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Moon Jae-in: Putting North Korea at the Center
Region: Asia
Location: Korea, South
Published June 24, 2020
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While President Moon Jae-in has a calmer demeanor than his mentor and friend, former President Roh Moo-hyun, there can be no doubt that his vision for transforming Northeast Asia is as far-reaching. While Moon has been more careful to assuage the U.S. president, less abrasive in his language toward Japan, and more strategic in reaching out to leaders in China and Russia, his strategy of putting North Korea at the forefront of regional realignment has similar geopolitical ambition. The objective is the rejuvenation of a reintegrated peninsula with the capacity to steer actions by all of the great powers rather than falling prey again to their machinations that are not in Korea’s interest.

During his presidential election campaign, candidate Moon remarked of his life-long friend, Roh Moo-hyun: “If I take the office, I’ll tell him at his memorial service, ‘Now you rest in peace. I’ll realize your unachieved dreams.’” Though Moon served as a top aide in the Roh administration, he saw himself as ultimately returning to a career in law. But Roh’s tragic suicide galvanized Moon to enter electoral politics for the first time and win a seat in the National Assembly. It was fitting, then, that when Moon gave his first speech on his vision for inter-Korean relations at the Körber Foundation on July 6, 2017 he characterized himself as “inheriting” the engagement policy of his progressive predecessors Roh and Kim Dae-jung.

Moon’s 2018 engagement efforts would have made Roh proud. In just a year, Moon held three summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and was instrumental in facilitating the historic meeting between President Donald Trump and Kim in Singapore, the first-ever meeting between sitting leaders from the United States and North Korea. However, Moon inherited a different North Korea than his predecessors. The North Korea Roh confronted had conducted just one nuclear test. By the time Moon took office, North Korea had conducted five tests and would conduct a sixth in the first year of his presidency. During Roh’s presidential term from 2003 to 2008, United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea related only to the import and export of WMD-related weapons, financial resources, certain services, and some luxury goods.

Now, UN sanctions make almost all inter-Korean economic projects, notably reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex, impossible. The sanctions regime not only includes farreaching restrictions on WMD-related imports and exports, but covers roughly 90 percent of all North Korean commercial exports including oil, gas, and refined petroleum, as well as stringent measures on DPRK vessels and financial transactions and assets, and prohibits DPRK citizens from working abroad. U.S. sanctions go even further, limiting what an ally can accomplish.

In South Korea’s other relationships, too, Moon confronts a set of challenges quite different from those of Roh. Handling the United States and China requires Moon to balance two competing approaches to both South Korea and North Korea. In Trump, he has at once found a partner willing to engage with the North to an impressive degree and an unpredictable ally with a transactional view of the alliance. He also faces a China increasingly willing to use its economic leverage to influence matters on the Korean Peninsula. At the same time, the United States’ strong emphasis on U.S.-China strategic competition has led to unprecedented pressure for South Korea to make an impossible choice between its two largest trading partners and the countries with the largest impact on inter-Korean reconciliation. In the past year, Moon has presided also over the most volatile period in ROK-Japan relations since their normalization in 1965. Apparent attempts early in his presidency to stabilize relations with Tokyo failed, as the boundaries between lingering disputes stemming from Japan’s colonization of South Korea and security and economic relations broke down. 

In pursuing inter-Korean détente in this context, Moon has sought geopolitical stability through balance, autonomy, and engagement. He has sought balance between the United States and China in order to avoid disrupting either relationship and to encourage constructive engagement with North Korea from all parties. He has sought autonomy in inter-Korean relations to avoid undue foreign influence on the process, a long-time goal of both North and South Korea. He has also attempted, to a varying degree, to orchestrate not only engagement with North Korea by South Korea, but also by the United States, while welcoming a stable security environment conducive to inter-Korean détente. In 2018 Moon appeared to succeed in a remarkable diplomatic balancing act, engaging all parties and gaining a leadership role in the process.

This strategy has had diminishing success, particularly in the past year. In attempting to strike a balance between China and the United States, Moon’s middle of the road strategy did not placate China, and Beijing cut off high-level diplomatic ties with Seoul from the period the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Missile Defense System) deployment was approved early in 2016 until late 2017. Moreover, despite an agreement reached between South Korea and China in October 2017, wherein South Korea affirmed the “Three Noes” demanded by Xi, and to Chinese support for Moon’s opening in 2018 to Kim, Chinese dissatisfaction mounted with the triangular ROK-U.S.-DPRK focus of the diplomacy, instead of more Sino- ROK coordination and ROK yielding by bypassing certain sanctions as China had hoped.

The Moon administration attempted to satisfy both the United States and China in its framing of the decision to deploy the system. On October 30, 2017, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha announced three conditions of the deployment: 1) the ROK would not consider any additional THAAD deployments, 2) the ROK would not join an integrated missile defense network led by the United States, and 3) the ROK would not enter into a trilateral alliance with the United States and Japan. To not deploy the system would cause a major rift in the U.S.-ROK alliance and contribute to an impression in Washington that South Korea was leaning away from the United States and towards China. However, to deploy the system would potentially invite even further retaliation from China, which had already proved costly for South Korean businesses. The so called “Three Noes” were not explicitly new policy – the ROK has held these principles for some time. However, in announcing them relative to the THAAD deployment decision it attempted to both assuage concerns about the system potentially being aimed at containing China and to prioritize the alliance and THAAD’s utility for defending against the North Korean threat.

Moon also miscalculated how far the United States would go in pursuing confidence building measures with North Korea without clear signs of denuclearization; he got ahead of U.S. efforts in a way that led to moments of uncoordinated response and, ultimately, South Korea being sidelined by the negotiating strategies of both Pyongyang and Washington. Above all, Moon could not overcome the unmistakable strategy of Kim to get sanctions relief without taking serious steps toward denuclearization and to focus on Trump with little regard for Moon.

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