Since the current South Korean President Moon Jae-in took office in May 2017, he has strived to engage in talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to deescalate the tensions on the Korean Peninsula, which were intensified during nine years of conservative governments before Moon gained power.
Even though Moon reached his hands out to Pyongyang immediately upon his inauguration in May 2017, Pyongyang conducted its sixth nuclear test in September 2017, leading then-U.S. President Donald Trump to warn about unleashing “fire and fury” against North Korea if it conducts another nuclear or missile test. Trump and Kim exchanged harsh words against each other, increasing tensions on the Korean Peninsula even more. Two months after the nuclear test, North Korea tested its Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), bringing much more anger from Washington and Seoul.
Still, Moon vowed to build peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula with a policy centered on dialogue, which is the classical approach of progressive governments on North Korea issues. He utilized the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games as an opportunity to entice Pyongyang to agree to dialogue. When Kim accepted Moon’s offer to participate in the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, Moon’s blueprint to denuclearize North Korea and construct lasting peace on the peninsula was activated.
Two months after the PyeongChang Olympics closed, Moon and Kim held a historical inter-Korean summit meeting in the inter-Korean House of Freedom in Panmunjom. Moon’s approval ratings reached above 80 percent at that time, demonstrating how strongly South Koreans wished to see peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula.
After holding the first inter-Korean summit meeting in April 2018, the leaders of the two Koreas announced the joint Panmunjom declaration to introduce common goals for constructing peace and deescalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Among the commitments in the joint declaration, pledges to realize “complete denuclearization” and “a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula” helped attract Trump to the idea of being the first-sitting U.S. president to hold summit meetings with the North Korean leader.
Along with Moon and Kim’s stated goal to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, they also agreed to declare the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, which could be a steppingstone for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
A month after the first inter-Korean summit meeting, Moon and Kim met again in DMZ on the North’s side. This closed-door summit meeting was held on Kim’s request. As the North Korea-U.S. summit meeting was scheduled in June 2018, it is believed that Kim wanted Moon’s advice over how to negotiate with Trump, while reaffirming the two Koreas’ strong will to carry out the Panmunjom joint declaration announced in April of that year.
Despite criticism and opposition, including within the Republican Party, over the summit meeting with Kim, Trump did not miss this opportunity to write his name on history. He met Kim in Singapore in June 2018. However, the joint U.S.-North Korea statement published their meeting demonstrated a lack of mutual understanding on the step and scale of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. There were no details on the timeline and process to denuclearize North Korea.
In order to make substantive progress on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the end of the Korean War, Moon visited Pyongyang in September 2018 to hold the third inter-Korean summit meeting since he took office. Moon made a speech at the stadium in Pyongyang, with about 150,000 North Korean citizens in attendance. Moon and Kim both clearly mentioned “the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” for peace in their speeches. This was the high point, the moment when it looked like Moon’s peace process could actually make progress as Kim publicly showed his will to denuclearize his country in front of his people.
However, the spring days on the Korean Peninsula would not last. The Hanoi summit meeting between Kim and Trump in 2019 became the turning point of this drama, which Moon was dedicated to finishing with a happy ending.
In the Hanoi summit meeting, Kim demanded that Trump lift the economic sanctions that affect the daily lives of his people in exchange for dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear facility. Experts believe Kim was essentially offering Trump a phased denuclearization process. However, Trump wanted to make a big, all-in-one deal. He refused Kim’s offer and instead demanded the “complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement” (CVID) of North Korea’s nuclear program – a longtime U.S. demand that is anathema to Pyongyang.
Back in Washington, U.S. Republicans supported Trump’s decision to walk out of the negotiating table without reaching an agreement with Kim, saying that “no deal is better than a bad deal.” But Trump’s decision made the Korean Peninsula issues more complicated as Pyongyang continues to believe that Trump humiliated Kim in Hanoi.
Although Kim met Trump in Panmunjom four months after the Hanoi summit, no substantive progress toward denuclearization has been made since Kim returned to Pyongyang empty-handed. Instead, North Korea shifted its stance on the nuclear talks and inter-Korean relations. Pyongyang has been refusing offers of dialogue while returning to a rapid pace of missile testing not seen since 2017.
North Korea has conducted 14 missile tests so far this year, including one just today. Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff announced Wednesday that North Korea had launched a ballistic missile from the Sunan area near Pyongyang. The missile flew 470 kilometers with a maximum altitude of 780 km. Considering the performance of the missile, North Korea might have tested its Hwasong-17 ICBM or its older Hwasong-15 ICBM under an intentionally limited range and altitude.
Under its five-year plan to modernize the country’s military system, North Korea is explicitly showing its will to prepare for a “strength to strength” power game with the United States. Experts also believe Pyongyang is preparing for a nuclear test, as North Korea is restoring its Punggye-ri nuclear site.
Based on the rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula caused by Pyongyang’s flurry of missile tests this year, South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol and conservatives have criticized Moon’s policy on North Korea issues, saying he was submissive to North Korea. Yoon’s party has downplayed the inter-Korean summit meetings as a disguised peace show, while belittling Moon’s Defense Ministry and Joint Chiefs of Staff for calling North Korea’s missiles “projectiles” when they announced the North’s missile tests. Yoon also repeatedly said the current Moon administration damaged the South Korea-U.S. military alliance, citing the scaled-backed joint military drills held in the past few years.
As the candidate from Moon’s Democratic Party failed to win the presidential election in March, due in large part to strong anti-incumbency sentiment in South Korea, jubilant conservatives have raised their voices on North Korea issues in preparation for the Yoon administration. However, compared with the military provocations of North Korea and tensions on the Korean Peninsula under successive conservative presidents from 2008 to 2017, Moon’s peace process has actually worked well. Ultimately, there were no direct military conflicts between the two Koreas on Moon’s watch.
Although Moon’s peace process has ended with no substantive progress on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula or the declaration of the end of the Korean War, conservatives have embraced a malicious framing of Moon’s peace process as a submissive overture to North Korea. This ploy still resonates among those who perceive progressives as anti-American and pro-North Korean. This ideological framework, which was created after the North invaded the South in 1950, is still embedded in those who believe that progressive governments waste South Koreans’ taxes by providing aid and support to North Korea with no preconditions.
This framing also appeared in Yoon’s remarks during his presidential campaign. The incoming Yoon administration will likely differentiate itself from the Moon government on North Korea issues by being a yes-man to Washington while taking a hawkish stance on Pyongyang.
Rather than saying Moon’s peace process failed, it’s more accurate to say it showed a possible path to tackle North Korea issues – albeit a path that was not followed in the end. Yet the Yoon administration will likely ring the death knell for Moon’s peace process by intensifying the arms race on the Korean Peninsula in the name of rebuilding broken ties with the United States. Yoon will justify this by saying the North has already crossed the red line by testing its ICBM in March, while Pyongyang will also use South Korea’s military developments as a pretext for further missile and nuclear tests.