The Moon administration took concrete steps to foster cooperation with North Korea.
Few political leaders in East Asia have contributed to peace in the Korean peninsula as much as South Korean President Moon Jae-in has. Born of parents who fled North Korea during the Korean War, ever since he took over the Blue House in Seoul, President Moon has consistently worked for reconciliation between the two Koreas through inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation programmes.
In his 16 June 2017 speech for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Moon talked of inter-Korean rail links. In his July 2017 speech at the Korber Foundation in Berlin, Moon promised inter-Korean cooperation on flooding, infectious diseases, and forest management. He also proposed separated family reunions. He said his government would pursue a “new economic map for the Korean Peninsula”. The same month, his administration proposed military talks with Pyongyang.
President Moon has appointed pro-engagement officials in his administration from time to time. On assuming the presidency of the county, he chose Suh Hoon as head of the country’s National Intelligence Service, Cho Myoung-gyon as Unification Minister, former General Lee Sang-chul as National Security Adviser, former Professor Moon Chung-in as Special Advisor for Unification, Seo Joo-seok as Vice-Minister of Defence and Kang Kyung-hwa as Foreign Minister.
Suh had helped to arrange the two inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007. He had also spent two years in North Korea with the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation. In the 1990s, Cho had facilitated a provision of light water nuclear reactors to North Korea. General Lee had participated in inter-Korean military dialogues and the Six Party Talks on denuclearisation.
Professor Moon always advocated that “pre-emptive talks” be held with North Korea, for which “Washington’s approval is unnecessary”. Seo has been for increasing military autonomy and working more closely with China on North Korea. Kang had previously served as an interpreter in support of President Kim Dae-jung’s “Sunshine Policy”.
The Moon administration took concrete steps to foster cooperation with North Korea. It approved requests from over 50 non-governmental organisations, offering joint projects in areas ranging from public health to historical commemorations. On top of all this, President Moon held three summits with current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, two in Panmunjom in April 2018 and May 2018 and one in Pyongyang in September 2018.
Besides, in his effort to denuclearise North Korea, Moon has kept Washington in the loop. During his Washington summit with then US President Donald Trump in June 2017, the two leaders reaffirmed the US-ROK alliance, demanded North Korea’s denuclearisation and agreed to strengthen sanctions against Pyongyang’s missile tests. Trump supported Seoul taking the lead in restarting dialogue with North Korea.
President Moon acted as a mediator between then American President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim and persuaded them to talk to each other directly and discuss the denuclearisation of the North. In an interview, Moon expressed hope that US and North Korea would replace their 1953 armistice agreement with a peace treaty. Moon’s efforts went a long way in the convening of the three summits between Trump and Kim in Singapore, Hanoi and the Demilitarized Zone (Korea) in June 2018, February 2019 and June 2019 respectively.
After the Kim-Trump diplomacy fell apart, Pyongyang suspended communications with Seoul and halted all major joint cooperation programmes. It rejected the current US administration’s calls for dialogue. North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Son Gwon has publicly stated that such talks would “get us nowhere”. Yet Moon seems to believe that an increased exchange between the two Koreas would make the North see benefits in its denuclearisation and closer relationship with the economically advanced South.
Also, President Moon might be thinking North Korea will review its policy and join the negotiating table with the US government. In his summit (May, 2021) with US President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., he sought to restart diplomacy with North Korea.
Regrettably, however, President Moon is still far off his mission. North Korea has never complied with any international agreements on nuclear disarmament. Rather, Pyongyang has throughout been advancing its nuclear-missile programme. Today it is believed to be armed with short-, medium-, long-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Pyongyang continues to be ambitious about its nuclear military programme. This poses an immediate threat to South Korea.
It is to be seen how President Moon conducts his diplomacy towards North Korea in the near future. Some observers say Moon is still optimistic. He has been exchanging letters with the North Korean leader since April. He seems to hope that he will hold yet another summit with North Korean leader Kim before his five-year tenure ends in May 2022 and revive the reconciliatory mood that the three rounds of such meetings held in 2018 came to forge between the two Koreas.
President Moon may be seeing rays of hope in the recent revival of some inter-Korean communication channels by North Korea. But signs on the ground are ominous. Pyongyang continues to oppose the regular South Korea-US military exercises being held this year from August 16 to 26. These exercises have already been reduced to computer-simulated war games. Yet the North is making a lot of hue and cry over it.
In her statement the other day, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s influential sister Kim Yo-jong described the upcoming US-South Korea drill as an act of self-destruction and demanded that the US should “withdraw its aggression troops and war hardware deployed in South Korea”. The US-made weapons include the F-35 stealth jets and the anti-missile battery known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense.
The observers say Pyongyang may use the South Korea-US military relations to justify its future weapon tests. Ironically, China, too, has joined the North in calling for the scrapping of the South Korea-US joint drill. At a recent video conference of a regional security forum, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged Washington to avoid any action that would heighten tension with the North. Beijing seems to have conveniently forgotten that it itself conducted a massive exercise with Russia, mobilizing about 10,000 troops from the two sides in one of its training fields. Moon may find it difficult in the future to turn his eyes away from the threat the North’s nuclear arms pose to the South. He might focus on enhancing South Korea’s security cooperation with the United States and Japan. This would place Seoul on a stronger footing to deal with Pyongyang (and Beijing). Atmosphere for US- Japan-South Korea cooperation is getting better. During a recent meeting with Japanese National Security Adviser Takeo Akiba, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated the importance of trilateral cooperation with South Korea for achieving the denuclearization of the peninsula.
Abhijitha Singh, an alumnus of the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi, is specialising in Japanese studies.