The Koreas | Diplomacy | Security | East Asia

Moon Jae-in Holds on to His Dream of North Korea Diplomacy

South Korea’s president is poised for one more push to improve inter-Korean relations.

By Sean Lee for
Moon Jae-in Holds on to His Dream of North Korea Diplomacy
Credit: Cheong Wa Dae

In 2017, South Korea’s then-presidential candidate Moon Jae-in appeared as a cover model for the Asian edition of Time. The magazine titled its article, based on an interview with Moon, “The Negotiator,” noting his vision of the Korean Peninsula policy and inter-Korean relations. In the interview, Moon stressed an active role as a mediator in U.S.-North Korea relations and inter-Korean relations to bring peace on the Korean Peninsula and a solution to North Korea‘s denuclearization. The cover was well received by Moon’s supporters at the time; it is said that the future president was also satisfied. The Time cover set the tone for Moon’s presidency: one marked by his dogged attempts to improve relations with the North.

More recently, the ruling Democratic Party won an overwhelming victory in South Korea’s parliamentary elections held in April 2020, winning 180 seats out of 300. The ruling party will be able to neutralize the opposition in the legislature over the next four years, pursuing any and all policies it favors. This is the first time in Korean political history that a liberal party has won a landslide victory.

Interestingly, the stock price of a Korean conglomerate railroad company rose 13.60 percent the day after the election. In total, the shares rose a whopping 46 percent in the first five trading days after the Democratic Party’s victory. In South Korea, the railroad company is known as a beneficiary of inter-Korean economic cooperation; North Korea has weak rail transportation infrastructure, and it is expected that the South Korean company will win priority business rights if inter-Korean relations improve in the future.

In other words, after the Moon administration’s victory in the election, stock prices reflected expectations of speeding up inter-Korean cooperation projects.

Then on May 21, Im Jong-seok, a former Blue House chief of staff, gave an interview to a Korean magazine in which he stated that the Moon administration will forge ahead with inter-Korean cooperative projects.

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“President Moon will try to push ahead to get things done, while sufficiently communicating with the U.S., even if there are negative views,” said Im, Moon‘s first chief of staff who served until January 2019. Im added that South Korea has to think about what it will do when the dialogue between the United States.and North Korea doesn’t work out. Im was a key figure in the Moon government‘s inter-Korean relationship and was deeply involved in the three inter-Korean summits between Moon and Chairman Kim Jong Un.

The signs are clear that Moon will actively pursue the improvement of inter-Korean relations for the remaining two years of his term. In fact, in a news conference on May 10 marking his third year in office, Moon said, “Let’s not just look at the U.S-North Korea dialogue, but now find what can be done between South and North.” He clearly stated that he will become a “negotiator” again.

Expect Moon to take the initiative in pushing for the improvement of inter-Korean relations within his term, regardless of the stalled U.S.-North Korea dialogue and the U.S. election in November.

For now, Moon’s plan is expected to gain momentum. First of all, the timing is right from a domestic perspective. There will be no more national elections before Moon’s his term ends, and South Korean presidents can only serve a single term. Thus there is no need for Moon to consider the opposition‘s resistance or public opinion trends while pursuing policies. Rather, the landslide victory in the April gave full license to his policy drive.

Sure enough, the moves of the Ministry of Unification, which deals with inter-Korean relations, are accelerating. The Ministry of Unification declared in May that the “May 24 measures” would no longer be an obstacle to promoting inter-Korean cooperation. The May 24 measures called for banning all inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation as Seoul‘s strong sanctions in the wake of the North’s attack on the South Korean warship Cheonan in 2010. For the first time, the government has officially stated that it can ease measures that have prevented improvement in inter-Korean relations for about a decade. To that end, the government also prepared a draft amendment to the inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act that would simplify the process of contacting North Korea, and conducted a survey to register the DMZ, a symbol of inter-Korean confrontation, as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Sources inside and outside the government say that the Blue House also considers the outbreak of COVID-19 as important momentum for inter-Korean relations. South Korea has been among the most successful countries in the world at controlling the pandemic, by conducting aggressive tests and actively tracking the movements of confirmed patients. On the other hand, North Korea is known to have considerable anxiety about the spread of the virus, although details are not revealed to the outside world. Kim Jong Un did not appear in public for a lengthy period of time last month, which many believe was due to the risk of COVID-19 infection.

The Moon administration is interested in seizing a natural opportunity to open the door to inter-Korean relations by transferring its quarantine system, which is considered a global model, to North. Furthermore, fields relating to health and disease control do not conflict with U.N. Security Council sanctions.

Another factor that could hinder Moon’s push is the South Korea-U.S. relationship, which was hinted at in Im’s interview.

Moon’s former chief of staff revealed a behind-the-scenes story in which Stephen Biegun, then the U.S. State Department special representative for North Korea, argued that the Ministry of Unification should be excluded from the South Korea-U.S. working group, which coordinates North Korea issues between two countries.

“Biegun pressured us to hold all inter-Korean communication until he gave the okay. It was hard to accept. [Under such an arrangement] When a Washington working-level official says ‘no,’ Seoul can’t do anything. In this situation it will be difficult for the Korean government to play more roles,” Im said.

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He also insisted that the South can never play a leading role in interpreting sanctions against the North as defensive, as Seoul does now.

The Trump administration has maintained that the improvement of inter-Korean relations should take place in tandem with the pace of denuclearization. Im, however, hinted that this will change in the future. Many analysts saw in his interview a former high-ranking official stepping up efforts to widen the scope of Moon’s actions.

The Blue House will likely seek to actively create a favorable climate for inter-Korean relations and draw support from Washington in the future. However, if the gap between the two sides is not narrowed, Moon can take a bold strategy to break through — even if conflict between Seoul and Washington arises as a result.

There is also the prospect that U.S. President Donald Trump, caught up in the COVID-19 crisis, will have trouble paying attention to the North Korea issue until after the election in November. Trump needs to focus on handling problems in the United States to be re-elected at a time when the U.S. economy is in bad shape and unemployment is soaring. In addition, the U.S.-North Korea dialogue has yet to find any momentum as Trump’s attitude has changed massively after the no-deal Hanoi summit. Ironically, Trump’s loss of interest in North Korean issues can give Moon a chance.

The Blue House’s attempt to move to negotiator mode is also based on the liberal Korean government’s philosophy of state affairs. Previous liberal administrations have judged that the issue of North Korea‘s denuclearization, nuclear weapons, and missiles is a task to be solved through a close alliance with the United States and international cooperation, but the inter-Korean relationship is to be determined independently. Thus the Kim Dae-jung government promoted the “Sunshine Policy” and the Roh Moo-hyun government started the Kaesong Industrial Complex. On the other hand, the conservative regime, which is more hostile to North Korea, prioritized the U.S.-ROK alliance over inter-Korean relations, and even acknowledged the U.S. initiative in the area of its own policy. South Korea‘s Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013) and Park Geun-hye governments (2013-2017) oversaw the retreat of inter-Korean relations for 10 years. Most of that time overlapped with the Obama administration’s term (2009-2016), which established a “strategic patience” principle toward North Korea – and as a result did virtually nothing.

The key to Moon’s success is how much North Korea will respond. For now, it is not clear whether Kim Jong Un will look kindly on Moon’s renewed role of the negotiator. Pyongyang has traditionally prioritized transactions with Washington, and regarded relationship with Seoul as a subconcept.

However, North Korea’s response can vary depending on Moon’s role. After all, the 2018 U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore took place through Moon‘s mediation and North Korea also views inter-Korean relations from a strategic perspective. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to affect existing international relations and political order.

Sean Lee is a journalist with JTBC broadcasting company in South Korea, including two years as a senior correspondent in the Moon administration’s Blue House. Currently he is a visiting scholar at the Sigur Center for Asian Studies, Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University.