South Korean President Moon Jae-in was hailed as a mediator by the international community after he met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, one of the world’s most isolated and brutal dictators, three years ago. At a time when the United States and North Korea were exchanging hostile remarks, raising the possibility of war, Moon pushed for a meeting with Kim and proceeded with the peace process on the Korean Peninsula.
For about nine years before Moon took office in May 2017, conservative administrations in Seoul had maintained a strict stance against the North, resulting in poor relations with Pyongyang. Moon’s two predecessors did not participate in talks with North Korea, discarding the progressive governments’ policies on North Korea from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s. The conservative administrations of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye downplayed such outreach as ineffective carrots that only helped the North to build more advanced nuclear weapons. As a result, the atmosphere on the Korean Peninsula dramatically changed in the late 2000s and tensions between the two countries escalated, culminating in a North Korean attack on the South’s territory.
A South Korean Navy corvette, the Cheonan, was torpedoed by a North Korean naval submarine off the west coast of South Korea in March 2010. The incident killed 40 South Korean sailors and left six missing. North Korea still has not apologized, denying responsibility for the sinking. However, South Korea’s joint investigation team said that the main cause of the sinking was torpedoes manufactured in North Korea, which were collected from the wreckage of the Cheonan. In addition, the South Korean military had captured the movements of North Korean submarines and coastal artillery before the incident, although it failed to take appropriate countermeasures to prevent the attack. Moon also recently reaffirmed the government’s position that North Korea was responsible for the attack.
Lee, the South Korean president at the time, decided against a military response. But on November 23 of the same year, North Korea shelled South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island with no warning, killing two people and wounding 16. Experts theorized that the South Korean military drills conducted earlier in the day were seen as provocations by North Korea, which then fired artillery toward the South. The South Korean military responded by firing heavily at North Korea’s artillery positions in a prompt counterattack, a far cry from its actions after the North’s previous provocation. According to the memoir of Robert Gates, the U.S. secretary of defense at the time, the South Korean government planned an aggressive retaliation, but then President Barack Obama discouraged the plan, worrying that the incident could lead to a second Korean War.
Considering this history, some concluded that South Korea had no reason to engage in dialogue with North Korea. Certainly the governments of Lee and his successor, Park, saw little to talk about with Pyongyang. But the Moon administration did a total about-face. Soon after taking office, Moon indicated he was serious about talking to Kim in person. The Moon government invited Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, to attend the opening ceremony of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics to build momentum for a new relationship with the North.
Moon eventually held three summits with Kim Jong Un in 2018, declaring that peace cannot be achieved without dialogue. Moon has always been clear that peace is the biggest guarantor of South Korea’s national security. Perhaps his biggest achievement was persuading the Trump administration to pursue talks as well.
However, since the February 2019 North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi broke down, North Korea has disengaged from negotiations. Pyongyang has ignored attempts by both the U.S. and South Korea to bringing it back to the negotiating table. North Korea even blew up a joint liaison office in Kaesong as a way to declare its lack of interest in dialogue. In addition, the North rejected the South’s offers of aid and support when the coronavirus pandemic began in early 2020. All told, Pyongyang has not responded to any outreach from Seoul in two years. Instead, it has published statements featuring harsh criticisms of Moon and his government.
Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international relations at Ewha University in Seoul, told The Diplomat that the North may not yet be ready for a diplomatic engagement due to the pandemic. Pyongyang is more inclined to treat Moon like a lame duck and wait out the final months of his term.
“Many in Moon’s party blame the current deadlock on a lack of sanctions relief, even though the fundamental problem is North Korea’s lack of denuclearization,” Easley said. “They want more leeway for South Korea to entice the North with big-ticket economic projects like the Kaesong Industrial Complex since the Kim regime has been unmoved by proposals of humanitarian assistance and civil exchanges.”
To justify its recalcitrance, North Korea claimed that South Korea has not faithfully implemented the inter-Korean agreements reached in 2018. The two Koreas have different interpretations of the military agreement signed at the inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang in September 2018. According to the agreement, “The two sides agreed to expand the cessation of military hostilities in regions of confrontation such as the DMZ to the substantial removal of the danger of war across the entire Korean Peninsula and a fundamental resolution of the hostile relations.” The most problematic areas for North Korea, which it views as violating that promise, are South Korea-U.S. joint military drills, the continued stationing of U.S. troops in South Korea, and U.S.-led economic sanctions against Pyongyang.
Kim told Moon during their first summit that he understood South Korea’s joint military exercises with the U.S. and the presence of U.S. troops in South Korea, but in practice the North continues to respond angrily to any such drills. One of Pyongyang’s unofficial demands of Washington and Seoul is the withdrawal of the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.
South Korea has continued to carry out joint military exercises with the United States, even while reducing the level and scale of the exercise in the past few years out of consideration for inter-Korean relations. However, the North wants the South to stop conducting exercises with the U.S. completely – something Seoul cannot accept.
North Korea’s stance on U.S. economic sanctions is also unrealistic. At the time of the Hanoi summit, it was reported that Kim made a final offer to then President Donald Trump, proposing to shut down North Korea’s core nuclear weapons facilities, including the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, in exchange for sanctions relief. Trump reportedly rejected North Korea’s phased denuclearization proposal and demanded complete and irreversible denuclearization instead. The details of the failed talks have not been confirmed by either Pyongyang or Washington, however.
Since then, despite all efforts from South Korea and the United States, Pyongyang’s distrust of Seoul and Washington has only grown. Most recently, the Biden administration said it would tackle the North Korea denuclearization issue with a “practical and calibrated” approach, as opposed to Trump’s “top to bottom” approach and Obama’s “strategic patience” policy.
With less than nine months left in office, Moon’s options for moving forward with North Korea are limited. But there are some options Moon can consider pursuing to leave his successors better positioned to work toward this goal.
“To bring the North back to the negotiating table and renew a dialogue,” one option is for the Moon administration to send “relief supplies to the North, as it has suffered from the COVID-19 pandemic,” Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha University in Seoul, told The Diplomat.
North Korea has been significantly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though the government insists there have been no cases, the strict border closures – including with China, North Korea’s top trading partner by far – have taken a severe economic toll. Kim himself admitted that his country’s economy has been damaged by the pandemic and the country should be prepared for another “arduous march,” the term used to describe the famine that killed about 600,000 North Koreans from the 1990s to mid-2000s. Even though the North has been adamant in refusing the South’s offers of COVID-19 aid, Park argued that such offers of support could be a way for the Moon government to proceed with its push to renew dialogue with Pyongyang.
With less than a year before Moon’s term comes to an end, North Korea feels empowered to disregard everything Moon is currently pursuing. Instead, Pyongyang is already strategizing for negotiations with the next administration. Unlike North Korea, South Korean presidents change every five years, as they are limited to a single term. The South has had seven different presidents since its first democratic elections in 1987; North Korea has had just three leaders since 1945. And Seoul’s policies on inter-Korean relations change every time the administration changes.
To end this trend once and for all, experts say that the ruling Democratic Party and the opposition People Power Party should work together to reach a bipartisan consensus on North Korea issues. To ensure more stability in Seoul’s approach, the ruling and opposition parties must find a way to craft unified policies and principles on North Korea.
“Whoever wins the presidential elections, lawmakers should make a bipartisan agreement to prevent war and normalize inter-Korean relations and help to renew the U.S.-North Korea negotiations,” Kim Young-jun, a professor at Korea National Defense University and a member of the National Security Advisory Board for the Presidential Blue House, told The Diplomat.
Experts also say that the Beijing Olympics, scheduled for February 2022, could be the next major source of momentum for Moon. After all, the 2018 Games in PyeongChang were the original icebreaker between Moon and Kim. But it’s unclear whether or not the North is going to participate in the Olympics next year. Pyongyang has decided not to send a team to the Tokyo Olympics next month, citing COVID-19 concerns.