyang is lobbying for the international community to relax sanctions imposed by the United Nations over its weapons of mass destruction programs.
During Moon's talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday, the two leaders agreed to develop their bilateral relationship and deepen economic ties.
However, Merkel disagreed with Moon on North Korea when he insisted that paring back sanctions would be the most effective way of encouraging Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear arsenal. Merkel said that North Korea needs to put its promises to denuclearize into action.
Moon received a similar response from French President Emmanuel Macron when the two leaders held talks in Paris. In a press conference immediately after their talks at the Elysee Palace, Macron said, "France highly appreciates South Korea's effort to make headway in getting North Korea to publicly and unequivocally embrace the CVID concept."
British Prime Minister Theresa May also reiterated the insistence on CVID during discussions with Moon on the sidelines of the Brussels conference.
As Paris and London represent two of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, their firm rebuff of Moon's proposals is particularly significant.
South Korea looks for a positive angle
"It was always going to be hard to get any of the European countries to openly say that they agreed to relaxing sanctions on North Korea," said Robert Dujarric, a professor of international relations at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.
"My sense is that sanctions will gradually be whittled down – that's something that we are already seeing - but European nations are not going to take the first step on that," he told DW, adding that Europe currently has more pressing problems than North Korea such as Russia and Iran.
Emanuel Pastreich, head of the Seoul-based Asia Institute, said Moon had placed himself in "a difficult position" by trying to encourage other governments to shift their stances on Pyongyang while Washington continues to advocate a firm line on the North.
"Russia, Turkey and Iran are much more serious issues for Europeans that need to be addressed, meaning that Korea is something of a sideshow," Pastreich told DW, adding that one bright spot on Moon's itinerary was the meeting with the Pope in the Vatican,during which the pontiff agreed to visit North Korea should he receive an official invitation.
And officials from the Blue House chose to play up the positives of the president's trip, claiming it had been a greater success than had been anticipated in advance.
"The president is optimistic," an official told South Korean media. "He has the conviction and confidence that we are moving in the right direction."
South Korean media have been broadly critical of what many see as appeasement of the North and were quick to express support for the European positions on tough sanctions.
In an editorial headlined "Macron was right to snub Moon over North Korean sanctions," the Chosun Ilbo newspaper pointed out that Pyongyang has refused to even provide a list of its nuclear facilities and stockpiles yet still demands concessions in order to "build trust."
Read more: Two Koreas pledge to boost ties
"The international community stands united in the view that sanctions must remain in place until concrete steps are taken because that is the only way the North can be pressured to scrap its nuclear weapons," the editorial said.
"Moon needs to take a close look at his policies and determine whether they are helping or harming such international efforts."