As tensions escalate between the U.S. and North Korea, Seoul finds itself with little room to improve inter-Korean relations argues Alec Forss.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his Democratic Party swept into power last May pledging to institute a fresh start in relations with North Korea.
After nearly a decade of conservative governments which had pursued a harder, conditional line towards Pyongyang, Moon aspired to return to the “sunshine policy” period under his predecessors Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun – an ultimately short-lived era which nonetheless witnessed unprecedented cooperation and high-level summit diplomacy between the two Koreas.
Five months on from his election, however, hopes pinned on such nostalgia have been shattered as North Korea has dramatically accelerated its missile and nuclear tests.
In response to this rude awakening, Moon has abruptly changed track, speeding up the deployment of the controversial THAAD anti-missile system – a move he had previously resisted – and engaging in shows of military force with the U.S. Stating that “dialogue is impossible” in the current situation, he has called instead for the strongest possible countermeasures – short of a preventive strike – to perceived North Korean provocations.
This bitter political reality should come as no surprise. Before the election, Moon himself acknowledged that any substantive improvement of inter-Korean ties would ultimately hinge on North Korea making a commitment to move away from its nuclear ambitions. This has now been exposed as little more than wishful thinking as North Korea shows no intention of doing so.
What is more, Seoul increasingly finds itself playing second fiddle to the United States with very little leverage of its own. As such, it is Washington and not Seoul that is seen as the desired interlocutor-in-chief for Pyongyang, which instead belittles the South as America’s “puppet.”
Thus in a situation where Pyongyang is pursuing nuclear brinkmanship and, above all, gambling on a (unlikely) grand bargain with the United States, improving inter-Korean relations holds for it little strategic incentive, at least for now.
Indeed, Pyongyang has so far shown scant regard for any of Seoul’s “trust-building” overtures – from an appeal to resume family reunions to holding military talks to reduce tensions along the DMZ. Furthermore, South Korea’s offer last month of an $8 million humanitarian aid package was immediately followed by a missile test, with Seoul barely concealing its disappointment that North Korea had failed to grab what it hoped might be viewed as a potential olive branch. The more dovish Ministry of Unification finds itself almost in existential crisis, its twice-daily calls to Pyongyang having gone unanswered for 18 months now.
Recognizing South Korea’s lack of leverage, voices have grown to wrest wartime operational command – that is, control over South Korea’s armed forces – from the U.S., and even consider, as a last resort, developing nuclear weapons which can be used as bargaining instruments with the North.
In the meantime, as the conflict is increasingly framed as between the U.S. and North Korea, aided by the unhelpful war of words between the two leaders, Seoul finds itself frustrated in the passenger seat of a juggernaut it is barely able to steer. For now, prospects for inter-Korean ties would seem to depend on how relations between Pyongyang and Washington play out in the months ahead.
Notable is that the two inter-Korean summits convened during the sunshine policy period, in 2000 and 2007, coincided with diplomatic progress in U.S.-DPRK relations towards the end of the Clinton administration, as well as momentum in the Six-Party Talks leading to the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement and subsequent agreements on implementation.
With these initiatives having long stalled or collapsed, and with North Korea having been threatened by Trump with destruction, last week’s entreaties by South Korea for the North to “honor” the 10th anniversary of the 2007 inter-Korean summit declaration predictably fell on unsentimental ears in Pyongyang. How the spirit of the times has changed.
Alec Forss is a project coordinator and editor at ISDP.