As is convention, Korean Independence Day on August 15 saw South Korean President Moon Jae-in deliver a speech to the nation.
In his speech, Moon discussed his hopes for a speedy reconciliation with the North and plans to achieve a peaceful and negotiated unification by the year 2045.
It was a pretty standard and predictable speech, even if nobody with a touch of common sense believes that a “peaceful and negotiated” unification is possible, neither by 2045 nor any other randomly-selected year.
But occasional lip service to the “unification dream” should be expected from any South Korean leader, and one should not judge this obligatory rhetoric with too much harshness.
What has attracted some attention, though, was the harsh response from the North. Almost immediately after President Moon’s reconciliation pitch was over, Pyongyang’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country (CPRC) clarified: “we have nothing to talk any more with the south Korean authorities nor have any idea to sit with them again.”
Such a flat out rejection of talks with the South shouldn’t necessarily be taken at face value: after all, President Trump, currently lauded in Pyongyang as a reliable negotiation partner, was as recently as two years ago colorfully described as a “mentally deranged dotard” to be “surely and definitely tamed with fire.”
The recent attacks on President Moon likely reflect the current position of the North Korean leadership — nothing more and nothing less.
At first glance this might appear strange. After all, President Moon was a loyal follower of the late-President Roh Moo-hyun, a great enthusiast for the “Sunshine policy” who spent his 2002-2007 term pumping South Korean taxpayers’ money into North Korean economy.
K-pop concerts, nationalism-driven conferences, and Taekwondo tournaments are not what the North Korean leadership wants right now
President Moon makes no secret of his intention to do the same (a policy that would make sense, in this author’s view, but that is a different topic).
He is also willing to overlook countless problematic issues in dealing with North Korea and is eager to cooperate and give generously: he wants to re-start cooperation at the Kaesong Industrial Park, Mount Kumgang tourism, and begin as many jointly-subsidized projects as possible.
It is not incidental that a number of right-leaning conspiracy theorists in South Korea honestly believe that their current President is a crypto-Jucheist of sorts, whose secret dream is to surrender all of South Korea to the North through some unequal “confederation scheme.” This absurd fantasy has a remarkable number of followers on the right-wing flank of South Korean politics.
Conspiracy theories notwithstanding, there is little reason to doubt President Moon’s sincere desire to improve relations with, and resume subsidies — both direct and indirect — to North Korea.
Against such a backdrop, one might wonder why the North Korean leadership is not showing any enthusiasm for his overtures and, on the contrary, are doing what they can to humiliate their backers in Seoul.
This might appear odd, but it is not: the North Korean leadership is very rational when it comes to questions of political survival, and Kim Jong Un knows perfectly well what he is doing.
Right now, Pyongyang has valid reasons to make sure that President Moon feels uncomfortable, and this is exactly what they are doing.
Moon is running a democracy, and this means that he has to worry about approval ratings as much as he worries about his country’s long-term interests. Right now, in order to maintain his approval ratings, he needs some visible political successes.
There is a big difference between Seoul and Pyongyang’s positions
South Korea’s economic situation is bad, and the opposition is seeking to blame Moon for the declining growth rate. As a result, the Blue House badly needs to do something spectacular in order to get popularity. They cannot do much about the economy, and they are looking elsewhere for their next big hit.
For a while, leveraging anti-Japanese nationalism was the strategy, but the actual results of this were modest. Relations with North Korea, instead, are likely being seen as another area where a sellable success could be made.
It helps that both Moon Jae-in and his officials are true believers in engagement and reconciliation — sincere enthusiasts for “Sunshine Policy 2.0.” The ‘Sunshine Policy 2.0’ is what Pyongyang wants, too.
Nonetheless, there is a big difference between Seoul and Pyongyang’s positions. While South Korea’s leaders would like something of substance (like, say, the re-launch of the Kaesong Industrial Zone), they are also satisfied with purely ritualistic/diplomatic events.
A nice joint gala concert at the DMZ, some well-presented talks, a couple of “academic” conferences where carefully-selected participants will express their joint hatred for Japan – all these will work for the South Korean side.
Such symbolic acts, if presented to voters in the right light, will boost the image of President Moon and his left-nationalist party.
However, K-pop concerts, nationalism-driven conferences, and Taekwondo tournaments are not what the North Korean leadership wants right now.
These hard-nosed Machiavellians, brilliant manipulators, and masters of political survival do not care for cheap symbolism. Instead, they need money: investments, aid, and (subsidized) trade.
However, President Moon cannot deliver any of this right now, no matter how much he wants to deliver them. There remains an unsurmountable obstacle: the UN-introduced economic sanctions.
China and Russia can afford to be, shall we say, “reasonably flexible” with these sanctions if such flexibility serves their national interests, but South Korea cannot afford to violate sanctions or even use existing loopholes to get around the restrictions.
Its export-driven economy is far too dependent on the international order, embodied by the UN, and, above all, Seoul has valid reasons to avoid any situation which annoys the White House.
Right now, President Moon, irrespective of what he actually thinks about the U.S. in the depth of his heart, has to be very careful – and very friendly – in his dealings with Washington.
Some mutual understanding with Donald Trump, however superficial, is necessary in order to exercise at least a modicum of influence on U.S policy towards North Korea. He does not want more problems with the U.S.-ROK alliance.
So Seoul has no alternative but to faithfully follow the existent UN sanctions regime, which makes pretty much all kinds of meaningful interaction with the North Koreans impossible.
This is bad news for Pyongyang. Naturally enough, the North wants the Moon administration to work as hard as possible to get UN sanctions relaxed or removed. South Korean diplomats are doing their best, but Pyongyang needs them to lobby even harder.
This is why the North Koreans are likely to reject all South Korean proposals, for the time being.
Meetings of divided families and pop concerts are likely to boost domestic support for the South Korean left, but the North Koreans, to quote an American catchphrase, “do not want to reward bad behavior.”
They do not want to help the South Korean government win votes until it delivers the Holy Grail of sanctions relief (or, alternatively, turns its back on the U.S. and begins ignoring sanctions, which does not appear likely).
Will the constant rejections and public humiliation have much impact on the official South Korean position? Probably not. Seoul does not only care about approval ratings, it also cares about South Korea’s long-term interests.
The North Koreans, to quote an American catchphrase, “do not want to reward bad behavior”
These interests require that the Blue House creates and maintains the “right optics,” to do what is necessary to persuade everybody that everything is right in and around Korea, that the peninsula is slowly but surely moving towards a “peace regime” and “denuclearization,” and other such wonderful things.
This is an illusion, of course, but it has to be maintained. If the ugly truth is admitted openly, hard-liners in Washington and Seoul will have a field day, and as a result the situation will deteriorate even further.
So, misleading optics must be maintained, and no amount of humiliating statements or verbal abuse from Pyongyang will make Seoul change course.
Official optimism is insincere, but it is politically necessary, so the game of broad smiles (followed by rude rejections) will continue for some time.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Inter-Korean summit press corps
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