With liberals back in charge in South Korea, Seoul is making peace offerings to its archrivals, but the North isn’t biting.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in believes the best way to solve the North Korean nuclear crisis is engagement of the sort that two past liberal leaders used to win historic summits with Pyongyang.
The problem, as clearly demonstrated during the last several chaotic days, is that North Korea doesn’t want to talk.
Instead, it has been testing missiles at an unprecedented pace and threatening to launch some of those toward Guam. Pyongyang may be looking to eventually use the existence of its nuclear weapons to negotiate a peace treaty with the United States to officially end the 1950-53 Korean War and remove U.S. troops from the South. Until, and unless, that happens, Seoul probably will have little luck building bridges.
This puts Moon in a bind, forcing him right when his inclination is to go left.
The Koreas last held formal talks in December 2015. Since then, North Korea has conducted a torrent of missile tests and two nuclear tests, boosting its efforts to make nuclear weapons small enough to fit on long-range missiles.
Moon, who took office in May, made his most ambitious plea for engagement two days after North Korea test-launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile last month.
In a July 6 speech in Berlin, Moon vowed to build on the legacies of late liberal leaders Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun and their so-called “Sunshine Policy.” Seoul’s economic inducements resulted in two historic summit meetings and temporary rapprochement between the Koreas in the 2000s.
Moon said the Koreas should start off with “easy” subjects. He proposed talks for reducing animosities across their heavily armed border and a resumption of meetings between aging relatives separated by war. He proposed ambitious longer-term projects, such as reconnecting an inter-Korean railway and building a gas pipeline connecting the Koreas with Russia.
Moon said he wasn’t offering unconditional cooperation. He condemned the ICBM launch and said the North could guarantee its security only through “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.” He said he was willing to meet with North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un, but only under the right conditions.
The North Korean response was blunt. It ridiculed his comments, ignored his proposals and conducted its second ICBM test on July 28.
EYES ON WASHINGTON
Reopening dialogue with Pyongyang is crucial for Moon, who says the South should take the lead when it comes to solving the North Korean nuclear problem. But analysts say the ICBM tests show that Pyongyang is focused on Washington and uninterested in what Seoul brings to the table.
Pyongyang needs more tests before it can produce a fully functional ICBM. It seeks a real nuclear deterrent to undermine the alliance between Washington and Seoul and eventually force the United States into negotiations for a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War, which was stopped by an armistice.
North Korea wants an end to annual military drills between the United States and South Korea that it condemns as invasion rehearsals, and the removal of tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed in the South. It will also be looking to breathe new life into an economy hammered by years of heavy international sanctions, and to find more markets for its cheap products and labor.
These clearly are of greater significance to Pyongyang than anything Seoul can provide.
Moon has harshly criticized the hard-line policies under a decade of conservative rule in Seoul, which he says did nothing to stop Pyongyang’s weapons advancements and only diminished Seoul’s voice in dealing with its rival. But North Korean intransigence may leave Moon in the same policy rut as his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, who also initially vowed more flexibility.
Following the North’s second ICBM test, Moon took a hard line, ordering his military to schedule talks with Washington on allowing heavier warheads for South Korean missiles and to work with U.S. military commanders on adding launchers to a U.S. missile-defense system based in South Korea.
South Korea’s conservatives want still more sanctions and pressure; they call his pleas for talks a one-sided deal.
Hong Min, an analyst at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification, said there’s still a chance that Pyongyang could eventually accept Seoul’s proposals for talks if recently strengthened U.N. sanctions are applied effectively in coming months.
But, he said, “it’s critical that Seoul move with the international society to search for solutions, instead of approaching it as a matter of who gets to lead.”