Can South Korea's 'Dream Team' Make Ground on North Korean Crisis?

Can South Korea's 'Dream Team' Make Ground on North Korean Crisis?
北韓官方媒體發放成功試射導彈後領導人金正恩同軍事科研人員的照片。photo credit: Korean Central News Agency/Reuters/達志影像

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Inter-Korean rapprochement is a worthy pursuit, but the Moon administration is right not to sacrifice UN resolutions and US alliance coordination in the process.

North Korea’s second intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test on 28 July raises the stakes for the United States and Republic of Korea (ROK). Informed observers have fretted about a rift between South Korea’s new pro-engagement president, and a US president who takes a more hawkish approach toward North Korea. But when Moon Jae-in made Washington his first overseas destination in June, he and Donald Trump reaffirmed the US–ROK alliance, demanded North Korea’s denuclearization, and agreed to strengthen sanctions against Pyongyang’s missile tests.

. Moon took from the summit that Washington does not have a hostile policy for regime change or pressure on trade for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and absorbed Trump’s deployment schedule public disagreement over the avoidedMoon collapse, and that Trump supports Seoul taking the lead in restarting dialogue with North Korea.

On 6 July 2017, Moon delivered a speech on unification in Berlin, promising inter-Korean cooperation on flooding, infectious diseases, and forest management. He proposed separated family reunions by the Chuseok holiday, which happens to coincide with the anniversary of the 4 October 2007 North–South Declaration. Moon said his government will enact previous inter-Korean agreements into law and pursue a ‘new economic map for the Korean Peninsula’.

While in Washington, Moon did not mention any plans to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC). But his Unification Ministry has encouraged companies about the possibility, and suggested that no evidence supports the previous administration’s claim that wages from the inter-Korean complex were diverted to Pyongyang’s weapons programs.

The previous Park administration had not approved any civilian contacts with North Korea since Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test in January 2016. In contrast, the Moon administration has already approved requests from over 50 non-governmental organisations, offering joint projects in areas ranging from public health to historical commemorations. Pyongyang has not responded favourably, instead demanding an end to sanctions and the return of defectors. A North Korean member of the International Olympic Committee, visiting South Korea for a taekwondo competition, rebutted Moon’s suggestion at the event that the Pyeongchang Olympics be employed for inter-Korean reconciliation. Similarly, Moon’s remarks on inter-Korean rail links in his 16 June 2017 speech for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank met with a lukewarm response.

Since Moon came to office in May 2017, North Korea has provocatively tested long-range and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, and sent a surveillance drone into South Korea to take pictures of THAAD. Kim Jong-un has emphasised the ‘diversification and advancement’ of nuclear forces, involving miniaturised warheads, road-mobile and submarine-based delivery systems, and solid- and liquid-propelled missiles with improved re-entry and guidance capabilities. Moon reacted with tough talk for Pyongyang, leading some observers to posit that he has traded idealism for realism and will focus on domestic issues rather than engage North Korea.

But Moon’s conviction for improving inter-Korean relations is demonstrated by his appointment of pro-engagement officials, many with experience working directly with Pyongyang. To head the National Intelligence Service, Moon named Suh Hoon, who helped to arrange the two inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007, and who spent two years on the ground in North Korea with the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation.

Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon has spent his career in the ministry he now leads. In the 1990s, he facilitated the attempted provision of light water nuclear reactors to North Korea under the Agreed Framework. In the 2000s, he negotiated with Pyongyang and coordinated businesses at the KIC. Cho was also instrumental in the 4 October 2007 joint declaration, but was later subject to allegations that then president Roh Moo-hyun appeased Kim Jong-il over the Northern Limit Line maritime border.

To advise on national security, Moon chose Lee Sang-chul, a former general who participated in inter-Korean military dialogues and the Six Party Talks on denuclearisation. Moon Chung-in, a professor who advocates ‘pre-emptive talks’ with North Korea for which ‘Washington’s approval is unnecessary’, was named special advisor for unification. He reflects the administration’s thinking about lowering tensions on the Korean Peninsula, but incited controversy with his public comments on possibly downsizing military exercises with the United States.

Defence Minister Song Young-moo was Roh’s naval chief, and is likely to pursue command structure reform while championing indigenous missile defences. Seo Joo-seok, appointed Vice-Minister of Defence, recommends increasing military autonomy and working more closely with China on North Korea. Kang Kyung-hwa, South Korea’s first female Foreign Minister, was a high-ranking United Nations official and previously served as an interpreter in support of president Kim Dae-jung’s ‘Sunshine Policy’. Chung Eui-yong, a key security advisor, is notably a former UN ambassador rather than a defence expert.

Moon’s appointments suggest strong preferences for engagement over sanctions, diplomacy over military solutions, and working with the UN. Just as one does not bring together an all-star team of basketball players to play football, the Moon government was not assembled to contain North Korea. One lesson from the Roh government was that the 2007 inter-Korean summit came too late in the administration’s term for agreements to be implemented. Moon is therefore likely to seek an earlier summit. So how long will Seoul’s engagement policy remain sidelined?

Seoul proposed military talks in mid-July, but has yet to receive a response from Pyongyang. Those talks could cease loudspeaker broadcasts and reopen communication channels to avoid miscalculation at the inter-Korean border. But such dialogue should not trade away legal, necessary and defensive exercises for North Korean promises to halt illegal tests and provocations. If inter-Korean Red Cross talks begin soon and confirm separated family reunions after US–ROK summer exercises, the two Koreas could then build trust with further humanitarian cooperation.

Unfortunately, North Korea is unlikely to accept Moon’s overtures unless offered an end to 5/24 sanctions, the restart of Kumgang-san tours or the KIC, or until it is recognised to have credibly deployed its nuclear ICBMs. Even if Pyongyang does agree to talks, its track record is to cheat agreements, continue nuclear and missile tests, and attempt to divide Washington and Seoul. Inter-Korean rapprochement is a worthy pursuit, but the Moon administration is right not to sacrifice UN resolutions and US alliance coordination in the process.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region. A longer version of this article first appeared here on World Affairs Journal.