This is the eighth in a series of blogs looking at South Korea’s foreign relations for the new Korean administration. The series also includes blogs on relations with China , the United States, Japan, Russia, the European Union, ASEAN, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.
By Troy Stangarone
As the new Moon Jae-in administration begins to put its personnel in place, one of the more challenging international relations to manage will be North Korea. In the strictest sense, with the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, South Korea no longer has relations with North Korea, though this is something that the Moon administration hopes to change. However, even if dialogue or engagement with North Korea restarts under the Moon administration, handling relations with Pyongyang will be complicated by the need to manage relations with other powers in the region as well.
Developing relations with North Korea is complicated, to say the least. Since Roh Moo-hyun left office in 2008, when Moon was his chief of staff, North Korea has conducted four additional nuclear tests and numerous missile tests as it works to advance its nuclear program. It also sank the South Korean naval ship Cheonan and shelled Yeonpyeong island resulting in the deaths of 48 South Korean military personnel and 2 civilians in total.
As a result of these actions the international community and South Korea have placed a range of sanctions on North Korea rolling back the economic interactions that were expanded under the Sunshine Policy. These include the May 24 measures which ended trade outside of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, limited expansion within Kaesong, halted aid, and forbid North Korean ships sailing in South Korean waters. More recent measures closed the Kaesong Industrial Complex and banned ships that docked in North Korea from traveling to South Korea for a year.
Expanding ties with North Korea would require rolling back these measures in part or finding ways to work around them, as well as ensuring that any new activities were in compliance with United Nations sanctions. Under the Park Geun-hye administration, South Korea faced these same challenges and encouraged firms to invest in Russian rail companies to help further the administration’s Eurasia Initiative.
As long as North Korea continues to conduct weapons tests, the scope for creative avenues to engage the North will continue to narrow. North Korea has become significantly more aggressive in its testing patterns under Kim Jong-un and seems to be committed to completing its development process.
Engaging with North Korea also requires a willing partner, something that it is unclear is available in Pyongyang. Park Geun-hye came into office with the policy of Trustpolitik, hoping to slowly build trust between North and South Korea on humanitarian issues such as family reunions, but was quickly met with a nuclear test, a “space launch,” and the North Korean withdrawal of its workers from Kaesong. Ultimately, North Korea’s behavior pushed her away from a policy of engagement. President Barack Obama was also originally willing to engage North Korea having expressed an openness in his 2009 inaugural address and shortly after Kim Jong-un came to power with the Leap Day Agreement, but was rebuffed on both occasions by North Korean provocations. Ultimately, the Obama administration settled for a nuclear deal with Iran and reopening relations Myanmar and Cuba instead of continuing to work on cutting a deal with North Korea.
It seems as though North Korea intends to provide little deference to Moon despite his stated desire to engage, having tested a ballistic missile capable of hitting Guam and Japan five days after Moon came into office. However, the test more likely was designed to send a message to China as Xi Jinping was set to give a major speech at his One Belt, One Road conference with 29 world leaders looking on only hours after the test. The proximity to Moon’s inauguration may merely have been coincidental in light of the larger Chinese target.
Further complicating efforts to manage relations with Pyongyang is Seoul’s need to manage relations with the United States, China, and other powers in the region and coordinate policies. While no international relationship is truly independent, South Korea’s approach towards North Korea is perhaps more constrained by the policies of other countries than other policy areas.
Poor relations with Washington or Beijing potentially hinder efforts by Seoul to directly engage Pyongyang, as China has the ability to undermine South Korean efforts directly and Pyongyang has consistently expressed a preference for bilateral talks with the United States. Seoul will need to avoid any outcome where it is estranged from Washington, which potentially encourages the United States to seek solutions not involving South Korea. Tacking too far away from Washington could result in outcomes such as a preemptive military strike on North Korean nuclear installations that Seoul would want to avoid.
Prior experience with the Sunshine policy also demonstrates that when Washington isn’t on board, the policy is less effective. If Seoul wants engagement to be viable, it will need to find a way to weave its strategy into the United States’ policy of maximum pressure and engagement, while also bringing China along on the broader strategy, which is also one that will require gaining Russian and Japanese support.
Managing relations with North Korea will require a delicate balance by South Korea. It will need to find space within the sanctions regime to develop engagement, but also need a willing partner in Pyongyang to make any strategy of engagement viable. At the same time, it will need to manage the interests of the other parties in the region. If a South Korean policy of engagement were to place China under greater pressure from the United States, Seoul may find an unwilling partner in Beijing as its economic and geostrategic interests are challenged. At the same time, Seoul will need to develop a policy that the United States can embrace rather than work against. Alliance management and North Korea policy has always worked best when Seoul and Washington are on the same page and that is unlikely to change in the near future.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Prachatai’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.