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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.
South Korea in April hosted a ceremony in Panmunjom, though the North Korean side didn’t participate. This time, the South has opted to hold a small event in Seoul — a recent outbreak of swine flu means an event on the inter-Korean border is off the cards.
There have been more than a dozen significant cases that reflect the sharp decline in relations between the North and South this year, especially considering the content of the Pyongyang Declaration.
Since February’s DPRK-U.S. summit in Hanoi ended in failure, North Korea has barraged President Moon with insults, a shocking about-face from Pyongyang. The North has conducted ten missile tests, and has disregarded the South’s request to organize a joint military committee.
Chairman Kim has not kept his promises to destroy a missile engine test site and missile launch pad, and he has not visited Seoul, even as agreed to last year.
There have been no reunions of separated families at Kumgang Mountain, and a planned connection between North and South railways was discussed, even planned, but not realized.
There has been no economic exchange or cooperation, and although the South tried to provide a limited amount of humanitarian aid to the North, Pyongyang is yet to accept it.
The inter-Korean liaison office in the border city of Kaesong remains open, but is had operated sporadically.
This is a truly embarrassing situation for South Korea, with President Moon having pushed a policy of engagement with the North for the last two years.
So, one year on from Moon’s meeting with Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang, it’s worth having a think about what’s gone wrong in the relationship between North and South Korea — and how we can fix it.
DECLARATION SIGNED, EXPECTATIONS INFLATED
The summit in Pyongyang last year was packed with symbolism: the two leaders climbed up Paektu Mountain together, and Moon gave a brief but historic speech to a 150,000 North Korean audience at the famous May 1 Stadium.
Under that agreement, the two Koreas agreed to designate a peace zone around the demilitarized zone (DMZ), announced the end of hostile acts, promised to dismantle military posts, and to begin a de-mining project aimed at unearthing the remains of soldiers killed during the war.
Since February’s DPRK-U.S. summit in Hanoi ended in failure, North Korea has barraged President Moon with insults
These outcomes are, undoubtedly, major successes. However, this success imbued a sense of inflated expectation to people inside and outside the South Korean government.
The optimism lasted almost five months after the summit, raising hopes in Seoul that the denuclearization of the North was an imminent prospect.
These hopes were shattered, however, by the disappointing conclusion of the February summit between Chairman Kim and the U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi.
The collision between the two Koreas was clearly a result of the Hanoi summit, but problems were already beginning to develop before that fateful meeting.
One of the biggest issues was that South Korea failed to accurately predict the result of the summit: Seoul believed that the Yongbyon formula, which would see the DPRK destroy its top nuclear research facility for good in return for partial sanctions relief from the U.S. side, would receive a positive response from President Trump. However, Trump rejected the proposal, and Kim was humiliated.
It is not clear why South Korea made this miscalculation, though it may have resulted partly from the normal caprices of President Trump or U.S. domestic politics.
The South Korean administration’s style may also be to blame — they might rely too much on their own belief that good results naturally stem from big events like summit meetings.
Whatever the reason was, the consequences were disastrous. The South Korean side could not avoid blame: after all, they had discussed the Yongbyon formula with the North when President Moon Jae-in visited Pyongyang in September.
The proposal even appeared in their joint declaration: “The North expressed its willingness to continue to take additional measures, such as the permanent dismantlement of the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, as the United States takes corresponding measures in accordance with the spirit of the June 12 US-DPRK Joint Statement.”
BEYOND THE SUMMIT
The rift between Pyongyang and Seoul deepened following the summit.
The South Korean government failed to effectively respond to Chairman Kim Jong Un’s frustrations, who carried out a policy review to figure out what went wrong — and who was to blame — in Hanoi.
The conclusion he came to was this: contrary to what Moon said, negotiating using the Yongbyon proposal was not effective. The United Front Department (UFD) of the Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK), which led the negotiation team, failed to check the weak points of the idea, the Department recommended it to the Supreme Leader, and the U.S. refused the offer.
The South Korean government failed to effectively respond to Chairman Kim Jong Un’s frustrations
This conclusion forced some measures inside the North. Chairman Kim reshuffled his negotiating team, with the UFD sidelined and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) promoted. He also changed the main focus of his negotiation strategy: from sanctions relief to national security.
And then, he blamed the South for its bad recommendations.
At this point, Seoul should have acted to explain why the Yongbyon idea failed or why they recommended it. If they did, it appears they failed: the trust between the two leaders was broken.
The South Korean administration not only failed to communicate with the North, but also failed to share a sense of sympathy with Kim Jong Un’s frustration.
The messages the Moon administration has sent after the Hanoi Summit are still positive and optimistic, but there has been no policy review, no reprimanding, and no change in approach.
Chairman Kim, disappointed by Seoul’s lack of solidarity, got nasty. He insulted President Moon in an unprecedented policy speech at the Supreme People’s Assembly in April 12.
From then on, North Korean officials have had a green light to dismiss the South Korean President whenever they see fit, and have tested a number of short-range missiles.
It’s clear the relationship between the two leaders has deteriorated
POLICY REVIEW NEEDED
It’s clear the relationship between the two leaders has deteriorated in the year since the Pyongyang Declaration.
Can we hope to restore the relationship? Probably, yes. But it will not come easily.
First, the Moon Jae-in administration should acknowledge that its policies have not always succeeded, and seek to amend them through a broad policy review on North Korea and related issues — as Kim Jong Un did in April.
The review team needs answers to critical questions: what went wrong, and who was responsible for the failures? When did the problems start? Why were the failures not stopped? And how do we fix them?
Such a process can provide President Moon Jae-in with a sense of flexibility to shift policy. He can reconstruct his policies on North Korea, reshuffle his advisors, and fix his broken relationship with Chairman Kim.
Edited by Oliver Hotham and James Fretwell
Featured image: Pyeongyang Press Corps