The Koreas

President Moon’s North Korea Strategy

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The Koreas

President Moon’s North Korea Strategy

South Korea’s new leader unveiled his strategy in an important speech in Berlin.

President Moon’s North Korea Strategy
Credit: Cheong Wa Dae

This article was first published at 38 North, a blog of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins SAIS. It is republished with kind permission.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in unveiled his North Korea strategy in a long-awaited speech in Berlin, Germany on July 6. Moon’s policy represents an interesting mix of several of his predecessors’ approaches, which were regarded largely as either too soft or too tough. In addition to a few general statements on strategic positions, his speech also included a number of very specific and detailed proposals about how to deal with North Korea.

Having witnessed the excitement in Seoul after Kim Dae-jung’s Berlin Declaration back in 2000, and having been utterly disappointed by Park Geun-hye’s Dresden Speech of 2014, I find Moon’s statements to be more difficult to categorize. He did not offer unconditional cooperation to Pyongyang, but he also did not signal an intention to colonize North Korea. He worked hard to emphasize the importance of the alliance with the United States and explicitly mentioned complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of the North’s nuclear weapons program. But he also clearly stressed the need for Korea to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to inter-Korean relations and an eventual unification, echoing the term “by our nation itself,” which is so popular in North Korea that it is even used as the name for one of its official websites (


The choice of Germany as a location for such a speech on unification policy is not ideal, but it is certainly better than, for example, Washington or Beijing would have been. The North Koreans are very wary of any South Korean attempt at domination. Therefore, delivering such a programmatic speech in the capital of a superpower would have been regarded as either threatening or sycophancy. Germany is, at least for East Asians, a rather unsuspicious place from this perspective, although we should not forget that West Germany actually did take over East Germany in 1990, no matter how friendly that act was.

The selection of Berlin, too, at first glance seems an uninspired but acceptable choice. Berlin is, of course, a good choice because it represents both East and West Germany; the city itself was divided and in many ways is like a mini-version of unified Germany. At the same time, it is the most obvious option and thus lacks freshness, especially given the fact that Kim Dae-jung had already spoken there on this topic. Perhaps this particular parallel was intended, since Kim’s Berlin speech was the prelude to the first and much celebrated inter-Korean summit.

On second thought, maybe the location chosen wasn’t so devoid of special meaning after all. While Kim Dae-jung spoke at Free University in former West Berlin, Moon Jae-in spoke in the Altes Stadthaus, which is located in former East Berlin. Assuming this choice was made deliberately, and that it is understood as such by Pyongyang, it sends a different and more positive and cooperative message to North Korea. Moon did not speak in the part of the city that was able to make its own set of values and rules the new common standard; he spoke where the magistrate of unified Berlin now actually resides, and where the biggest improvements and investments of the last two decades have taken place.

Translated into plain English, the South Korean president told the North Koreans: I am going to accept and respect you as equals, and you are going to benefit. This is very smart; the North Koreans, with their knowledge of context and attention to detail, will get the message, while the political opposition in Seoul, which is waiting to criticize Moon for being a clone of his two progressive predecessors, will most likely miss it.

Interaction and Cooperation

Moon rightly stressed the importance of the process leading to unification rather than laying out detailed plans about how a post-unification Korea should look. He reminded us of the many successes of the Sunshine Policy, most prominently the steps taken by Pyongyang toward a partial liberalization of the domestic market. These are effects that I still see when I travel through North Korea despite the many attempts by hardliners on both sides to undo what has been achieved.

A very important point was the explicit recognition that we talk about a long-term project; Moon mentioned 20 years of Ostpolitik. One reason for the bad reputation of Kim Dae-jung’s policy among many South Koreans today is that he created the impression, albeit unwillingly, that unification was imminent and a matter of a few years, if not months. Disappointment followed soon. Moon Jae-in offers a more realistic and less ambitious perspective. This needs to be seen together with his campaign pledge to reform the presidential system in South Korea, which, if successful, would pave the way for a more consistent and longer-term policy, which is currently almost impossible with only a single five-year presidential term and a parliament that mainly either supports or opposes the president but rarely launches initiatives of its own.

Equally important is Moon’s remark on the regional context of unification. Helmut Kohl responded to French and British fears over the potential and intentions of a strong, unified Germany by deliberately sacrificing the powerful Deutschmark in exchange for a multilaterally controlled Euro, and by shedding further elements of German national sovereignty by actively integrating the country into the European Union. This came at a price, but Kohl was willing to pay it. I am not so sure whether Korea would do the same, but the concerns of its neighbors also differ much from the German case so other measures will be required.

A regional approach will nevertheless be useful, not least in order to manage the dilemma of being stuck between two allies — China and the United States — that each aim for exclusive influence in a unified Korea. Looking beyond the Korean peninsula, we find many countries in East Asia that are in a similar situation; closer institutional Korean cooperation with ASEAN countries, for example, could offer new options. Entering an enlarged ASEAN or a yet-to-be-founded Association of East Asian Nations might even be attractive for North Korea, given the principle of non-interference and some rather good bilateral relations with members of that group.

Being Tough and Soft

Moon, in very clear words, condemned North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, called the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test launch of July 4 a provocation and a reckless choice, and reiterated the demand for CVID. In particular, the latter is noteworthy. It is a term that symbolizes a school of thought that views engagement and dialogue with North Korea as appeasement and rewarding bad behavior. The use of the expression “last chance to make the right decision” sounds much like a threat — something one would not expect a former member of the Roh Moo-hyun administration to issue in such clarity.

But then Moon also expressed his regret that North Korea’s recent move hurt Seoul’s plans to help Pyongyang receive the international community’s (read: Washington’s) support and cooperation. He revealed that he had already secured support from China and the United States for inter-Korean dialogue. He supported sanctions but also implied that these could be rescinded. Most importantly, he seems to have offered the North Koreans a peace treaty to end the Korean War in exchange for denuclearization — without talking about preconditions. The latter will not be welcomed in Washington; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson already said that a freeze at the current level of capability is unacceptable for the United States. On the other hand, it is clear that a freeze is the maximal concession North Korea would be willing to make at the moment, because they do not trust the United States and want to keep the option of quickly returning to the status quo as soon as they believe Washington is not honoring its promises. This is the lesson they have learned from the fate of several now dead leaders in the Middle East, and also how they see the fate of the 1994 Framework Agreement.

Interestingly, Moon also left it open who the, in his words, “relevant countries” would be to work out a peace treaty. This looks like a nod toward Russia, which so far is an underutilized factor from a South Korean perspective. But it is certainly also a claim for South Korean participation, which the North has refused to accept thus far, pointing to the fact that formally, the Republic of Korea was not at war and did not sign the armistice agreement.

Moon left no doubt over his determination not to surrender the future of Korea to outside forces. Carefully avoiding the statement that Seoul wants to lead, he stressed that “his country” must sit in the driver’s seat. This will neither fuel North Korean concerns over South Korean dominance, nor will it provide substance to the political opposition’s claims of the president’s alleged appeasement. On the other hand, it leaves room for interpretation in any direction.

While stressing that active North Korean cooperation would be a prerequisite for any progress, Moon repeatedly expressed his willingness to respect and accept North Korea as it is. To make sure the message isn’t missed, he explicitly said that he neither wishes for North Korea to collapse nor that he will work toward any kind of unification through absorption. For now, these are only words, of course, but as a signal to both Koreas they are very meaningful. Moon’s emphasis on an anticipated “return” to the June 15 Joint Declaration and the October 4 Declaration was both a blow at his two conservative predecessors and an olive branch to the North Koreans who have in their official media stressed these two documents over and over again. To Moon, “coexistence and co-prosperity” are the name of the game, even though the latter term might trigger unhappy memories of imperial Japanese plans to lead East Asia a few decades ago.

Lee Myung-bak in 2008 created outrage in Pyongyang when he offered to raise North Korea’s GDP to $3,000 per capita. This was deliberately misunderstood as a clumsy attempt at bribing North Koreans into becoming junior partners of South Korea. Moon Jae-in therefore avoided any specific figures but nevertheless talked at length and with great detail about the mutual economic benefits from cooperation, specifically mentioning the energy field and transportation. However, obviously acknowledging existing economic sanctions, a reopening of Kaesong was not part of his speech.

Unlike the previous government, Moon stressed the need to separate various issues from each other and to have humanitarian exchanges independent of the political climate. Meetings of separated families, joint participation in sports events including the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, cooperation on the subnational level, environmental protection, and the improvement of human rights should not become hostages of international politics. I could not agree more, but wonder how this resonates in Washington, where Congress is working hard at the moment to find a legal way to ban American tourism to North Korea.

At the end of his speech, Moon created one of the most visible parallels with Kim Dae-jung’s Berlin Declaration by offering to meet Chairman Kim Jong-un “at any time at any place,” but not without adding a somewhat ambiguous legal disclaimer: “if the conditions are met.” No details on these conditions were provided.

Conclusion: What is the Message?

As a scholar, I can see how this speech will be used in many university classes as a textbook example of navigating through an ocean that seems to consist of more cliffs than water. Moon Jae-in has a goal, but he also knows that he is watched closely and with suspicion by the North Koreans, the Americans, the Chinese, and his own people, some of whom expect progress on the inter-Korean front while others fear naivety and weakness in dealing with a dangerous foe.

Moon is right to stress that Korean unification is a Korean affair, but he is also wise enough to duly consider the interests of outside forces who, like it or not, can make or break the future of Korea. South Korean presidents have learned the hard way that they will get nowhere on North Korea if they act against the United States. China now emerges as an equally difficult and increasingly assertive factor. While Korea can always dream about active support from Washington and Beijing, a more modest goal would be to at least avoid their opposition. This, it seems, was one of the key goals of the speech.

In the end, as often is the case, the most decisive factor for success or failure is North Korea. Moon knows that very well and therefore made offers to the North while repeatedly reassuring Kim Jong-un of his sincere intentions. It now remains to be seen how this message is received in Pyongyang, which has a long record of missed opportunities.

Ruediger (Rudiger) Frank is a Professor of East Asian Economy and Society at the University of Vienna and Head of its Department of East Asian Studies