The year 2018 may be in its infancy, but it is already serving up cause for optimism for South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his plans for warmer inter-Korean relations. From the very beginning of the year, when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un expressed willingness to talk to South Korea in his New Year’s address, things were looking up. Then on January 4, it was announced that the joint U.S.-South Korean military drills would be delayed until after the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. Very quickly, this led to the reopening of communication lines across the DMZ, and most significantly, the staging of inter-Korean talks just two weeks into the new year on January 9, the first in two years.
The result of those talks is that North Korea will send its athletes and a top-level delegation to the Olympics. The two sides will also consider holding military talks, as well as planning a possible reunion of divided families during next month’s lunar new year. All this is in sharp contrast to the tumultuous events of 2017, which saw the North’s sixth nuclear test, over 20 missile launches, and supplementary, stricter sanctions against Pyongyang, with even China joining in.
So, with the promise 2018 has brought so far, albeit at an early stage, can South Korea’s liberal President Moon Jae-in make a breakthrough in enhancing inter-Korean relations and implementing his North Korea policy?
Reasons for Moon to be Optimistic
First, the fact that Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s speech contained direct threats toward the United States isn’t surprising when one considers U.S. President Donald Trump’s Twitter rows with the North, combined with the Washington-led recent sanctions against Pyongyang. What was perhaps unexpected was that Kim chose to adopt a conciliatory tone toward the South and suggested that the two Koreas “should melt the frozen North-South relations, thus adorning this meaningful year as a year to be specially recorded in the history of the nation.” Given the strife of 2017 and the icy relations between the North and South, who have been out of communication for two years, this was certainly surprising, but also has the potential to be momentous for the thawing of North-South relations.
The significance of this wasn’t lost on Moon, who described the offer as a “ground-breaking chance.” While some in the South Korean media have deemed Kim’s rapprochement as nothing more than an attempt to create division within the South, it would have been music to Moon’s ears as his government’s multiple offers for talks had hitherto failed to yield anything but rebuttals. This provides Moon with a great starting point; communication between Seoul and Pyongyang is a must for any progress toward peace and stability to blossom.
Second, the fact that North Korea has decided to hold talks with its southern neighbor without the involvement of the United States is noteworthy. In recent years, Pyongyang has turned its back on Seoul, and as a “nuclear power” usually only expresses interest in dealing with Washington, forcing South Korea into a background role. For many Korean Peninsula commentators, any meaningful progress must come a more localized effort, ideally with South Korea taking the lead; recent developments give Moon the opportunity to do just that.
Moon has struggled to find the right circumstances to implement his plans for relations with the North since his inauguration, but the perfect opportunity to get the ball rolling may have just come his way. Some analysts and officials, such as U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert, have seen this as a ploy from Pyongyang to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington. However, it could actually open up the opportunity for Moon to facilitate talks between Pyongyang and the United States. This would be a smart move from Moon to simultaneously put Seoul in a central role in dealings with North Korea, while also bringing Washington back into the fold and taking a big step toward deescalating tension.
Third, the delay of the joint U.S.-South Korea military drills, albeit temporarily, removes a huge obstacle for thawing inter-Korean tensions. So often the spark for hostilities with the North, the drills are seen as a necessity by the United States and South Korea, who deem them key to the national defense of South Korea (and the near-30,000 U.S. military personnel stationed there). The North has often offered deals centered around the cancellation of the drills, such as the nuclear moratorium proposed in January of last year. In the past, Seoul and Washington have swatted away any offers involving the drills, steadfast in the belief that national security cannot be assured without them.
However, the decision to delay the drills until after the PyeongChang Olympics seems a wise choice. While it may be easy to surmise that the postponement was only due to the Olympics, it does nonetheless show North Korea a potential willingness from Seoul and Washington to be flexible vis-à-vis the drills. Additionally, it lowers the chance of saber-rattling and provocations from the North during the Olympics. The North has often timed missile launches or aggressive rhetoric to coincide with events of significance in South Korea or the United States; for example, last year saw missile tests in February, when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was visiting the United States, and on July 4, the U.S. Independence Day. The postponing of the drills buys Moon some time to try and make some progress with the North and evaluate what Kim Jong-un’s true motives are.
Drills Decision Key for Long-term Progress
That all sounds promising, especially in the short term. But the fate of the postponed drills looms large and will no doubt give Moon plenty of food for thought. While Moon has a window of opportunity to try and get started with building closer relations with the North, he will eventually be faced with a crucial decision over the drills. U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis has stated that he expects the drills will go ahead as planned after the Paralympics; however, Moon has time on his side to ponder his options. If he decides to go ahead with the drills post-Olympics as planned, he will likely throw away any goodwill and mutual trust built with Pyongyang and will be back at square one.
Alternatively, he could attempt to persuade the United States into a couple of alternative options. Further postponing the drills and seeing what can be achieved with the North is one potential choice. Alternatively, downsizing the drills would also be a big step toward calming any northern anxiety over its national security, while a full-out cancellation would be a huge statement of intent that Pyongyang would be unable to ignore. That would leave the ball firmly in Kim’s court.
The naysayers would argue that the U.S.-South Korean drills are fundamental to dealing with North Korea and protecting the nation. However, the drills have been held biannually for decades; what can the United States or South Korea really lose from canceling one round? Given the massive superiority of the South Korean and American military in terms of capability and budget, would one canceled drill really hurt the defense of South Korea or the United States, two technologically-advanced, wealthy countries who are up against a diplomatically isolated, economically devastated North Korea?
Any approach by Moon to use the cancellation of drills for a similar freeze on North Korea’s nuclear program and missile tests is likely to yield results. Pyongyang has already shown willingness to deal on this front; moreover, China has already stated it would back such a “dual freeze.” Moon now has some time to consider whether the drills are so valuable that they cannot be put aside for progressing with inter-Korean relations. Canceling or scaling down drills on this occasion doesn’t lock Washington or Seoul into any long-term commitment and as aforementioned, and any further inter-Korean talks will perhaps open the door for Moon to get the United States and North Korea to talk. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said just last month that the United States was open to talks with the North without preconditions (although he was later contradicted by Trump).
Whatever Moon decides, he knows he had to wait a long time for the conditions to converge to give him the chance to implement his plans for building relations with Pyongyang. Who knows when the next chance will come around.
Olly Terry is a researcher at the Seoul-based think tank Peace Network and Assistant Professor at Sungshin Women’s University.