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View more articles by Wang Son-taek
Wang Son-taek is diplomatic correspondent for South Korea's YTN news network and one of the country's leading journalists on North Korea and diplomatic affairs.
One year ago, on April 27, there was a remarkable meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in a small village called Panmunjom.
Last week, the first anniversary of the Panmunjom Declaration was held in the same location. But the celebration was somewhat subdued and even depressed, because Chairman Kim did not participate.
People called it a half-sized event, and the empty space left by the North was large. President Moon Jae-in did not participate: instead, he sent a video message. In the video, he emphasized: “we are entitled to live in peace.” However, his voice was enervated, and he could not hide the disappointment in his face.
COLD SHOULDER FROM HANOI
For months, the relationship between the leaders of the two Koreas was good, peaking when they climbed the legendary mountain of Paekdu in September last year.
But the bromance dramatically deteriorated after the Hanoi summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump on February 27 and 28. With that meeting ending with the two leaders empty-handed, ominous signals have come from the North.
On March 22, the North Korean delegation at the Joint Liaison Office in Kaesong withdrew its staff. Though they returned to the office the next week, it was a clear warning sign.
Ominous signals have come from the North
On April 12, Kim Jong Un warned the South against acting as an “officious mediator and booster.” As the criticism was clearly aimed at President Moon himself, it was a painful reminder that the two leaders remain seriously at odds.
As the signals from the North became louder and clearer, President Moon tried to fix the situation. The first attempt was to get another summit with Kim Jong Un. But there was no answer from Pyongyang. So, he turned toward the second option: persuading Donald Trump to hold another summit with Kim as soon as possible.
However, these efforts were not successful, and Trump rejected sanctions relief demanded by North Korea. Since he could not find a solution to soothe Kim, and could not secure Trump’s ear, Moon’s efforts hit a dead-end.
Now, he must find a way out of a blind alley with only Kim and Trump for company — and the prospect of a North Korean return to regular missile testing looming.
NEW GAME, NEW MISSION, AND NEW PLAYERS
The problem is who the other players are. On the top of the list are President Xi Jinping of China, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan.
The list also includes pessimistic elites in Washington D.C., South Korean opposition leaders Hwang Kyo-an and Na Kyung-won, and experts on diplomacy and reunification on the conservative end of the Korean political spectrum.
Why should Moon reach out to Xi? Because he needs a real mediator and China can do it better than anybody else. South Korea should also save a back-up option for a rainy day should the negotiations go nowhere: President Putin, for example, could help provide creative solutions through Russia’s unique position on the peninsula.
Reaching across the aisle could help him develop a more coherent strategy — sorely needed at this time
Prime Minister Abe can help by not charging a flank attack against Moon. He also wants a tacit endorsement from the traditional elites in Washington on dialogue between the U.S. and the North.
Even though many in D.C. criticize dialogue with the North Korean leader, many actually support engagement with the North — as long as it’s not Trump talking with Kim Jong Un. There’s a chance that, in the right circumstances, many would back Moon’s efforts.
The South Korean President also needs help from the opposition, in this case the dominant Liberty Korea Party. The opposition has been attacking him even before his inauguration, and these attacks have seriously deprived him of the energy for often-exhausting diplomacy.
At this stage, he needs new and fresh ideas. Currently, he is using less than 30% of the national capacity, because he has disregarded recommendations from conservative or more neutral experts. Reaching across the aisle could help him develop a more coherent strategy — sorely needed at this time.
RELUCTANCE, HATRED, AND PERTINACITY
Moon’s focus on Trump and Kim has, until now, left the other players feeling isolated. Why did he not try to communicate with them during the good days of peace and diplomacy last year?
There might be two reasons; first, he was simply too busy, second, he was reluctant to reach out to them because he is not a buddy-buddy person. The right answer likely lies somewhere in between.
Much of this stems from Moon’s memories and his worldview; he is a prisoner of South Korea’s destructive partisan politics. He does not believe he can trust the conservatives.
Reunification and denuclearization are national security issues that must be addressed in a bipartisan manner
Now, the time has come, and he can and should ask for help. But he is still reluctant. Why?
The tragic death of former president Roh Moo-hyun likely contributes to the sense of distrust in his mind: former president Roh committed suicide on May 23, 2009, because of what many saw as an unfair and partisan investigation by the prosecutor’s office. Many progressives in Korea continue to blame the conservative government and the ruling party leadership.
Second, he is a believer in the idea that the incumbent president should be capable of managing the nation without the help of the opposition.
For many policies, he might be right. But reunification and denuclearization are national security issues that must be addressed in a bipartisan manner. He should not be hesitant to gather better ideas from everybody, including conservative and centrist thinkers.
If he overcomes his partisan approach and tenacious attitude, he can move the Korean peninsula towards peace. If he clings to his commitment to his party over the country, his efforts won’t last.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Blue House