In a commentary published in the Rodong Sinmun on August 19, author Ho Yong Min highlighted some very valid points in order to understand why, more than one hundred days since South Korean President Moon Jae-in took office, inter-Korean relations “are a failure” and the promised return to dialogue with the North has not been achieved.
Since July, North Korea has twice successfully test-launched the Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), launched a Hwasong-12 ballistic missile that flew over Japan in August, and, most recently, conducted its most powerful nuclear test to date on September 3 2017, declaring “perfect success” with an advanced hydrogen bomb, showing to the world, once again, that sanctions are futile in halting the development of Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
According to Ho Yong Min, the Moon administration’s “collusion” with the U.S. “has blocked the road of independent reunification” of the Korean peninsula, while the “North’s dismantlement of nukes” as a goal of inter-Korean dialogue is an “anti-national scheme” by the South Korean government.
The article follows with a crucial observation, clearly stating that the “nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula is a matter to be settled between the DPRK and the U.S.” while the “South Korean authorities have neither justification nor qualification to meddle in the issue.” The key player in this game, indeed, is the U.S., which remains the main threat to the North’s security and well-being.
Without Washington playing an active positive role in moving forward with a constructive strategy, Pyongyang is unlikely to respond. Furthermore, the formula of “sanctions and pressure accompanied by dialogue” adopted by the Moon administration is not conducive to any improvement in the tense situation on the Korean peninsula, as recent events clearly show.
“Sanctions And Dialogue”
From this perspective, it seems that the major mistake and misjudgment of Moon’s North Korea policy are efforts to simultaneously pursue the engagement of the North and the denuclearization of the country, the strong emphasis placed by Moon on the need to pressure Pyongyang, his call for stronger sanctions after the North’s tests, and the stress put on the need for a greater coordination between Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo – a sort of axis – to solve the “North Korean problem.”
Moreover, in dealing with a country like the DPRK, how issues are framed, and even the words used in public declarations and speeches, have political effects. When Moon says that North Korea is approaching a “red line” with its missile programs, when he affirms that “the biggest challenge facing us now is the North Korean nuclear and missile issue,” and when he declares that North Korea’s “provocations are what is forcing South Korea and the U.S. to conduct the joint defensive drills (the Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills started on August 21), which in turn keeps the vicious cycle going,” he is aligning his policy to that of Washington, based on “maximum pressure and engagement,” while completely alienating Pyongyang.
At the same time, however, Moon urges the establishment of peace on the Korean peninsula and wants Seoul to take the “driver’s seat” in dealing with North Korea nuclear problem.
Clearly this policy is not working and we are not going to witness a new era of Sunshine Policy on the peninsula. Even if President Moon Jae-in presents his approach as being inspired by the policy implemented by former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003), his policies are based on different ideas and principles.
Indeed, the key to the engagement policy during the progressive decade (of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun) was the parallel – not simultaneous – management of nuclear and inter-Korean relations, without linking them.
The underlying assumption was that only improved ties and trust-building between the two Koreas would produce positive effects towards the denuclearization of North Korea, while the ultimate goal was to achieve de facto unification, leading the North down a path toward peace, reform and openness through reconciliation, interaction, and cooperation with the South.
This approach could be seen as a proactive, functionalist and pragmatic one in dealing with Pyongyang.
In order to improve inter-Korean relations, Moon should have adopted the same kind of operating principles of Kim Dae-jung’s policy: the “strategic offensive”, the pursuit of engagement despite North Korea’s initial negative response, credible military deterrence and international collaboration, but, most of all, “flexible dualism”: the separation of politics and the economy which allowed the promotion of economic and social exchanges and cooperation despite military and political turbulences.
More Preconditions, More Problems
On the contrary, the Moon’s administration has linked the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) to the halting of Pyongyang’s “provocations” and the easing of the international sanctions against the country (the same sanctions that Seoul has advocated as punishment for the North after recent ICBM and nuke tests).
In so doing, Moon subordinates inter-Korean relations to an array of other complex issues that he cannot solve because they involve different actors and means. The only beneficiary of this puzzle is the leadership in Pyongyang, that continues with its own Byungjin line – the parallel development of the nuclear program and the economy.
In contrast with Moon’s attitude, Kim Dae-jung did not use harsh rhetoric based on pressure, issue ultimatums to the Kim regime or present the North as a threat. Instead, he recognized that empathy is the chief functioning principle in achieving harmony and cooperation in interstate relations and was convinced that persuasion is better than force. Through the Sunshine Policy, Kim sought to operate “a change in people’s minds and in the North Korean institutions and behaviors,” to change the country in an incremental manner.
The South Korean administration’s calls for the “strongest possible” response to the latest DPRK nuclear test – and the need to “completely isolate” the North – further confirms that Moon is not following a political line aimed that will achieve dialogue with Pyongyang.
The sixth nuclear test has not been a surprise for observers of the Kim regime nor it has fundamentally changed the situation on the Korean peninsula: time is still ripe for talks and diplomacy.
Only after the transformation of North Korea into a normal state other issues can be handled. But this is a long process that requires patience and resolution, that must prioritize the empowerment and well-being of the North Korean people and recognize the country for what it is: a de facto nuclear power led by a capable young leader whose regime is not going to collapse anytime soon nor giving up its sole means of survival, i.e. the nuclear program.
Instead of stubbornly put the denuclearization of the peninsula as the main objective, Seoul should focus its efforts on opening a dialogue with the DPRK and improving North-South relations. It is this field where South Korea must play a leading an active role. Until diplomatic and military communication channels remain closed across the 38th parallel, tensions and the risk of misperceptions will be high.
About the author:
*Maria Rosaria Coduti is a columnist for NK News. She is a Blue Book Trainee at the European Commission, EEAS department, and a Ph.D. Candidate at the School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield. She received both a BA and MA, with honors, at the School of Political Science of the University of Bologna. She has previously worked as Non-Resident Junior Research Fellow at ISDP and has written on North Korea for the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, North Korean Review Online and the Korea Economic Institute blog. During her last MA year, Ms. Coduti conducted research on North Korea’s foreign policy. Her research interests focus on domestic and foreign policy of the two Koreas and China, inter-Korean relations, nuclear and security issues in Northeast Asia, and cognitive foreign policy analysis and role theory.
This article was published by NK News
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