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Foreign Policy

Inter Korean Relations: Is Moon Ready to Take Driver’s Seat?

Jun 20 , 2017
  • Yue Li

    Senior Fellow, Pangoal Institution

South Korea’s 19th President, Moon Jae-in, has enjoyed a honeymoon with his public ever since the inauguration on May 10. According to the latest Gallup Korea poll on June 12, the liberal president scored a 78.9 percent job approval rating, far higher than any of his recent predecessors.

However, there also seems to be drastic disputes and resistance against the top Cabinet officials and other nominees from among the parliament.

While 14 of the 17 Cabinet posts, especially key jobs of defense minister, foreign minister and unification minister, are still empty, there came the news that rhw vice chief of the National Security Office stepped down amid allegations about his misconduct while teaching at a top Seoul university.

Among the total 300-seat Assembly, the ruling Democratic Party has only 120, far short of a house majority to provide direct support for the president.

The main opposition Liberty Korea Party alone controls 107 seats, together with the People's Party and the Bareun Party forming an opposition bloc with 173 lawmakers. As the opposition has said it will not be cooperative on key issues, it is not surprised to see the weak-party president facing a hard and harsh presidential term for the coming five years.

President Moon has ranked the issues of North Korean nuclear and the inter-Korean relations as the top priorities of foreign affairs. The new president has also showed his willingness to seek changes on the peninsula by sending special presidential envoys to China, the US, Japan and Russia, as well as discussing North Korea’s nuclear activities during phone calls with the top leaders of the four countries. Moreover, the ambitious president also tries to reopen inter-Korean civilian exchanges, which had been shut down after Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test, in January 2016. By now South Korea has given 18 approvals to Seoul's civilian exchanges since Moon took office.

The Moon administration is also trying to gather international support by building up common diplomatic ground on critical issues of North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests.

The new government takes advantages of multilateral international conferences to promote his agenda. The 12th Jeju Forum, an annual regional dialogue for promoting peace and prosperity in Asia, was held from May 31 to June 2, on the South Korean resort island of Jeju. Around 5,000 government officials and experts from around the world were invited to attend a total of 76 sessions, among which was a special focus on North Korea's nuclear issues. During a video speech to the opening ceremony, Moon addressed the determination and efforts that his government had made to break through the thick ice of inter Korean relations, calling for support, coordination and cooperation of the international societies.

North Korea has always been unpredictable in the eyes of the world. While the North threatened a military strike just five days before the South Korea’s presidential election, its state media reported the results of South Korea's presidential election and other information in detail, one day after Mr. Moon was sworn in as president. The Ministry of Unification of South Korea considered it as a positive response from the North toward the new administration, contrasted with its one-sentence dispatch in December 2012, when the former conservative President Park Geun-hye was elected. "The two Koreas should respect each other and open a new chapter to move toward an improvement of their ties and inter-Korean unification," Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the ruling Worker’s Party of Korea said. Moreover, North Korea repeatedly called on South Korea to implement an inter-Korean summit agreement from 2000, saying it was “the foundation of national reconciliation and unity and the starting point of solving the issue of the North-South relations”, and would help improve their relations and lead to peace on the divided peninsula. All these left the world an illusion of tension-easing in North-South relations.

However, this is not the full story. On May 19, North Korea sent a critical message via its official media to the newly launched South Korean government, claiming that dialogue can never be compatible with confrontation, following Moon's unexpectedly tough response to the North's latest test-fire of a new kind of an intermediate-range ballistic missile, the first military provocation since Moon's inauguration. On June 5, the North rejected the South Korean civic and religious groups' overtures for exchanges in protest against Seoul's backing for UN Security Council sanctions against Pyongyang. On June 12, The North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency sniped at the Moon Jae-in administration in Seoul, saying it was following the US moves to “stifle” the North while speaking of improving inter-Korean relations. At the same time, the North didn’t stop its jogging run along the missile tests. Five missile tests with at least one dozen shots, showing its missile tech’s development march, were conducted in the first month after President Moon took office. Together with the shadow cast by flying objects over the border and a suspected North Korean drone, some South Korean insiders described the North’s words and actions as “confusing”.

It is interesting to note that North Korea has been more consistently contacting with the US, a country to the far end of the west, rather than its neighbor countries. Despite facing extreme pressure and all-options-on-table policy from the US, the North seems intending to keep a door open to it, the leading imposer of upgraded international sanctions. On May 8 and 9, North Korean officials held informal talks with a group of American experts in Oslo, Norway, amid speculation that Washington may seek dialogue with Pyongyang, which was their first Track II meeting in half a year, only 10 days after North Korea threatened to sink US nuclear submarine deployed to S. Korea. On May 14, a senior North Korean diplomat in charge of US affairs said Pyongyang will hold talks with Washington "under the right conditions," raising the possibility of bilateral contact after US President Donald Trump expressed his willingness to meet with the North's leader.

President Moon vows to take the lead on the issue of inter-Korean relations. During his video speech to the opening ceremony of 12th Jeju Forum on June 1, Moon pledged to do so without “leaning on the role of other countries.” The new president has been long and widely expected to have direct engagement with Pyongyang: He was a strong supporter for the “Sunshine Policy” by ex-President Roh Moo-Hyun, and also has learned lessons from the isolation policy of the conservative party for the past eight years — during which North Korea has only strengthened its nuclear and become an even tough negotiator.

Moon gives more details about his inter-Korean roadmap. “We will convince and pressure North Korea together with the US, China and other relevant nations to drive it to a forum for dialogue and achieve the resolution of the nuclear issues and the improvement in inter-Korean and North Korea-US relations,” he says. “If North Korea presses ahead with armed provocations, I clearly promise I will sternly retaliate with the robust alliance with the US and our own defense capabilities so as to safeguard peace.” While seeking to ease concerns, at the same time he introduced his vision to foster an “inter-Korean economic community”, which was part of his election pledge calling for a “New Korean Peninsula Economic Map” that he said would pave the way for lasting peace on the peninsula. “A peaceful peninsula is no longer a dream,” Moon said. “During my term, I will bring about a novel milestone in fostering peace on the peninsula.”

Moon Chung-in, an honorary Yonsei University professor who serves as special presidential adviser for unification, foreign and security affairs, said on June 14 that “The large framework for this summit is to solidify the Korea-US alliance, coordinate the North Korean nuclear issue between the two countries and get the US to support Seoul playing a leading role in establishing permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.” It is widely agreed that Moon needs practical and operational measurements and outcomes, as well as ambition and determination while tackling the challenges of inter-Korean relations. And yes, there surely are opportunities and advantages for the South Korea to take, although not as many as some hope. But the government has to be very careful to turn those into positive forces, so that the revival of “Sunshine” isn’t weakened to mere “Moonlight”.

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