ISSN 2330-717X

Denuclearizing North Korea: Moon Jae-In’s Challenges – Analysis


By Abhijitha Singh*

Ever since communist North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, the successive governments in Seoul have perceived any increase in Pyongyang’s military strength as an existential threat and sought to contain it. The current administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in is no exception. Since South Korean President Moon Jae-in came to power in May 2017, the denuclearisation of North Korea has been one of his most cherished foreign policy objectives. Like his predecessors, Moon perceives North Korea’s ongoing nuclear weapon programme as a major threat to the South and has made serious efforts to end it. He has adopted a policy that seeks to promote an ever-increasing exchange with North Korea and make the latter see the benefits in denuclearising itself and, thus, fostering a closer relationship with the economically advanced South. But as President Moon’s term in the Blue House is nearing its end, it is apparent that he is still far from his goal of denuclearising North Korea. In his recent talks with the United States President Joe Biden, Washington affirmed its inclination to work closely with Seoul to denuclearise North Korea. Biden also stressed the need for US-ROK-Japan trilateral cooperation to bolster a rule-based order in the region. Therefore, the atmosphere is conducive for President Moon to accomplish his long-standing goal, by efficiently coordinating with the current administrations in Washington and Tokyo and devising strategies and tactics that would work to denuclearise North Korea.

Moving against the odds

President Moon has throughout adhered to his policy against all odds. Some of his conservative predecessors in the Blue House adopted a policy of confrontation to contain Pyongyang’s nuclear programme. After the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) suspected Pyongyang of developing nuclear weapons in 1993, then US President Jimmy Carter met President Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang and signed with him an agreed framework on the North’s controversial nuclear programme. The former South Korean President Kim Young-sam opposed it and stated, “We cannot shake hands with a partner with nuclear weapons.” The administrations of both Presidents Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013) and Park Geun-hye (2013-2017) in Seoul declared the two Koreas would engage only when Pyongyang denuclearised itself.

In contrast, after Moon took over as the country’s President, he indicated he was serious about talking to current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in person. Eventually, Moon held three summits with Kim. In 2018, when former US President Donald J. Trump threatened the Kim regime ‘with fire, fury and frankly power… never seen before’ and Pyongyang retaliated by increasing its nuclear tests, Moon did not sway from his policy and remained stoic. He successfully persuaded the Trump administration in Washington to reach out to Pyongyang.

Goal remains far off

One, however, doubts if President Moon’s policy would be able to accomplish North Korean denuclearisation any time soon. History bears witness to Pyongyang’s incessant policy to advance its nuclear-missile programme. It did, however, enter into a few agreements over the period of time. It ratified the multilateral Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in December 1985. In January 1992, North Korea agreed with the South to “not test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy, or use nuclear weapons.”

During former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s visit to Pyongyang in 2000, North Korea agreed to discuss its ballistic missile programme and missile technology exports. In the Six Party (South and North Korea, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States) talks held in September 2005, Pyongyang committed to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons and implement the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards and the terms of the NPT. In 2012, North Korea agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment operations in Yongbyon, invite IAEA monitors, and carry out a moratorium on long-range missile and nuclear testing.

But North Korea has never complied with these agreements. Pyongyang built its first nuclear facilities in the early 1980s. By 1994, it produced one or two nuclear weapons. In 2006, North Korea carried out an underground nuclear test. It carried out nuclear tests also in 2013 and 2016. In 2017, Pyongyang conducted its sixth nuclear test. Today North Korea is believed to be armed with short-, medium-, long-range, and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Pyongyang continues to be ambitious about its nuclear military programme. It seems to calculate that the possession of nuclear weapons helps it in securing the loyalty of its officials and people. Besides, Pyongyang seems to conclude that its nuclear military capability gives it a military edge over its neighbours Seoul (and Tokyo).


Given this background, President Moon is confronted with formidable challenges in his journey towards North Korean denuclearisation. He may have to display a lot of diplomatic dexterity to drive sense into Pyongyang and make it agree to its denuclearisation. Seoul may think of engaging with Pyongyang economically. It could entice the North with some big-ticket economic projects like the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Seoul could also send relief supplies to the North to help it out of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Today, North Korea has strict border closures — including with China. This is believed to have taken a severe economic toll in the North.

More importantly, Seoul may have to coordinate better with Washington and Tokyo and evolve a policy that would exert a reasonable pressure on Pyongyang to denuclearise itself. Fortunately, Moon has the current administrations in Washington and Tokyo on the same page to achieve North Korean denuclearisation.

During his 21 May summit with American President Joseph Biden in Washington, the latter joined him to express a “common belief” that diplomacy could achieve the complete denuclearisation and peace on the Korean Peninsula. Biden expressed his “support for inter-Korean dialogue, engagement, and cooperation.”

President Biden promised that in denuclearising the North, the United States would “proceed in close consultation with the Republic of Korea.” Biden also stressed the need for, “US-ROK-Japan trilateral cooperation for… protecting our shared security and prosperity, upholding common values, and bolstering the rules-based order.”

Pertinently, both Washington and Tokyo have long perceived a threat to their national security from North Korea’s nuclear-missile programme. As such, the subject of North Korean denuclearisation happened to occupy a prominent place in Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide’s summit talks with the United States President Joe Biden on 16 April 2021.

Policy of ambiguity

Needless to mention, President Moon would do well not to expect much from important powers, such as Russia and China, in denuclearising the North. Moscow and Beijing have had a policy of ambiguity in the matter.

In the recent decades, Russia has been a key partner in UN Security Council (UNSC) deliberations to impose sanctions related to North Korean nuclear and missile tests. But Russia has never been committed to UNSC resolutions. Russia’s trade relationship with North Korea is strong. Russia-North Korea trade in 2019 totalled over US $48 million. Russian companies re-export North Korean coal and trans-shipped oil and petroleum to other countries. Russia allows upward of 10,000 North Korean labourers to work in Russia letting Pyongyang earn foreign currency from its forced labour abroad.

As for China, it has demanded in the United Nations Council resolutions that North Korea abandon its nuclear programme. But it does not seem to be serious. Beijing may be calculating that the denuclearisation of the North might lead to the unification of the peninsula and “a catastrophic collapse of North Korea,” and that might create problems on its borders.

Besides, Beijing has a unique mutual aid cooperation treaty with Pyongyang signed in 1961. The treaty says that if either country comes under armed attack, the other would provide immediate assistance, including military support. The two countries have no such defence treaty with any other nation in the world. China continues to remain North Korea’s top trading partner. China-North Korea trade totalled over US $2.7 billion in 2019.

Need for effective strategies

To conclude, notwithstanding his sincere efforts at improving Seoul’s ties with Pyongyang and moving towards North Korean denuclearisation, President Moon remains far off from his goal. Time is running out for him; he has less than nine months left for his term to end. He needs to review his diplomatic course vis-à-vis Pyongyang and make the latter respond positively to his efforts for the denuclearisation of the peninsula.

Both Washington and Tokyo have of late come together with Seoul to focus on having a trilateral mechanism aimed at meeting the North Korean challenge. President Moon could use this opportunity to devise, in consultation with Washington and Tokyo, effective strategies and tactics to push North Korea towards its denuclearisation.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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