Despite the coronavirus hogging international limelight, the Korean Peninsula issue does not lose any bit of international relevance. The last two years saw plenty of activities wherein South Korean President Moon Jae-in started an outreach initiative to engage North Korea and successfully brokered two summits between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore (June 2018) and Hanoi (February 2019) to resolve the long festering nuclear issue. All these efforts yielded no positive outcome, after starting with a lot of promise but ending with a whimper. After a short period of pause, North Korea resumed its missile launch activities, thereby undoing all efforts made by Moon. Not to be deterred, Moon continued to engage with Kim both economically and politically within the ambit of UN sanctions.
This time around, Moon decided to reach out to North Korea independent of the US to promote inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation that could take place in the areas of healthcare, railways and tourism. Moon was convinced that the initiative cannot just wait until progress is made in denuclearization talks between Pyongyang and Washington, which he felt unlikely to happen for a while. Talks between North Korea and the US have stalled and no one knows whether they could make any headway, given that it is an election year in the US and Trump is embroiled in domestic issues as well as a spat with China over trade and coronavirus issues. It was therefore Moon thought efforts must restart to improve inter-Korean relations regardless of the deadlock in US-North Korea denuclearisation talks and subject to UN sanctions imposed on the North for its nuclear and missile programs. Moon was confident that the international community would easily grant exceptions.
With this in view Moon ambitiously pushed for inter-Korean projects in various fields to engage with Pyongyang since the start of 2020. Unfortunately, the coronavirus outbreak has put Moon’s plans on hold. But Moon saw this also as an opportunity. Taking advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic, Moon has been trying to bring his inter-Korean initiative back to life by proposing cross-border healthcare cooperation. In view of the fear of a second wave of the Covid-19 outbreak, which in fact has already started, Moon proposed an inter-Korean quarantine cooperation, which he vowed to pursue until the North accepted.
It is not only the Covid-19 that has been Moon’s main focus, he sees other areas such as railroads and tourism as prospective areas for engaging the North. South Korea initiated a project to reconnect inter-Korean railways which was agreed during the 2018 summit between Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. South Korea began constructing a railway line from the east coastal city of Gangneung to the border town of Jeji.
Also, the Moon administration hopes to launch individual tourism by South Koreans to the North. He also plans to resume tours to the truce village of Panmunjom this month.
It remains to be seen however if Moon’s plans will pay off as the North Korean regime has not responded to any of his offers. Interestingly, Kim has shown signs of trying to improve ties with its traditional allies China and Russia. Since the collapse of the Hanoi summit in February 2019, the North has given the cold shoulder to the South’s entreaties.
Despite such optimism Moon’s proposal demonstrates to deal with inter-Korean projects separately from the North’s denuclearization negotiations with the US, it could lose steam as Pyongyang still shuns Seoul’s proposals while seeking dialogue with Washington. This can be deciphered from the fact that Kim presided over an undated key defense meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party and laid out “new policies for further increasing” its nuclear war deterrence and putting its “strategic armed forces on high alert operation.” There was no reference to Seoul’s suggestion for cooperation on inter-Korean quarantine measures, however. From all indicators, it seems that Kim’s priority could be first continue to reach out to Washington until at least November this year as Trump would be seeking re-election rather than consider Moon’s proposal. Kim’s long term objective seems to be to get concession and sanctions relief, which will be possible if he gets Trump on board and succeeds in extracting some concessions without surrendering his nuclear arsenals. If such is the case, Moon would find it hard to get an opening for his much cherished inter-Korean talks.
The signals from Pyongyang are ominous. As if to convey the message to Washington that any freeze in nuclear weapons programs without any concession will be a will-o-the-wisp, Kim promoted his sister Ri Pyong-chol, who was in charge of building nuclear weapons and missiles, to vice-chairman of the ruling party’s Central Military Commission, thereby conveying the message that the regime remains committed to strengthening its nuclear war deterrence and boosting military capabilities. If this is so, boosting inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation poses fresh challenge to Moon.
Kim seems to be unhappy that the Hanoi summit in February 2019 failed to produce an agreement and nuclear diplomacy between North Korea and the US made little headway, which was the reason why inter-Korean ties also made little progress. Sensing that North Korea-US talks showed little promise, Moon reached out to Kim to activate cooperation in non-controversial areas such as healthcare, railways and tourism. Since Kim has not responded to Moon’s proposal, this gives rise to speculation that the inter-Korean relations to be back on track have been subordinated to normalization of ties between the North and the US. Moon needs to go beyond cooperation proposal on healthcare, railways and tourism; he needs to add resuming tours to Mount Geumgang or reopening the Gaeseong Industrial Complex. Without these, Moon might not expect that Kim shows any interest to the offer.
A committed Moon allowed his foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha during her visit to the US in May 2020 to alert Trump of Seoul’s pro-engagement policy with North Korea through the pursuit of various inter-Korean projects irrespective of the stalemate in the North Korea-US nuclear negotiations. Seoul is focusing on projects that area not restricted by sanctions. Even otherwise, it expects to pursue on projects with availing exemptions. Such a pro-engagement policy with Pyongyang has remained as one of the core objectives of Moon administration, as enunciated in his 7 January New Year speech first and subsequent statements. Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul also has reiterated Seoul will no longer allow inter-Korean relations to be sidelined. Moon administration’s renewed focus on engagement, however, runs risk of a rift with the US, which has been firm about keeping the sanctions in place.
If the US is not rigid in its stance, there could be scope for inter-Korean forestry cooperation as key to effectively cope with national disasters and looming climate change. An inter-Korean cooperation center on forestry is already built in the border town of Paju, north of Seoul, and both sides consider forestry on the Korean Peninsula as a common asset for the two Koreas. It houses various facilities, including those for nurturing seedlings. During the summit between Moon and Kim in 2018, both sides agreed on forestry cooperation which included joint efforts on combating deforestation, conducting research on seedling and other countermeasures against natural disasters. Little progress was however achieved as denuclearisation talks reached a stalemate. After the coronavirus subsides, the centre in Paju could usher in an era of full-fledged cooperation in the forestry sector between the two Koreas.
Despite the suspicion and mutual distrust, there is consensus at the government level for both sides to embrace each other with a common identity. It remains unclear however how the huge ideological gap between the two systems can be bridged for peoples of both sides to live together under one roof. There seems to be a change in the thinking among the younger generation in South Korea who would like both sides to live together. According to a poll conducted recently by the National Youth Policy Institute, Seoul, 67.8 per cent of 3,228 elementary, middle and high school students replied that the two Koreas need to unify. Among them, 28.8 percent said that reunification is necessary as it will help South Korea become stronger, while 23.2 percent answered it will ease security concerns on the Korean Peninsula. Some 20 percent cited that two Koreas have the same ethnic roots.
Asked about when unification could be realized, 28 percent replied that they expect reunification after 20 years, followed by 23.4 percent who said within 10-20 years and 18.5 percent within 5-10 years. Some 13 percent of them said reunification is impossible to achieve. Given the complexities of issues involved, such optimism could be wishful thinking, though that should be the desirable goal.