The cover story: South Korean President Moon Jae-in's final attempt to heal his homeland

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The Cover Story
South Korean President Moon Jae-in Makes One Last Attempt to Heal His Homeland
By Charlie Campbell
East Asia Correspondent, TIME

The first time I met Moon Jae-in was April 2017 and he was just weeks away from being elected South Korea's president. Given the relentlessness of the campaign trail, we conducted our interview in a storeroom above a trendy Seoul café-cum-florist, shifting enormous bouquets out of the way to make space for a conversation and a makeshift photo studio. Amid the cherry blossom and forsythia, Moon's message was that a lasting peace with North Korea was within grasp.

Our interview for June's international cover story  couldn't have been less intimate. TIME's photo team had to undergo repeated COVID-19 tests to enter the manicured grounds of the presidential Blue House, which due to travel restrictions I could only join by video link. Yet Moon's message was remarkably similar: peace and denuclearization of North Korea was attainable, and this time he felt he had evidence on his side. While his election campaign had been punctuated by weapons tests, Moon had since coaxed Kim Jong Un into unprecedented engagement, including three meetings with former President Donald Trump. He wanted the incoming Biden Administration to reengage with vigor: "We have to resume dialogue as quickly as possible."

The rulers of both Koreas feel reunification is their destiny. Upon entering the Blue House's main building, visitors are greeted by an 11 meter by 5 meter painting of Korea by local artist, Kim Shik, looming over the central staircase. Geum-su-gang-san-do , which means "a map of a mountain stream as beautiful as silk embroidery," was completed in 1992 and is a poignant portrait of what Korea truly is: no North, no South, but a lush mountain range flanked by hundreds of islands tracing an unbroken peninsula. But it's a viewpoint increasingly alien to ordinary South Koreans. A dwindling number can still recall a time when both nations were one, and the younger generation are more concerned with careers, soaring house prices and corruption. Moon's approval rating—peaking at 80% early in his term—had dropped as low as 32% due to domestic travails. The stalling of denuclearization talks under Trump injected weariness where there had been optimism. Kim's weapons tests may have slowed, but COVID-19 presents a more immediate crisis. With less than a year left in office, for Moon, time, and hope, are running out.

—With reporting by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang/Seoul

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