Many observers expect a clash when South Korean president Moon Jae-in meets with President Donald Trump this week. Moon is perceived as wanting to revive the “sunshine” engagement policies of previous liberal South Korean presidents, while Trump has relied on brinkmanship and threats of military action. However, Moon seems confident that their approaches to the Korean Peninsula may be more aligned than people think. With Trump recently admitting that his attempt to outsource the North Korean nuclear problem to China “has not worked out,” Moon appears ready to pitch a way forward that draws on their shared vision for employing both pressure and engagement—rather than a return to “sunshine,” a “sunburn” policy.
For Moon, persuading the US to engage North Korea is the only practical way forward due to constraints on inter-Korean engagement. He can’t restart joint North-South projects from the Sunshine Policy era, such as the Kaesong industrial park or the Mt. Kumgang tourism venture, because United Nations Security Council resolutions prohibit financial transfers and support for trade with North Korea. When he tried proposing smaller humanitarian and nongovernmental exchanges that don’t run afoul of international sanctions, North Korea rebuffed them, seeing no benefit. Ultimately, as much as Moon wants Seoul to drive the engagement process, Pyongyang views Washington as its appropriate counterpart on nuclear and security matters. This means Moon must persuade Trump to partner up on a joint vision for dealing with North Korea.
Facing these constraints, President Moon has emphasized that his approach to North Korea is consistent with Trump’s. A former Special Forces paratrooper whose parents fled North Korea during the Korean War, Moon is less dovish than the popular perception of him. Moon noted in recent media interviews that both he and Trump share the assessment that the previous US administration’s “strategic patience” was a failure. He also endorsed Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure and engagement,” acknowledging the need to enhance international sanctions and pressure on North Korea to coerce it back to the path of denuclearization. But Moon highlighted the second part of this strategy at the same time, arguing that both Washington and Seoul have expressed willingness to engage in dialogue with North Korea under the right conditions.
While supporting enhanced pressure against North Korea, Moon is likely to propose a way forward that responds to the interests of the United States, China and North Korea. Moon has publicly advocated for a two-phase plan that would first freeze North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and then pursue complete denuclearization. Although Moon did not reveal what incentives he is reviewing to persuade Pyongyang to consider such a plan, the offer would likely include a modification of the US-South Korea bilateral military exercises and the creation of a formal peace regime. A senior advisor for President Moon recently suggested as much while making the rounds at US think tanks. Although Seoul walked back his remarks, it may have been more due to the advisor’s gaffe of telling the truth. Importantly, China has been promoting a similar two-step approach for the last two years.
Washington has already dismissed the first step of the plan, arguing that bilateral military exercises are routine, defensive training measures while North Korean nuclear and missile tests are violations of international law. Nevertheless, as an alliance partner with equal say in bilateral matters, Seoul may propose modifications or softened messaging of the exercises as an alternative to full suspension. Not everyone in the United States is opposed to such a modification—a non-partisan Council on Foreign Relations task force chaired by former Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen and former Senator Sam Nunn proposed this very measure in September 2016.
There is precedent for suspended exercises leading to a breakthrough with North Korea. In the 1990s, the bilateral decision to suspend the massive Team Spirit exercises directly motivated North Korea to sign a nuclear safeguards agreement and created the conditions that led to the signing of the 1994 Agreed Framework. The offer to modify exercises could prove enticing to Pyongyang, which has long denounced them as preparations for an alliance invasion of the country.
To further persuade the United States, Moon may also broach an expedited return of wartime operational control of South Korean troops to Seoul by accelerating the transition date to the end of his term in 2022. Although Washington returned peacetime control to Seoul in 1994, liberal South Koreans have pushed for full control as a matter of autonomy and pride. This transition is currently expected to take place around the mid-2020s when South Korea is scheduled to achieve critical military capabilities that can help detect, defend against and destroy any North Korean attempt to launch nuclear weapons or missiles. With the earlier return of wartime operational control, Moon could try to appeal to Trump’s desire for US allies like South Korea to assume greater responsibility for their own defense. The risk is that North Korea and China will perceive this move as an initial step toward the decoupling of the US-South Korea alliance.
To complete the sale with Trump, Moon will have to address the uncertain status of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea. Although two of the THAAD battery’s six launchers are already deployed there to defend US and South Korean troops against the increasing North Korean missile threat, Moon has halted further action until an environmental assessment is completed. He can resolve this situation if he ensures a clear and speedy review process. Any appearance of foot-dragging, such as the possibility raised by Moon’s advisor that the environmental assessment could take over a year, won’t be received well. The new South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-hwa recently confirmed that Seoul “has no intention to basically reverse the commitments made in the spirit of” the alliance, so if the deployment goes forward, Moon should get assurances from Trump that Washington will weigh in with Beijing to prevent further Chinese economic retaliation.
Although already skeptical of Moon’s approach, Washington has good reasons to consider it seriously. Trump’s attempt to get China to solve the North Korea problem went nowhere. Military options are not realistic, except in a preemptive scenario against an imminent threat, due to the risk of North Korean retaliation and catastrophic consequences in Seoul. Likewise, applying secondary sanctions on Chinese banks and companies that assist North Korean illicit activities—while an overdue measure—will strain relations with China.
Both Moon and Trump recognize that time is running out. North Korea is arguably five years away from reaching the point of no return—a reliable long-range nuclear weapon—and Chinese pressure and international sanctions by themselves will not change North Korea’s behavior within this time frame. The window for engagement closes once North Korea gets impatient and conducts its sixth nuclear test or its first long-range missile test. If Moon can convince Trump that his approach to North Korea isn’t a reprise of “sunshine,” but rather a “sunburn” policy that mirrors Trump’s own stated policy of maximum pressure and engagement, the US-South Korea alliance may emerge as strong as ever.