It may be a fool’s errand to predict the future when it comes to North Korea, but it does appear that the leaders of the two Koreas will meet next month, followed by the first-ever North Korea-United States summit meeting in May.
It is a sea change from the situation last year, in which Pyongyang was engaged in nuclear and missile brinksmanship while Washington was sending out whispers about the possibility of a preventive strike.
It was the shrewd and determined diplomacy of South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in that pushed North Korea and the United States off this collision course. Moon is likely to continue playing a critical role in the coming months, as the Trump administration, with its hollowed-out State Department, will have to rely significantly on Seoul’s diplomats.
Thus, it seems timely to consider in greater detail how Moon Jae-in is approaching North Korea. Comparing Moon’s Berlin Speech from July 2017 with Kim Dae-jung’s Berlin Declaration from March 2000, in which the Nobel Prize-winning Kim set forth his “Sunshine Policy,” reveals the ways in which Moon’s basic approach toward North Korea is similar, yet different, from his liberal predecessors.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
Moon’s Berlin Speech and Kim’s Berlin Declaration share the same fundamental posture, as both Presidents emphasized a continuous flow of peaceful economic exchange.
Both Moon and Kim also declared that they would not seek a regime change for North Korea, and in exchange, demanded North Korea desist military provocations, including the development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
Moon is likely to continue playing a critical role in the coming months
But there are two significant differences between Moon’s Berlin Speech and Kim’s Berlin Declaration: namely in the threat of force and sanctions and an emphasis on multilateralism.
Compared to Kim Dae-jung, Moon Jae-in explicitly raised the possibility of continued sanctions and even a military option. Even as he presented largely the same policy direction as the original Sunshine Policy, Moon Jae-in added a preamble:
“Therefore, I would like to emphasize that now is the last chance for North Korea to make the right decision… [I]f North Korea does not stop its nuclear provocations, there is no other choice but to further strengthen sanctions and pressure. Peace on the Korean Peninsula and North Korea’s security will not be guaranteed.”
Although measured, these words were clearly a shot across the bow to North Korea of the kind that South Korea’s previous liberal presidents did not make.
Moon Jae-in has backed up this statement with his subsequent actions, showing pragmatic flexibility that covered the ground between a military threat and an olive branch.
To be sure, the hawkishness of the original Sunshine Policy always has been underrated: the Kim Dae-jung administration showed no mercy in sinking the North Korean gunboats in the two Yellow Sea skirmishes in 1999 and 2002, while the supposedly tough conservative Lee Myung-bak responded the submarine attack on the ROK ship Cheonan in 2010 with more loudspeakers along the demilitarized zone.
But Moon Jae-in went a step further by proactively demonstrating South Korea’s capability to eliminate the North Korean leadership should hostilities break out. In response to North Korea’s long-range missile test in July 2017, Moon responded with his own missile drill jointly with the United States.
According to South Korea’s presidential spokesman, Moon said, “this is not a situation to be responded to with just a statement” as he ordered the “decapitation” missile drill, which prepares for the scenario in which armed hostilities break out and there is a need to quickly kill Kim Jong Un and his generals.
At the G-20 summit in Hamburg held shortly thereafter, Moon called for an “even greater level of international sanctions and pressure” in a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The way in which Moon ensured the buy-in from the United States is even more distinctive from his predecessors
Moon Jae-in’s Berlin Speech displayed significantly more multilateralism compared to Kim Dae-jung’s Berlin Declaration. Kim’s declaration has no reference to a non-Korean country other than Germany, whose reunification inspired Kim. Moon’s speech also gave the due hat tip to the German experience, but took a step further acknowledge the two other major players in the inter-Korean relations, namely China and the United States. He said:
“President Trump supported Korea’s leading role in creating an environment conducive to the peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula, and also supported my initiative to reopen inter-Korean dialogue. Chinese President Xi Jinping and I also reached a consensus on this matter. . . . It has also been repeatedly confirmed that if the right conditions are met, the United States, China, and the rest of the international community are keeping the door open for dialogue at any time.”
Getting China and the United States to buy into Moon’s plan has proved to be a crucial element of his success thus far. At the time of Moon Jae-in’s inauguration, China was waging a low-grade trade war against South Korea over the partial deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile battery, set up to protect U.S. forces stationed in Korea.
Although Moon as a political candidate remained vague on the status of THAAD in South Korea, he ordered full deployment of the missile defense system shortly after he took office—and negotiated with Xi Jinping until China desisted all economic sanctions against South Korea in November 2017.
Since then, Beijing—Pyongyang’s most important ally—has mostly remained quiet, a remarkable and underrated achievement.
But the way in which Moon ensured the buy-in from the United States is even more distinctive from his predecessors. Moon Jae-in’s senior advisors, many of whom were holdovers from the previous liberal presidents, initially counseled that Moon pursue an inter-Korean summit first.
But Moon prioritized South Korea’s relationship with the United States, to a point that he would personally meet with U.S. president Donald Trump three times in two months; a senior advisor to Moon said he put three times more effort into the U.S. compared to North Korea.
Although there were widespread concerns that the volatile Trump would throw a wrench into Moon’s plans, the two leaders have demonstrated good chemistry each time they met.
When North Korea’s envoy (and Kim Jong Un’s sister) Kim Yo Jong invited Moon Jae-in for a summit meeting during the PyeongChang Olympics, Moon politely but firmly stonewalled her, demanding that North Korea must denuclearization on the table and begin talks with the United States before any inter-Korean summit.
Moon prioritized South Korea’s relationship with the United States
Eventually, that is precisely what North Korea offered to the South Korean envoys visiting Pyongyang last week. Moon’s envoys—South Korea’s National Security Council chief Chung Eui-yong and the spy chief Suh Hoon— then immediately headed to Washington D.C. to brief Trump, who agreed to hold a summit meeting with Kim Jong Un.
To be sure, it would be wise not to oversell Moon Jae-in’s achievements—with North Korea, one may be successful all the way until you are suddenly not. Pyongyang may yet lie again, and Trump is not known for faithfully keeping his words. China may yet want a piece of the action if talks with North Korea progress further.
But considering the derisive chuckles that spread across the globe when Moon said in his Berlin Speech that South Korea “must sit in the driver’s seat and lead the Korean Peninsula-related issues,” Moon indeed has come quite far. His pragmatism and multilateralism may yet succeed where his predecessors have failed.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Blue House