With nearly daily reports of artillery fire within the DMZ and around the Northern Limit Line, and both Koreas engaged in military drills and missile launches, the security situation on the Korean Peninsula seems a far cry from the Olympic détente and summitry of 2018. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has kept the door to resuming diplomacy with North Korea open and offered an “audacious plan” of benefits if it would recommit to a denuclearization agenda. But so far, Pyongyang has rejected this proposal and is unlikely to change its mind any time soon, given the worsening security trends in the region. This stalemate illustrates how South Korea’s unification goals are often at odds with its broader security and foreign policies and how difficult it will be to get inter-Korean relations back on track as Seoul deepens its bilateral and values-based security alliances.
South Korea’s Unification vs. National Security Priorities
There is a curious gap in the reception of South Korea’s policy vis-à-vis North Korea. While the division of the peninsula is one of the most important topics for outside observers, it is far less so for South Koreans. The nuclear threat that North Korea poses is not completely ignored in the South, especially within the defense community, but it is not generally what defines inter-Korean relations. Instead, South Korean rhetoric tends to lead with the mantra of unification and the country’s self-perception as a divided state. However, none of these things really impact day-to-day life in South Korea and, as a general rule, do not significantly affect voters or important political decisions.
While there are marked differences in the way that different South Korean political parties and presidents execute policies related to North Korea, few election campaigns are based on this. When they are, it tends to result in defeat, as was demonstrated by the presidential campaign of former Unification Minister Chung Dong-young of the Uri Party. Unsurprisingly, in South Korea’s recent presidential election, voters were more focused on domestic issues such as real estate prices, economic policies for the younger generations, the distinction of tasks between policy and prosecution, and even the alleged and real flaws of candidates and their spouses than on a unification policy.
Yoon’s “Audacious Plan”
The relative silence from Yoon’s camp in this year’s presidential campaign regarding unification policies is understandable. While Yoon did voice a more conservative policy on North Korea and unification, especially criticizing the silence of the former liberal government on human rights in North Korea, no concrete plans for unification policy were ever debated. The greatest stir came in response to North Korea’s hypersonic missile test earlier this year when Yoon called for a “preemptive strike” on the North in case of a potential attack. This was unsurprisingly reciprocated by North Korea in September in its announcement of a revised nuclear doctrine authorizing preemptive nuclear use.
Starting with the nomination and Parliamentary confirmation hearings for Kwon Yong-se as the new Minister of Unification, President Yoon’s new unification policy has begun to take shape. For conservatives and liberals alike, there were some surprises: contrary to all former governments, Minister Kwon and President Yoon did not begin by announcing a completely new doctrine, but instead said that unification is a long game of patience that requires bipartisan support. As such, the government indicated it would continue North Korea policy where the former Moon Jae-in administration stopped, and not start over from scratch. Even more surprisingly, Kwon announced that the government would decriminalize South Korean access to North Korean media. Since the establishment of the South’s National Security Law (NSL), reading North Korean newspapers, listening to North Korean radio, and trying to access the North’s online media, such as the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and Rodong Sinmun, have all been forbidden. Finally lifting those restrictions is something that many outside observers have wanted to see for a long time.
Following these initial announcements, even while North Korea stepped up its military activities—launching 40+ missiles so far this year and potentially resuming nuclear weapons testing—President Yoon announced a comprehensive strategy for North Korea and unification that he dubbed the “audacious plan” (sometimes referred to as the “audacious initiative” or “bold initiative”). He first mentioned it in his inauguration speech on May 10 and chose August 15–National Liberation Day—to elaborate more details.
Under the new plan, President Yoon promised large-scale food aid, power generation, infrastructure support, port and airport modernization, modernization in agriculture and the health sectors, and to help increase international investment in North Korea. However, the precondition to these benefits is for the North to stop developing nuclear weapons and make substantial progress on denuclearization. Subsequent statements clarified this does not mean complete denuclearization before the plan commences but should be seen as a tit-for-tat process with a predefined end goal.
Reactions to Yoon’s Audacious Plan
Yoon’s plan was immediately met with skepticism in Seoul open hostility by Pyongyang. Many observers, including North Korean media, pointed out the similarities between the “audacious plan” and former President Lee Myung-bak’s “Vision 3000: Denuclearization and Openness” plan. President Lee’s plan promised to increase North Korea’s per capita income, which at that time was less than $1,000 USD, to $3,000 USD, if North Korea agreed to denuclearization and opening up. Predictably, that plan was never implemented. Yoon’s “audacious initiative” might face the same fate as the North Korean government appears uninterested in economic improvements if it requires sacrificing regime security.
This does not even include denuclearization itself, even though the North Korean government propagates this as its key “success.” In reality, North Korea fears opening the country in the way that is necessary to achieve the kind of economic development South Korea envisages much more than denuclearization. This would require open borders; a free (or much freer) inflow of information and, thereby, empowerment of people vis-à-vis the government; and the provision of a new economic system that will outperform the current, run-down and inefficient hybrid economy.
As such, it is no surprise that North Korea’s official response to the plan was negative. Three days after President Yoon’s speech on August 15, 2022, Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, who in the past years rose to prominence with aggressive statements directed toward South Korea, lashed out against Yoon’s “audacious plan” calling it nothing more than a “replica” of the plan of the “traitor Lee Myung-bak,” and that no one would trade away their destiny “for corn cake.” Despite her choice of words, she fully grasped that opening up the country and embracing a market economy would shake the destiny of the North Korean regime. As peaceful as South Korea would like its aid to be, it would invariably erode the power base of the ruling elite in Pyongyang.
In early September, the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) of North Korea announced the adoption of a new nuclear law that allows Kim Jong Un to “immediately” use nuclear force if an imminent nuclear or non-nuclear attack on the leadership is feared, as well as automatic nuclear use in case the leadership is incapacitated due to attack. Not only is this an update to the much more limited nuclear law from 2013, it can be viewed as a final answer to Yoon’s “audacious plan”: “There will be no nuclear negotiations with South Korea, full stop.”
However, this does not mean that the “audacious plan” should necessarily be considered dead in the water. In fact, it is not so much a plan as it is a vague promise and, in its current iteration, is not very audacious. For two decades, South Korea has maintained a $1 billion USD inter-Korean cooperation fund that is not really used for much more than some costly and flashy opening ceremonies of projects that never really take off or are soon buried. In addition, billions of South Korean won (KRW) of this fund are provided to local and regional governing bodies, research institutes, and companies for potential projects that never seem to come to fruition.
The audacious plan is not actually signaling that South Korea expects North Korea will decide to give up nukes for economic promises, but instead is an acknowledgment that North Korea is unlikely to give up anything. As such, the “‘audacious” part is not something that is currently realistic, but a vague idea of massive aid for North Koreans, which is designed to trigger the fantasy of the North Korean population. Whether it is $2,000, $3,000 or $4,000 USD per-capita income, or simply massive aid and investment, is irrelevant. Nothing South Korea could offer would sway the North Korean government, so long as it remains stable.
At the same time, this does not mean South Korea should simply wait and do nothing at all. South Korea plans to better coordinate with the US and other international partners, including China, about the situation on the Korean Peninsula. This will involve the Ministry of Unification but will include a larger role for the Foreign and Defense Ministries as well, as evidenced by the revival of the long-stalled Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group, a vice-ministerial meeting of foreign affairs and defense officials of the US and South Korea.
Under former President Moon’s administration, the alliance with the US was never in doubt, even if there was sometimes friction between Washington and Seoul in their negotiations with Pyongyang. In fact, the gap between Moon’s promises to the North and his de facto siding with the US regarding security questions was one of the reasons for the failure of his détente policy. However, the Yoon government’s clear positioning of South Korea in the field of democracies and market economies, which are sometimes misleadingly lumped together as “the West,” is new and gives the impression of deeper security cooperation not just with the US, but across the values-based spectrum as well. This means any talks between the two Koreas are unlikely for now, but if they did resume, Seoul would be a more formidable negotiating partner.
New Opportunities for Inter-Korean Exchanges?
Despite the worsening security environment, there are still small but largely unexplored possibilities for exchanges. At the yearly Korean Global Forum for Peace, which the South Korean Ministry of Unification organized in early September 2022 in Seoul, almost one out of four sessions dealt with “green détente”—inter-Korean and international cooperation in the fields of environment, afforestation and sustainable forestry, nature conservation and migratory birds, rural development, biodiversity and other climate change related issues. In some of these fields, actual cooperation can still take place internationally, often with South and North Korean participation. While these are not the same as inter-Korean joint projects, they can serve to build trust between the two countries and provide the opportunity to explore other avenues for further formal or informal cooperation.
Additionally, in the new South Korean government, there seems to be a greater acceptance of new methods of indirect cooperation through trilateral or multilateral frameworks. This is why South Korea has invested, sometimes heavily, in regional and international networks in fields such as forestry, water management, etc., in the past years. For now, the returns are meager, but they might pay off down the road.
One of the problems of inter-Korean ties in the past, particularly in the later phase of President Roh Moo-hyun’s Sunshine Policy, and President Moon Jae-in’s rapprochement policy, was the easy and eager acceptance of North Korea’s mantra of “by our people alone.” Unification policy under Roh Moo-hyun was kept separate from security and foreign policy as much as possible—one was not informing the other. In fact, they often ran in very different directions, with unification policy trying to smooth over differences with North Korea, while foreign and defense policy tried to maintain the alliance with the US.
While a separation of civil, non-state exchanges between the two Koreas from high politics would be highly desirable, efforts on the unification front often clash with South Korea’s broader security and foreign policy priorities. A clear understanding that the unification policy is not only an inter-Korean endeavor but also has an international dimension might help overcome this dichotomy of independent and contradictory alliance policies with the US and unification policies with North Korea. Going forward, as I argued before here, creating more opportunities for civil society engagement of the North, independent of political approaches and rhetoric, should be encouraged. The decriminalization of reading and watching North Korean media is a first, necessary step for that, and hopefully, more far-reaching steps will follow.
South Korean administrations and politicians have frequently attempted to reach out to the North, tried to persuade them into cooperating, and appealed—in often desperate pleas—to them, but North Korea has always turned a cold shoulder. As such, maybe, for now, the best plan of action would be for South Korea to leave North Korea alone.
While Yoon’s audacious plan is neither audacious nor a plan, it is a necessary dose of reality that the Korean Peninsula currently needs. Perhaps then, a truly audacious plan can eventually come into being.
The Uri Party was the predecessor of the current Democratic Party.
Since the 1950s, the NSL has been used to prevent ideological inroads from North Korea into the South. Under South Korea’s past autocratic governments, it was used to quell those who opposed and accused the government of embracing communist ideologies. However, as the differences between the two Koreas’ economic, social and cultural developments widened, the law lost all of its former meaning.
Lee Jong-Seok, one of the architects of Roh’s version of the Sunshine Policy, offers a fascinating account in his book Peace on a Knife’s Edge: The Inside Story of Roh Moo-hyun’s North Korea Policy (Washington, DC: Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, distributed by Brookings Institution Press, 2017). Clearly, for him, policies like the “autonomous defense policy” independent from the US are an accomplishment, not a problem.