Several days after North Korea tested a short-range ballistic missile on May 4, South Korean President Moon Jae-in published a commentary in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) signaling his hope for an inter-Korean peace in the foreseeable future. What is significant about the commentary is Moon’s reference to the former liberal West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, who orchestrated Bonn’s outreach to the Soviet Union and East Germany in the late 1960s.
Echoing Brandt’s words, Moon claimed that the two Koreas would need to make “small steps” rather than “no steps” toward trust building to realize long-term peace. “Small steps” refer to inter-Korean economic and political exchanges under the New Korean Peninsula Regime. And long-term peace denotes an official peace treaty ending the Korean War.
Moon’s reference to Brandt brings up two interesting questions: How did the Soviet Union perceive Brandt’s outreach? And what does that imply for North Korea’s utmost intention in its current outreach to the South? Answering the questions is highly important, as for trust to be built, both sides need to look in the same direction. Moon can propose as many peace initiatives as he would like; however, if North Korea perceives these moves not as trust-building measures but rather a means to softly decouple the U.S.-South Korea alliance, South Korea may fall into the same trap as West Germany did in the early 1970s.
Brezhnev’s Perception of Brandt’s Ostpolitik
Brandt’s Ostpolitik was based on the assumption that the poor state of relations between West Germany and the Communist Bloc was due to Bonn failing to recognize the status quo of a divided Germany. Brandt saw that the Hallstein Doctrine was one of the reasons behind the Berlin crisis. To avert a potential war over Germany, he figured peace must be struck on the basis of mutual consent. Thus, upon assuming the chancellorship, Brandt pushed for diplomatic engagement with the Communist Bloc by signing the 1970 Moscow Treaty to end the hostility between West Germany and the Soviet Union and to recognize the post-World War II status quo. These steps would hopefully, in the long run, bring about peace in Europe and solve the German question for good.
Contrary to Brandt’s sincerity, the Kremlin perceived Brandt’s outreach as an opportunity to undermine the U.S.-West Germany alliance. Such an opportunity never existed under the close relations with Washington maintained by Brandt’s predecessors, conservatives Konrad Adenauer, Ludwig Erhard, or Kurt Georg Kiesinger. The Soviet Union had two major motives behind the signing of the Moscow Treaty: (1) to lower the Western threat by detaching West Germany from the Atlantic alliance and (2) to legitimize Soviet legitimacy in Eastern Europe. Moscow saw that if a non-aggression pact under the Moscow Treaty were realized, the security structure underpinning the U.S. presence in West Germany would lose its rationale, opening the door for West Germany to act independently of the United States. This decoupling fear echoed in the White House, as the Nixon administration was afraid that Brandt might downplay the U.S.-West Germany alliance due to his new relationship with the Kremlin.
Subsequent economic and political exchanges between Bonn and Moscow solidified the Moscow Treaty, which helped the Kremlin lower the Western European threat and focus on the border dispute with China. Still, Moscow was never sincere throughout the entire process. The Kremlin still regarded the West German military as a huge threat as the military remained a part of the Atlantic alliance force in Europe. When Brandt resigned in 1974, the Soviet Union was upset because it dearly valued Brandt’s accommodation policy and such a resignation was seen as hurting Brezhnev’s foreign policy. Arguably, Moscow’s decoupling attempt failed, as Bonn remained a U.S. ally. Nevertheless, the important point is that the Soviet Union perceived Brandt’s outreach as a way to diplomatically (that its, softly) decouple the U.S. and West Germany and it was willing to use civil and economic interactions as a way to shore up its main goal.
Kim Jong Un’s Perception of Moon’s Sunshine Policy
The logic of using a peace treaty and improvement in bilateral relations to undermine an adversarial alliance resonates well in the North Korea case, as Pyongyang again has been seeking to decouple the Seoul-led peace process from the Washington-led denuclearization process. Similar to the Soviet case, such a move was never possible during the conservative Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations due to their good relations with the United States.
North Korea’s newspapers have underscored support for this decoupling attempt, calling for a Korean peace treaty and the reopening of inter-Korean economic projects in Kaesong and Kumgang before denuclearization. Pyongyang has also appealed to Korean ethno-nationalism as a basis of such a peace treaty, as it argued that the Korean people should not let differences in political values and foreign interference do harm to the work of improving inter-Korean relations. North Korea’s strategy is simple: Put pressure on the South to sue for an independent peace Pyongyang, to make Seoul neglect its duty with regard to international sanctions, to widen the space between the U.S. and South Korean respective North Korea approaches, and to invalidate the U.S. presence in Korea after a peace treaty is signed.
Seeing North Korea’s motives in this light, Moon’s initiatives to use economic and political engagement to build trust might not bear fruit since North Korea was never sincere in the aim to build peace. The establishment of an inter-Korean liaison office as well as the signings of the Panmunjom and Pyongyang Declarations did not move the process forward, as North Korea was willing to use the liaison office as a hostage in inter-Korean relations and issued threats to abandon the engagement if it did not receive sanctions relief, despite the fact that its demands at the Hanoi summit were lopsided in its favor. North Korea’s latest test of a short-range ballistic missile is a testimony to its penchant to return to provocation as necessary if the U.S. and South Korea do not accommodate its needs. Even if Moon succeeds in persuading the U.S. to temporarily permit inter-Korean trade, North Korea is likely to perceive such a move as an opportunity to reap economic benefits for its domestic economic reform rather than to build peace, which was similar to what the Soviet Union did to West Germany.
The best way for Moon to move forward with his North Korea outreach is to make sure that the peace process and the denuclearization process work in lockstep. Since Pyongyang’s current tactic is to create policy dissonance within the U.S.-South Korea alliance, an emphasis on one process at the expense of the other will never achieve tangible results. Seoul needs to persuade Washington to abandon the “all-or-nothing” approach, and in return South Korea needs to integrate economic exchanges with significant and verifiable improvements in North Korea’s denuclearization. A peace treaty should never be signed in the absence of any significant changes in North Korea’s conventional military and nuclear postures. Even though it is uncertain whether or not North Korea can decouple the U.S.-South Korea alliance in the long run, Moon’s independent attempt to build trust with North Korea only plays into its hands and instills mistrust in the U.S.-South Korea alliance.
Khang Vu is a Master’s candidate at Dartmouth College, where he focuses on East Asian politics and U.S. East Asia policy. Khang will begin his doctoral studies in Political Science at Boston College in the Fall of 2019.