By Yonho Kim
The historic June 12 Singapore Summit opened an unconventional window of opportunity for negotiated solutions to the North Korea nuclear problem, changing the narrative from a potential war to peace and trust building on the Korean Peninsula. In brokering the summit, South Korea played a critical role of “ice breaker” to initiate dialogues at the summit level. At their first meeting in April, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreed on “the realization of the nuclear-free Korean peninsula through complete denuclearization,” a topic saved for following U.S.-North Korea dialogues in the previous inter-Korea meetings, as their common goal. In restoring the momentum of pre-summit negotiation between the United States and North Korea, President Moon also proved that South Korea can play a crucial role in facilitating the denuclearization process by having a second summit with Kim without any lengthy preparations. Moon’s peace initiative turned out to be one of the determining factors that led to the ruling Democratic Party’s landslide victory in the June local elections. However, as much as it took credit for initiating a major geopolitical shift in the region, the Moon government must share the responsibility for any failures in President Donald Trump’s North Korean nuclear outreach.
The post-summit negotiations between the United States and North Korea have achieved little progress in implementing the Singapore Agreement. Although Pyongyang followed up on its commitment to the repatriation of American remains from the Korean War, it showed no intention to take meaningful initial steps toward denuclearization unless the United States move forward with a declaration ending the Korean War. This tug of war reveals a “fundamentally different understanding of what Trump and Kim had agreed upon in Singapore.” Whereas Trump envisions complete and immediate denuclearization followed by economic benefits to the North, Kim believes a step-by-step process and action-for-action formula were endorsed at the summit. The sequencing problem could worsen if the working level officials are not as excited about the negotiations as the top leaders are even though their leaders are continuing ‘letter diplomacy.’
The deadlock not only drew sharp criticism of Moon’s North Korea policy from conservatives but also posed a threat to political unity among the progressives in South Korea. While maintaining sanctions on the North, the Moon government supported speedy negotiations on exchanging phased denuclearization measures with corresponding economic and political benefits to North Korea. But the nuclear stalemate undermined Moon’s argument that Kim showed willingness for complete denuclearization. The progressives, becoming increasingly impatient, started to call for South Korea to take bold initiatives to restart economic cooperation with the North.
To make it worse, in early August Moon’s approval ratings fell below 60 percent for the first time since he took the office. It was a shocking contrast to his previous approval ratings in the 70 to 80 percent largely thanks to broad support for his peace-facilitiating North Korea policy and the series of summit meetings with Kim. However, a gloomy economic outlook, including sluggish job growth, emerged on the forefront of public concern and started to overshadow Moon’s diplomatic performance.
Even with the lackluster results of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s third visit to Pyongyang in July, the progressive thinkers in Seoul criticized the main stream in Washington for being too quick to declare failure. However, as the stalemate continues, the progressives started to revisit their optimism; they acknowledeged that the United States and North Korea overestimated the value of their own concessions while expecting too much from the other in return. The optimists emphasize the inevitability of North Korea’s path to denuclearization led by harsh international sanctions, insurmountable costs of betrayal if Pyongyang rejects economic and political benefits, and the trust building process followed by security guarantee. However, there are critical variables that undermine the validity of the optimism. For example, the sanctions regime has lost force due to improved relations between China and North Korea. China would not be motivated to actively address the current nuclear stalemate between Washington and Pyongyang with a new round of U.S.-China strategic rivalry sparked by the Trump administration’s aggressive trade policy.
Then what are the choices left for the Moon government? Obviously, the denuclearization negotiation must be resuscitated to maintain the momentum. And South Korea is the one who has the biggest motivation to jumpstart the negotiation. Absent a roadmap agreed by the United States and North Korea, the stalemate at the working level must be addressed at the summit level again. If an end-of-war declaration is not viable at this stage, at least the process of the declaration has to be launched in return for corresponding measures by the North, including declaring its timeline for denuclearization. Another Moon-Kim summit could serve as a stepping stone to a second Trump-Kim summit that will facilitate the process. In addition, the accelerated improvement of inter-Korean relations and a refreshed proposal on inter-Korean economic cooperation that envisions regional initiatives would assure Pyongyang of immense material benefits of denuclearization.
Moon’s speech on Korea’s 73rd Liberation Day seems to contain these strategic judgements. He said “Developments in inter-Korean relations are not the by-effects of progress in the relationship between the North and the United States. Rather, advancement in inter-Korean relations is the driving force behind denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” When Moon visits Pyongyang next month for his third meeting with Kim, the leaders will “take an audacious step to proceed toward the declaration of an end to the Korean War and the signing of a peace treaty as well as the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Moon also proclaimed that he will “lead efforts to promote dialogue on denuclearization between North Korea and the United States.” Both audacious and risky is his stated goal to hold groundbreaking ceremonies by the end of this year to relink the roads and railways between the two Koreas that could lay the groundwork for an East Asian Railroad Community. It is still unclear how closely Moon’s remarks were coordinated with the Trump administration that wants to maintain sanctions pressure on North Korea until denuclearization. Time will tell whether Trump and Kim will take Moon’s propositions.
Yonho Kim is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from the Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.