What Does South Korean President Moon Want From the Biden Administration?

(Source: Cheong Wa Dae)

A lot has happened in Seoul and Washington in the last ten days. A couple of days before US President Joseph Biden was inaugurated, South Korean President Moon Jae-in held a press conference covering domestic and foreign policies. His responses to journalists’ questions clearly laid out South Korea’s formulation for reinvigorating both inter-Korean engagement and US-DPRK nuclear diplomacy in the final year of his term. However, Moon’s administration has recently been under fire domestically and abroad for its policies over the anti-leaflet law[1] and its response to the North Korean military’s killing of a South Korean civil servant—criticisms which reflect broader dissatisfaction with Moon’s pro-DPRK engagement policies since 2017 and the perception that they seem to serve North Korea’s interests while jeopardizing those of South Korea and the United States. Moon’s remarks that the Biden administration offers a turning point for renewing US-DPRK diplomacy and inter-Korean talks are likely to inflame these criticisms. What should we make of these comments? What does Moon expect from the new administration when it comes to US-DPRK diplomacy?

A Biden-Kim Summit?

Perhaps the most controversial of Moon’s responses was his urging of the Biden administration to build upon the Trump administration’s achievements. This may seem ridiculous for those who have criticized the previous administration for legitimizing Kim Jong Un’s regime. However, Moon’s statement has been interpreted narrowly and therefore needs to be viewed in the context of his other comments. In his response to one question, Moon pointed out that the Trump administration had both successes and failures (“트럼프정부의 성공경험과 실패에…”) from which the Biden administration could learn.

The success refers to the Singapore Declaration signed at the first Trump-Kim summit in June 2018. Moon considered this an achievement for three reasons. First, it had been 13 years since North Korea signed the September 2005 Joint Statement, which committed the DPRK to abandon its nuclear program. Second, the Singapore Declaration reaffirmed this commitment to complete denuclearization just seven months after the North formally declared itself a nuclear power. Third, previous denuclearization agreements focused on limiting and reducing North Korea’s production of fissile material; if the DPRK carried out the pledge made in Singapore, it would get rid of all its nuclear warheads as well as its fissile material production capability. This context helps explain why the Singapore Declaration is considered an achievement from Moon’s perspective.

At the same time, however, Moon admitted the Singapore Declaration had its limitations because it is an agreement on “principles” (“원론적인 선언”) that does not provide a concrete plan for denuclearizing the North. Moon seems to be suggesting the Trump administration’s top-down approach to diplomacy led to the “no-deal” Hanoi Summit, which epitomized the “failure” of the Trump administration. His awareness of the Biden administration’s preference for a “bottom-up” approach to diplomacy, coupled with his call for elaborating on the principles contained in the Singapore Declaration, hints at what Moon thinks would be a winning formula for a breakthrough in nuclear diplomacy with North Korea: dangling the carrot of a Biden-Kim summit—following appropriate working-level preparations—to catalyze a renewal of US-DPRK talks. This is reflected in Moon’s belief that Kim is still willing to denuclearize and that the onus is on the US to restart talks. This optimistic perception is questionable based on the most recent Party Congress in Pyongyang highlighting the need for North Korea to adhere to its policy of nuclear-based military deterrence. Nevertheless, it is certain Moon does not want the Biden administration to walk away from the Singapore Declaration.

Negotiating With the North on US-ROK Military Exercises?

The second most controversial statement made by Moon during the news conference was his suggestion that Seoul should negotiate with Pyongyang regarding future South Korean joint military exercises with the United States. Moon’s critics will argue this idea would jeopardize South Korea’s national security, cede sovereignty to North Korea and create frictions with the Biden administration. The comment is also inconsistent with Moon’s reiteration during the same press meeting that these drills are for defensive purposes. And his statement is even more puzzling since the joint exercises should be a US-ROK decision, not an inter-Korean one that would give North Korea a veto over these decisions.

However, Moon’s views should be read in the context of the DPRK’s demand for a security guarantee from the US (which is imperative for the success of any future US-DPRK) in exchange for the North’s agreement to denuclearize. In other words, in Moon’s view, the lack of mutual trust is the root cause of the problems surrounding US-ROK military exercises, the inter-Korean dialogue and US-DPRK nuclear diplomacy.

By raising the possibility of “negotiating” with the North on the joint exercises, Moon is implicitly acknowledging South Korea has contributed to the lack of trust, and signaling his willingness to dissipate that distrust by engaging directly with the North on this issue. Furthermore, it should not be assumed this dialogue would require unilateral South Korean compromises on sovereignty or national security; it could entail, for example, South Korea’s reaffirmation that US-ROK military exercises are defensive in nature.

It is also noteworthy that Moon called for the use of the inter-Korean military committee to discuss US-ROK drills with North Korea. It is puzzling, to say the least, that Moon suggested the committee as a potential communication channel—this commission was never set up under the 2018 ROK-DPRK Comprehensive Military Agreement; launching it would require North Korean cooperation and there is no evidence the North is in a cooperative mood. Moon’s suggestion, though unrealistic in the current environment, perhaps suggests that he is interested in trading some limits on US-ROK joint drills in return for the North’s agreement to restart dialogue with the South. In other words, there is a principle of reciprocity underlying Moon’s Korean peace process when it comes to national security and military confidence building. As he clarified at his press conference, another summit with Kim Jong Un is possible, but only if the North Korean leader is ready to offer something substantial in return. Moon’s inter-Korean policy, therefore, should not be interpreted as a policy of appeasement.[2]

Back to the Future?

By reshuffling his foreign policy and national security teams with experienced diplomats who have strong connections to the Washington foreign policy establishment (the so-called “북미통”), Moon seems determined to revive the 2018 summitry process in the last year of his term. To do so, however, Moon realizes he must first persuade Biden and his administration to prioritize North Korea on the US foreign policy agenda. He is well aware this will be a daunting task given that the US is preoccupied with massive challenges at home. This coming year portends another eventful period for US-ROK relations and possibly for their relationships with North Korea as well, but only if the US is ready and willing to embark on a lengthy process that will require bolder strategic thinking, not strategic patience.

  1. [1]

    This law, banning the sending of anti-North Korea leaflets and other goods or materials across the inter-Korean border, has been controversial for two reasons. First, it is seen as violating human rights and freedom of expression. Second, the bill was introduced following comments from North Korea’s Kim Yo Jong last June that South Korea should ban the leaflets or face consequences of worsened relations.

  2. [2]

    The feasibility and sustainability of military diplomacy via the inter-Korean military committee are questionable since getting North Korea to cooperate and come to the table has always been the primary obstacle to any rapprochement effort. I thank Jenny Town for pointing this out.

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