Backseat Driver: Moon Jae-in’s Struggle to Revive Inter-Korean Relations

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has enjoyed remarkable domestic success during his first hundred days in office. Elected in May after winning 40 percent of the popular vote, Moon quickly displayed political savvy and a governing style that made him something of a darling to a nation desperate for leadership after the fall of Park Geun-hye. He has maintained a formidable mandate, with public approval ratings ranging from 73-84 percent—the highest of any president in the country’s history. After his first 100 days in office, Moon’s “Candlelight” coalition is even stronger now than when he was elected.

In contrast with his sure footing with the South Korean public, Moon has struggled to get his North Korea policy of engagement and reconciliation off the ground. This is not yet damaging his popularity in the South, where the public is still largely focused on social and economic issues. But Moon must feel a deep sense of frustration. After all, he seems determined to get inter-Korean relations right—more determined than Park, who made improving relations with China the centerpiece of her foreign relations strategy, or Lee Myung-bak, who focused on strengthening the alliance with the United States. Moon rejects the legacies of Park and Lee, whom he did not even mention in speeches on the North-South issue. Instead, in his inaugural address, Berlin speech, and Independence Day speech, Moon reclaimed the tradition of Roh Moo-hyun/Kim Dae-jung, to give priority to inter-Korean relations and put Seoul in the driver’s seat. Like Kim and Roh, Moon’s strategic vision hinges on the power of dialogue, reconciliation and cooperation to make progress with the North, without jeopardizing South Korean security along the way.

However, three key factors are preventing Moon from making progress on this agenda, and explain why the reality of inter-Korean relations is nowhere near the vision of Moon’s preferred approach. The first is the perennial “takes two to tango” problem. Kim Jong Un has shown no particular eagerness to engage with Moon. For Kim and the North Korean system, a friendly liberal South Korean government is more threatening than a hostile conservative one. The North Korean system is adapted to external hostility, pressure and isolation—although the country may not thrive under such adverse conditions, the regime knows it can survive in them. Being approached in a genuine spirit of cooperation presents a greater challenge, and the DPRK will naturally seek maximum leverage going into the stress of engagement. Thus, while Pyongyang claims to refuse to engage because Moon is no different from Park and Lee—affirming sanctions and the ROK-US alliance—at a deeper level, it is because they know he is different that they are keeping him at bay, making him squirm until the next era of inter-Korean engagement finally begins.

Pyongyang’s resistance to dialogue is intensely frustrating to Seoul. Even the kind of back-channel talks that were presumed available to a liberal administration seem not to be active, and certainly not productive. The Moon government offered a few trial balloons, but Pyongyang has popped them one by one. The North snubbed Southern civic groups’ efforts to restore contacts with their counterparts and rejected the idea of joint commemorations on the anniversary of the first inter-Korean summit (June 15) and liberation from Japanese colonial rule (August 15). Pyongyang also criticized—without formally rejecting—Seoul’s proposal to restart military talks (last held in 2014) and family reunions (last held in 2015). North Korean media have avoided personal attacks on President Moon, but they have been consistently negative in tone. After Seoul affirmed the latest UNSC Resolution 2371, for example, the Consultative Council for National Reconciliation released a tirade via Rodong Sinmun with a particularly nasty slur against Moon’s foreign minister Kang Kyung-hwa, warning Seoul that “it should not forget that it will completely lose the opportunity for dealing with the DPRK and everything will end at once if it persistently resorts to stupid and reckless acts.”

A second major factor inhibiting Moon’s inter-Korean agenda is the intensity of US-DPRK tensions, triggered by Pyongyang’s advances in its long-range missile program and US President Donald Trump’s volatile, sometimes over-the-top rhetoric. The drama of Kim Jong Un versus Donald Trump sucks all the oxygen out of the room, making it difficult for Moon to maneuver diplomatically. Spiking first in April and again in August, this year’s “North Korea crisis” is very much an American-made one, with South Korea often treated as a mere bystander, rather than a principal actor. Compounding this sidelining effect is the fact that President Trump views North Korea as a subset of US-China relations, a problem that Beijing could easily solve if it mustered the will to do so. Ironically, South Korea’s withdrawal from the North Korean economy—from Lee Myung-bak’s May 24th sanctions to Park’s Kaesong closure—only served to marginalize Seoul’s role (without having impeded North Korea’s nuclear and missile development). Now Moon finds himself without much of a defense against the tendency to overlook Seoul’s diplomatic and strategic role, a phenomenon known here as “Korea passing.”

A third factor may be less obvious from afar but appears quite significant when Moon is viewed from within. The president’s very popularity may be watering down his approach to Pyongyang and inhibiting the emergence of a bolder strategy toward inter-Korean relations. The contrast in terms of domestic political dynamics between Moon and Trump, for example, is instructive. The US president plays to his base, even its fringe elements, and antagonizes his critics, while the South Korean leader works hard to maintain consensus and act as a president for all Koreans. One of the lessons that many liberals took out of the decade-long Sunshine Policy experience was the critical importance of maintaining a broad consensus behind inter-Korean engagement. Moon’s caution has a compelling domestic political logic, but it limits his ability to overcome Kim’s ambivalence and override Trump’s volatility. His strategic goal of reviving the liberal approach to inter-Korean rapprochement eludes his administration.

It may be the case, as many South Koreans believe, that the Moon administration can only make progress after some kind of breakthrough, even a preliminary one, between Kim and Trump. The US-DPRK summer crisis is spiking again after the launch over Japan, but may subside in the same way that the springtime one did—tensions relax and attention is diverted elsewhere, but the underlying problem and dynamics go unaddressed. Another crisis seems almost inevitable—over a sixth nuclear, SLBM or ICBM test—or some American allied action deemed provocative by Pyongyang (at the latest, next spring’s joint military exercises). If Moon goes out on a limb to advance his inter-Korean agenda, he risks having his legs cut out from beneath him.  But if he is too cautious, the tree might fall on him.

The Trump administration will be tempted now sit back and wait for the pain of Chinese enforcement of UNSC 2371 to set in. That tactic, in the absence of negotiation, is unlikely to be effective on the North Koreans. If they can do one thing, it is absorb pain. Instead of sit back, President Trump should send a high-level envoy to Pyongyang to kickstart a diplomatic process—and hopefully President Moon could do the same in the immediate wake. In the meantime, Seoul and Washington can prepare the way for a negotiated path to peace and denuclearization, by working out detailed ideas for short-term risk mitigation and confidence building steps, mid-term conflict reduction and arms control measures, and, most importantly, a long-term process that achieves peace, development and denuclearization.

Trump is wrong about the centrality of China to progress on North Korea, but Moon is right about the importance of the US-ROK alliance to dealing with Pyongyang. A three-party peace process between the two Koreas and the United States may ultimately prove to be the only path leading, however slowly, out of the quagmire. Even as Moon waits, there is work to be done.

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