But as North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests have accelerated since his election in May, Mr. Moon has aligned himself closely with the tough line espoused by Mr. Trump and Mr. Abe, while continuing to oppose their openness to a military option. When the three leaders met on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit conference in Germany in July, they agreed to cooperate in enhancing their defense capabilities against the North Korean threat.
Such an agreement between South Korea and Japan was highly unusual. South Koreans have been wary of giving Japan, its former colonial master, any reason to rearm its postwar pacifist military. The leadership in the South also does not want the country dragged into a struggle for regional hegemony between American-backed Japan and China, which is angry at Mr. Moon’s deployment of an American-made antimissile system on South Korean soil.
“Although there is not much common ground between Moon and Abe, the gravity of the North Korean nuclear crisis has brought them together in an uncomfortable partnership,” said Yun Duk-min, a former chancellor of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy who now teaches at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.
Some South Koreans suspect Mr. Abe of using the growing threat from the North to push his nationalist agenda at home. They also wonder whether Mr. Abe has been encouraging the Trump administration’s increasingly combative stance toward North Korea, making the situation even more volatile.
“More dialogue with North Korea would be a dead end,” Mr. Abe said in an Op-Ed published in The New York Times on Sunday. “I firmly support the United States position that all options are on the table.”
Tough talk aside, Japan also fears military action on the Korean Peninsula, which could lead to a regionwide nuclear war, analysts said. By agreeing with Washington to put all options on the table, Mr. Abe is playing the role of reliable United States ally, while hoping to encourage China to moderate the North’s behavior, they said. But domestic factors are also probably at play.
“For Prime Minister Abe and his administration, the deeper issue is the way in which he and his supporters can use the North Korean missile tests to generate increasing apprehension throughout Japan that Japan cannot rely on the United States alone, that Japan needs to have a much more proactive military,” said Alexis Dudden, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut and an expert on Korea-Japan relations.
Mr. Trump and Mr. Abe have tried to bring Mr. Moon into their fold on crucial areas.
Mr. Abe, in a telephone call with Mr. Moon last week, took issue with South Korea’s plan to provide $8 million in humanitarian aid for North Korea’s malnourished children and pregnant women. He said it was not a good time to do so. Mr. Moon responded that humanitarian issues should be kept separate from politics.
Mr. Trump has accused Mr. Moon’s government of “appeasement,” saying that “talking is not the answer” in dealing with North Korea.
“If the righteous many don’t confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph,” Mr. Trump said in his General Assembly speech on Tuesday. The remarks were reminiscent of the “axis of evil” comments President George W. Bush used against Iran, Iraq and North Korea as he pursued his war on terror after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Mr. Trump’s pointed remarks in urging China, Russia and other countries to help rein in the North came after his top aides had similarly ratcheted up their language.
“This regime is so close now to threatening the United States and others with a nuclear weapon that we really have to move with a great sense of urgency on sanctions, on diplomacy and preparing, if necessary, a military option,” H. R. McMaster, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters on Monday that the United States had devised military options against North Korea that would not put the South’s capital, Seoul, at grave risk of retaliation. He refused to elaborate on what those might be.
Most military planners have said that even limited military action against the North could easily escalate into a war with catastrophic results for both Koreas. The greater Seoul metropolitan area, home to 20 million, lies in the range of thousands of North Korean artillery pieces, rockets and short-range missiles.
Mr. Moon has repeatedly vowed to prevent the United States from bringing war to the Korean Peninsula. At the same time, he has begun sounding like his conservative predecessors, pledging “doom” for the Pyongyang government if it persists in conducting nuclear and missile tests. Last week, hours after North Korea fired its second intermediate-range ballistic missile over Japan, Mr. Moon called talks with the country “impossible” unless it stopped such behavior.
As Mr. Moon has aligned himself more closely with Mr. Trump and Mr. Abe in recent weeks, however, some of his key liberal supporters have begun speaking out against that approach. They say tougher sanctions and Mr. Trump’s bombastic talk would only prompt North Korea to conduct more weapons tests. They urged Mr. Moon to return to his earlier hopes of guiding Washington to strike a deal with North Korea.
But North Korea has undermined Mr. Moon’s initiative by ignoring his calls to stand down and start a dialogue, said Bong Young-shik, a researcher at Yonsei University Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul.
“There is little the Moon government can do for now,” Mr. Bong said.
Continue reading the main story