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South Korea seeks 'stakeholder' role as Kim, Trump eye deal to shape peninsula's fate

HANOI (Reuters) - South Korean officials, wary of being left on the sidelines as the leaders of North Korea and the United States seek to clinch a deal that could shape the future of the Korean peninsula, are cautiously carving out a presence at the summit venue.

A view of the press centre opened by the South Korean government ahead of the North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Hyonhee Shin

In a bid to raise its profile, South Korea has dispatched at least two dozen officials to the Vietnamese capital Hanoi, opened its own press centre, and even arranged for a South Korean bakery chain to offer free snacks to journalists covering the summit.

Last year’s dramatic detente between the two Koreas was instrumental in bringing about an unprecedented meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore last June, during which they vowed to work towards denuclearisation.

With little progress since, Trump and Kim will meet again in Hanoi on Wednesday and Thursday, amid mounting pressure for concrete results.

A team of more than 20 officials from various agencies in President Moon Jae-in’s administration are in Hanoi for the summit. Among them is nuclear envoy Lee Do-hoon, who has met several times since last week with his U.S. counterpart Stephen Biegun leading working-level talks with North Korea for the summit, officials said.

On Tuesday, the South Korean government held an opening ceremony for its own, spacious press room connected to an international media centre run by Vietnam, hosting a roundtable with pro-engagement academics and celebrating the second summit between Trump and Kim as a chance to promote peace.

It also brought in Paris Baguette, a South Korean bakery chain with presence in Vietnam, to the international media centre to offer free sandwiches, snacks and drinks for journalists.

Seoul tasked the state-funded Korea Press Foundation, instead of a full-fledged state agency, with operating the media centre in part not to undermine host Vietnam, an official said.

“We are not a stranger here and would want to help, but wouldn’t look so pretty if the Blue House took charge since it’s their summit,” the official said on anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

The efforts are in line with a pledge by Moon, who said Trump asked him last year to act as “chief negotiator” between Washington and Pyongyang, and to play the role of the “main stakeholder” on peninsula issues.

On Monday, Moon vowed not to be left “on the periphery” but take the lead in officially ending the 1950-53 Korean War and fostering a peace regime.

“We’re the masters of the Korean Peninsula’s destiny,” he told a meeting with senior aides.

Moon is hoping the summit will help advance Seoul’s plans to reconnect road and rail links with the North and reopen a joint factory park and tourism zone. Those efforts have been hampered by sanctions imposed over the North’s nuclear and missile programmes.

The United States has resisted North Korea’s calls for easing sanctions in return for some of its initial steps to curb its weapons programmes, while expressing discontent that inter-Korean ties may be moving too fast.

Last week, Moon offered to “ease the burden” on the United States during a phone call with Trump by providing concessions to the North via inter-Korean economic projects.

“Denuclearisation may take a long time, but we’re happy as long as the upcoming summit speeds it up,” another South Korean official said, asking anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

For live coverage of the summit, click: here; Eikon SUMMIT LIVE [nL3N20L1GT]; Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Lincoln Feast.